Clearing Up Some Misconceptions and Looking Toward the Future of Big 12 "TV"

Seasoned BOTC readers know that discussing Big 12 policy is as big of a topic here as actual on-field action.  Maybe that would be different if we were operating this blog circa 1998-2003, when there was a ton to brag about and analyzing every single detail would be interesting.  As it stands, I doubt any of you care to hear a detailed analysis of whether we can expect significant improvement out of our linebackers or whether next year's recruits will contribute at that position.  Feel free to let me know if I'm wrong in the comments.

Anyway, last week I ran across this interesting post from the Texas blog Barking Carnival, home of the best team previews you'll find.  As you'll see in reading it, and the associated comments, the topic was the Big 12 TV contract and other associated issues, topics we have discussed not infrequently here. 

The author's essential premise is that the Big 12 contract is bad because our mid-level games don't stack up with mid-level games from the Big 10 and SEC, the two conferences with the best TV contracts in college football.  It's an interesting point, and unfortunately it wasn't further developed by the author beyond looking at a relatively small sample size of Big 12 games.

As part of the potential solution, TaylorTRoom proposes as follows:

What does the Big 12 need to do to get better TV contracts? For one, it could schedule better non-conference games. I know that several teams (TT, KSU, and KU in particular) have openly adopted a strategy of playing creampuffs in non-conference, in order to ensure reaching the 6 win threshold for a bowl invitation. Some Big 12 schools play a D-1AA team every year! They have to understand that in doing so they are giving up potential guaranteed TV contract money in order to gain speculative bowl money. These programs have no right to complain about lack of TV revenue from football.

Several aspects of this deserve a response.

In other words, teams like Texas Tech, K-State and KU need to schedule better non-conference games to raise the league's profile and help land a fatter TV contract.  This hearkens back to the discussion Tim Griffin and I had about playing Thursday night games at places like K-State, Tech and Oklahoma State. 

To be blunt, it makes no sense for K-State to schedule up right now.  Nobody at Texas is going to get very far with any K-State fan or administrator by telling them that K-State is part of the problem when Texas' athletic department revenues are more than double K-State's.  Given that the Big 12 shares its TV money unevenly, in large part because Texas wanted it that way, schools outside the Big 12's financial big four -- Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Nebraska -- are probably not going to budge on any of these issues* until the big-money schools make a concession.  That concession is going to be equal revenue sharing.  It's a negotiation.  Nothing is going to get done until both sides realize that they may have to give up something to get something from the other side.

* Colorado is the exception, because they have decided that they will chase the money by playing big-name opponents in the non-conference or playing mid-tier teams on Thursday or Friday nights.  It's really working out well for them.  Mostly, they get to watch their team lose on national TV and they still don't have enough money to buy out their coach's contract.

Now of course, the average Texas fan will probably read that and wonder why it doesn't make sense for K-State to schedule up, although UT's non-conference schedule the last few years has itself been seriously lacking.  There are several reasons.  At K-State, football is the engine that drives the entire athletic department.  Men's basketball is contributing some revenue now, but every other sport in this athletic department is funded largely by the football revenue. 

A big part of that revenue is the gate from home games.  Despite Gene Claude's argument in the comments, I think it makes perfect sense to schedule as many home games as possible, even if you do have to dredge the Sun Belt for those teams.  Scheduling home games is guaranteed revenue.  Scheduling four wins in the non-conference gives you a great chance to make a bowl game, although that's not always a money-maker these days.  I'll take the guaranteed gate, the potential bowl revenue, and the added practice time over a potential TV payout that ranged from as little as $50,000 for a game on Versus, to $150-300,000 for a game on FSN or ESPN, to $260,000 for a conference game on ABC and $520,000 for a non-conference game on ABC (source).

Texas fans may again miss the point on this, because they'll likely ask "Why can't you schedule home games against big-name teams?"  The answer is that our stadium holds only 50,000 and we are two hours from a major airport.  Teams like Florida, LSU and Ohio State are not going to schedule a home-and-home with K-State, because there's no incentive.  They won't make any real money from it, and they risk a loss (OK, probably not) on the road to a team that hasn't been very good for the past five years.  It's been the long-standing policy of the K-State athletic department not to schedule two-for-one series with anybody, mostly because it doesn't make financial sense.  We need a bare minimum of six home games each year, and seven or eight would be preferable.  We can't go scheduling two-for-ones all the time and give up home games.

Further, college football provides no incentive to schedule difficult non-conference games.  In the Big 12, you're almost guaranteed at least two games per year against highly ranked teams, given that Texas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska are traditionally ranked, and over the conference's history, schools such as K-State, Colorado, KU, Mizzou, Texas Tech and Texas A&M have had at least one or two seasons where they ascended into the top five.  If you win your non-conference games in the Big 12 and run your conference schedule, you'll play for a national title.  Even if that's beyond your usual goals, you can have a big season against a weak non-conference schedule.  See, e.g., KU in 2007, Texas Tech in 2008.

At several points in the post, the discussion turns to whether the Big 12 is sufficiently unified to make changes like that.  The answer, unfortunately, is probably not.  Unlike other conferences, the Big 12 was sort of a Vegas marriage of convenience for the parties involved, rather than a piecemeal addition of teams over time.  Then, when it came time to negotiate the conference's bylaws and rules, the participants got off to an acrimonious start, with Nebraska and Texas fighting over partial qualifiers and a conference championship game.

Before we get to the point about looking to the future, a few grievances are going to be aired.  First, I'm tired of Texas fans acting like most of the rest of the Big 12 doesn't care about academics.  Some Texas fans like to point to the Big 10 and extoll its virtuous elevation of academics.  In the comments, the author even goes so far as to say the following:

Street agents, partial qualifiers – the Big 10 doesn’t condone any of them. I wish the Big 12 were more that way.

That statement is utterly  false.  The Big 10 places no limits on the number of partial qualifiers its member institutions can admit.  If Michigan wants to make accomodations for a bunch of partial qualifiers, it is free to do so under the Big 10's rules.

It's also disappointing to read comments like the following one made by the author:

Missouri is a member of the AAU, as is Texas, TAMU, CU, NU, and KU. These are all schools with serious goals as universities. I wish the Big 12 were more like the Big 10, where all of the schools value their institutional reputation more than they value athletic success (well, maybe the Buckeyes don’t).

To put it simply, this is an elitist statement of the highest regard.  Apparently, only members of the prestigious AAU can have serious goals as a university.  It's simply not possible for a smallish, rural, land-grant institution, like K-State, to serve the goal of providing an affordable education to the citizens of Kansas.  No, by the logic of this statement, if you don't have "serious goals as [a] universit[y]" you are just admitting a bunch of marginal students for no reason other than obtaining athletic success.  Whatever some people from schools like UT think, the goal of every institution simply cannot be to conform to someone else's concept of what constitutes academic excellence.  You can go to K-State and be successful.  I know K-State grads who are architects in Denver, Dallas and St. Louis.  Plenty of engineers in Houston and Dallas are K-State alums.  K-State-educated farmers feed the world.  A K-State grad was the president of Shell Oil and founded Citizens for Affordable Energy.  What's even funnier about it is that an alleged academic wasteland such as K-State, with less than half the number of students UT has, is outpacing UT in the last 20 years in producing winners of prestigious scholarships.

Implicit in the statement above is that the schools mentioned really care about academics and would never sacrifice those ideals for a little on-field success.  However, this chart from the Indianapolis Star shows that statement is not accurate for a couple of those Big 12 schools.  In the 2003-04 season at Missouri, 61 percent of the football players were "special admits" to the university (i.e., they didn't meet the normal entrance requirements but were admitted based on a special talent, or some similar criteria).  Was 61 percent of the MU student body special admits?  Uhh, no, that number would be nine percent.  It was even worse at Texas A&M.  In 2004-05, special admits constituted 94 percent of the Texas A&M football team, while the entire student body was only eight percent special admits.  The point is that I will not sit here and be lectured about sacrificing academic ideals for athletic success when it's clear that some of the "prestigious" Big 12 universities do exactly that.  K-State doesn't have lower entrance requirements than Texas because it wants to win football games, it has them because it has a different mission than Texas has.  Texas strives to conform to the AAU's ideals regarding what constitutes an excellent academic institution.  K-State strives to provide an education and, correspondingly, a better future to as many people as are willing to pay their tuition and give college a shot.

Along with the above broadside regarding academics at the Big 12's non-AAU schools, TaylorTRoom notes the fractured nature of the Big 12:

Texas doesn’t know that about the Big 12. After the last couple of years, with the tie-breaker vote, the BCS votes, KSU working with Brian Butler, it has to wonder if one of the goals of the Big 12 is to hold it down. UT knows that when talking about media revenue, the Big 12 needs it more than it needs the Big 12.

We've discussed the Big 12's fifth criteria for breaking a three-way divisional tie over here ad nauseum.  The short answer is that Texas got screwed, but no more screwed than Texas Tech did, and no more screwed than Oklahoma would have been had they lost the tiebreaker.  There is no good way to break a three-way tie when you're down to the fifth tiebreaker, and no, the SEC's tiebreaker is absolutely not better.  Moving on.

I don't have a clue what the author means by K-State working with Brian Butler.  We have never landed a recruit that Butler "works with."  Arthur Brown went to Miami, Bryce Brown went to Tennessee, and Chris Harper went to Oregon before transferring to K-State this year.  Have we recruited these guys?  Hell yes, we have.  We'd be morons not to try.  Our school is in a state of less than three million people, and produces only a handful of FBS-ready recruits each year.  If Brian Butler were in Houston and had five or six recruits, Texas could tell him to hit the road because there are hundreds of other high schoolers that are available.  Further, I defy the author to show me any proof of even one NCAA violation K-State has committed while recruiting a Brian Butler athlete.  It's easy to lob accusations of cheating around with no backup.  I could sit here and say that Texas must be cheating because they have $100 million in athletic department revenue each year and there are only so many Godzillatrons you can buy and the money has to go somewhere, but without any support for those types of accusations, I'd lose all my credibility, if I even have any to start with.  Anyway, if the author really thinks that we are gaining some big edge on Texas by recruiting athletes out of Wichita, well, I guess I don't even really know what to say to that.  On the other hand, the fact that we have pretty much owned Texas lately may justifiably lead a Longhorn fan to look for any way to cut down K-State's success.

Before you go thinking that I think this author is an idiot -- I don't, by the way, I just happen to disagree with him on some points -- he makes some good points in the article and the comments that are worth exploring. 

For another, the Big 12 could take a page from the SEC playbook and schedule earlier conference games. The SEC has plenty of non-conference creampuffs, but they also have league games in the season’s second week. Sure, it’s a risk for a team trying to work out the kinks in the early season, but life is full of such tradeoffs.

In the Big 12 Roundtable, we discussed whether this was a good idea.  If the Big 12 wants to move to something like this in the future in an attempt to improve TV ratings, it may be an idea worth looking into.  I don't like the idea of conference games in the first or second week of the season, and I'm leery of early divisional matchups, but overall this may not be a bad idea if it evens out the distribution of attractive TV games.

Here's another idea that was advanced in the comments:

I realize I have been talking around something I need to expand on. Look, almost all of you have a cable or satellite box, with a DVR function. In five years, that box will be more like a computer than it is even now. It will be very easy for everybody to order any game that has a camera in front of it, from anywhere in the nation, no matter who your provider is.

...

Right now, the most valuable asset is clusters of fans. making broadcasts profitable. However, the technology is moving towards making…I don’t know the right term…splintercasts? more profitable.

It's easy to say that the Big 12's TV contract is not as good as the Big 10's or SEC's.  That much is obvious.  The real question is this: What should we do about it?  Despite its initial problems, the Big 10 Network has been a success for that conference.  Does the answer to more TV revenue lie in starting a Big 12 Network, or is the answer something else?

Think for a moment about the history of TV.  Initially, it was just a few channels of bland programming, and most thought it was a passing fad that would never catch on.  Over time, more channels were added.  When I was a kid in Nebraska back in the late 1980s and 1990s, I remember that we had about 35 channels on our cable package.  Today, regardless of who your provider is, you have access to thousands of channels, if you're willing to pay for them.  Television has always moved toward specialization.  Do you love cats?  There's probably a TV channel for you.  Channels like ESPN, The History Channel, and Discovery would have seemed wildly specialized 30 years ago, but now they're pretty general compared to the Military Channel and the various Fox Sports outlets around the country.

Of course, the Internet adds a whole new dimension to this.  As the author suggests, it's only a matter of time before schools will be able to offer netcasts of all their games -- in every sport -- and make money off them.  It will be the ultimate specialization.  The technology isn't in place for this to be profitable yet, but within a decade it almost undoubtedly will be.  So the question becomes whether you start a Big 12 TV channel, or whether you put your resources into figuring out how to make money off the next medium of "televising" games.

While I'm sure you're disappointed to see this post end, I don't have the answer to that.  I've become an educated man over the last seven years, but this is not my area of expertise.  Your thoughts are welcome in the comments, as I'd like to know more about where things are going, and what we should do with it.  Just off the top of my head, the following questions leap to mind:

  • If netcast technology is what the Big 12 embraces, do we pool all that revenue and split it equally?  Does each school keep all its revenue, thus assuring that schools with more alums and bigger fanbases get more money while other schools get less?  Do we share half of it equally, then split the rest of it by percentage of contribution?  Something else?
  • What about some of the more rural areas of the Big 12?  My grandma used to email me once a week, but the ISP in her town of 2,000 people went out of business, so she doesn't have the Internet at home anymore.  The Big 12's footprint is demonstrably rural, and most of these areas don't have local providers that can make money off this type of technology.  Does everyone out in the sticks have to get DirecTV if we go to this type of arrangement?  What is the delivery method?  And no, this isn't limited to any single state, because there are as many out-in-the-boondocks towns in Texas as there are in Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa combined.
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