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Letting the Markets' Placement Decide: Ruminations on the Prospects for SEC Expansion

After the latest round of rumors about the Texas A&M Aggies joining the SEC went mainstream, the discussion of the topic here addressed the question of media markets. Among the several excellent points made in the comments were these:

  1. Conference expansion is 100 per cent money-driven. While, e.g., re-establishing dormant rivalries very well might be among the fringe benefits of expansion, such salutary side effects are not the goal. The growth of the SEC from twelve teams to X teams will not happen unless the resulting revenue growth causes one-Xth of the post-expansion revenue pie to be larger than one-twelfth of the current revenue pie.
  2. In that regard, the benefit to expansion is that the SEC would be able to reopen contract negotiations with its television partners if expansion brought new viewership to the table. This is why media markets matter; ESPN would not pay more for the rights to air SEC games if, to cite an absurd example, the league added the Memphis Tigers and the Southern Miss. Golden Eagles. No new eyeballs would be affixed to conference contests in such a scenario; thus, the Worldwide Leader would not pay more for the broadcast rights for a larger but not more attractive (and, hence, not more lucrative) league.
  3. Due to the foregoing considerations, media markets per se are not the determinative factor. The SEC’s television partners, CBS and ESPN, broadcast nationally; there simply are not American television markets into which they could expand, since they have a presence in every market already. Rather, what matters is whether viewers in areas presently lying outside the SEC footprint would begin watching SEC games as a result of conference expansion.

This last point is the source of much of the contention and most of the confusion. That large numbers of Texans would start tuning in to SEC games they are not now watching as a result of the Aggies’ admission to the conference does not appear to be seriously in doubt. All the other contenders, however, have to prove their ability to pull their own weight in terms of revenue generation.

For this reason, it may not be enough simply to say (as, admittedly, I have suggested on occasion) that, because Tallahassee lies solidly within the SEC’s geographic footprint, the Florida St. Seminoles cannot deliver the requisite viewership. The ‘Noles, having been a national brand in the ‘90s, potentially could attract fans lying outside their immediate geographic environs, by virtue of FSU’s name recognition throughout the country. For this reason, the Oklahoma Sooners possess an appeal that goes well beyond the team’s ability to deliver the Oklahoma City market.

On the other hand, teams like the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets appear even less attractive than originally supposed. Atlanta is the site of the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic, the SEC Championship Game, the Chick-fil-A (nee Peach) Bowl, and large aggregations of fans of many SEC teams, most notably Georgia. Atlanta is an SEC city, and the Ramblin’ Wreck faithful simply do not bring enough interest to the table to justify the Engineers’ readmission to the conference. It’s not just that the league already owns Georgia Tech’s home media market; it’s that there aren’t enough passionate Yellow Jacket fans outside of the Institute’s immediate environs to justify the advertising rates that would boost the revenue that would make it profitable for the rest of the SEC to make the Old Gold and Navy a full equity partner.

It is here that the evaluation of the Golden Tornado’s ACC coevals becomes a mite more intriguing. We know what media markets such potential targets as the Clemson Tigers, the N.C. State Wolfpack, and the Virginia Tech Hokies are in or near, but that tells us only half the tale. At the end of the day, the question is whether college sports fans who are not now boosters of SEC teams would show up in greater numbers to watch games between current conference clubs and the likes of these.

This would seem to work against Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech, and the Louisville Cardinals, all of whom already play fierce in-state rivalry games against SEC squads. It is difficult to imagine that there are Tiger, Seminole, Yellow Jacket, or Cardinal fans who are not now watching their teams’ outings against the South Carolina Gamecocks, the Florida Gators, the Georgia Bulldogs, and the Kentucky Wildcats, respectively, whose attention would be arrested if the game became a conference clash instead. As odd as it seems, the very familiarity that would make such squads logical additions in the context of existing rivalries would reduce the likelihood of increasing viewership, which is the lone consequential criterion that drives all else.

Assuming the North Carolina Tar Heels are too entrenched in the ACC to consider abandoning their roundball rivalry with the Duke Blue Devils, we are left with N.C. State and VPI as perhaps the most attractive possibilities, though, again, this is not merely a function of the media markets in closest proximity to their respective campuses. The question, to which media markets are relevant but of which they are not determinative, is whether, on any given Saturday, any given televised game between the Wolfpack and a team currently in the SEC consistently would garner more or fewer viewers than the same game featuring the Hokies in their place.

Even if we confine this conversation strictly to the gridiron---basketball, obviously, adds entirely a different dimension to the topic---the picture is a bit of a muddle. At the end of the 2009 college football season, Virginia Tech and Florida State played in the fifth- and sixth-highest rated non-BCS bowl games, respectively. The ACC also produced solid postseason ratings from 2006 to 2008, led by the Hokies, the Country Gentlemen, and the Tribe, in that order.

Last year, N.C. State won nine games while appearing on ESPN four times, ESPN2 once, and ABC once. The Wolfpack’s other seven outings were relegated to the ACC Network (thrice), CBS College Sports (twice), and ESPN3 (twice), all of which sound significantly more prestigious than they are. By contrast, the ten-win 2010 Seminoles were on either ABC or ESPN eleven times, appearing only once on the ACC Network and twice on ESPNU. The ‘Pack quite simply was a non-factor, while a comparable Florida State outfit was the far more potent television draw, despite N.C. State’s head-to-head win over the Seminoles.

The Worldwide Leader deemed freshly-resurgent Florida State a draw superior even to reliably established Virginia Tech. The Gobblers won eleven games (including the ACC Championship Game over FSU), appeared in both the Labor Day night kickoff game and the Orange Bowl, and proved as steady as ever despite an embarrassing setback suffered at the hands of a Division I-AA opponent, yet VPI made it onto ABC twice and onto ESPN five times. The rest of the Hokies’ 14-game season was spent on the ACC Network (thrice), ESPN3 (twice), and ESPNU (twice).

While my personal preference would be Clemson, for obvious and mostly selfish reasons, the Tigers’ 2010 campaign underscores the argument of those who deem the Jungaleers provincial dead weight from a market share standpoint. The Orange and Purple played 13 games last autumn, making it onto ABC and ESPN a total of five times while spending the other eight games in the TV purgatory of the ACC Network (thrice), ESPN2 (twice), ESPN3 (twice), and ESPNU (once).

By way of comparison, last year’s Alabama Crimson Tide played a combined nine games on ABC, CBS, or ESPN, appearing on ESPN2, ESPN3, or ESPNU only four times. Florida lost five games, yet still made it onto ABC, CBS, or ESPN a combined eight times. Even a Georgia club that limped to a 6-7 record and ended the regular season against an in-state rival who also wound up under .500 was featured on CBS and ESPN on a cumulative five occasions, matching the total Big Three network and Worldwide Leader mother ship appearances of Clemson and N.C. State. There simply is no point to inducting programs less telegenic than the ones we have now, as such teams would prove to be a drag on the existing members’ bottom lines. No one involved in this decision on the SEC side is willing to lose money on expansion.

The 2010 season represents a small sample, though probably not an unrepresentative one, and the boys in Bristol clearly prefer Virginia Tech to either Clemson or N.C. State, and they like the Seminoles more than the Hokies. If the SEC East finds itself in need of a new member, my heart says we should revive the rivalry with the Country Gentlemen, but the numbers say that VPI is a better choice . . . and FSU, despite sitting within the existing SEC footprint, may be more capable of delivering additional eyeballs than any other contender on our side of the dividing line.

The Sunshine State Saurians might not like it, but, by themselves, they cannot block it, though Mike Slive’s desire for unanimity might lead him to look to Blacksburg first. It is open to debate whether it is in the Bulldogs’ interests to afford the Tribe from Tallahassee the additional recruiting advantage of SEC membership, but the ‘Noles make more sense than it might, at first glance, appear.

Go ‘Dawgs!