Last week, I explained why the American is the strongest of the Group of Five conferences, and how that doesn’t appear likely to change. That makes great fodder for message board arguments, but what does it really mean?
Well, it depends…
Contrary to the way these things are usually framed, the American and Mountain West aren’t really competitors with each other. Sure, they duke it out over a New Year’s Six bowl bid, but that’s small potatoes in the big picture. The real prize is not about playing in one game each year by beating out other Group of Five leagues; it’s in building your own brand that can eventually compete financially with the so-called Power Five.
That’s a tall order, obviously. Getting to within striking distance of those leagues is a difficult, long-term proposition at best. In order to chart a course to reach that point, though, we have to remember how we got to where we are. More specifically, we need to understand the substantial influence that television has had on college football over several decades.
The NCAA used to own the broadcast rights to all college football games, and limited the number of games that could be televised. Several schools banded together in an effort to change this model. In 1976, representatives from five conferences (ACC, SEC, SWC, Big Eight, and WAC) plus the major independents (including Navy) met to agree on a framework that would lead to the formation of the College Football Association the following year.
Part of that framework was a set of standards for CFA membership. Schools had to average at least 20,000 in attendance over a three-year period, and play their games in a stadium that held at least 30,000 people. They had to provide no fewer than 30 scholarships in a given year while averaging 80 over a three-year period. At least 70% of a school’s schedule had to be played against other CFA members.
By setting these standards, the CFA hoped to accomplish two goals. The first was to achieve a certain level of autonomy within the NCAA. While there were 63 member schools in the CFA (The Big Ten and Pacific Eight did not join), all 700+ voting NCAA members at the time had a say in the governance of the sport. CFA members felt that they should have more control over their own unique needs. The standards set by the CFA helped to establish the definition of what constituted “major college football.” The CFA’s desire for more autonomy, based on these standards, ultimately led to the split between NCAA Division I-A and Division I-AA in 1978.
The CFA also wanted to put together a television package that would be attractive to potential bidders. The membership standard set forth by the organization ensured that broadcasters bidding on the CFA’s games would be getting matchups between teams that had a certain level of national appeal. Under NCAA rules, teams were limited to eight television appearances in two years. Eliminating that restriction would allow the most popular teams to be televised more often. That would make the overall package more valuable, since almost every televised game was a national “game of the week” in the days before cable.
On this, the NCAA was less willing to compromise. In 1981, the CFA reached an agreement with NBC on a four-year television contract that was set to begin the following year. The NCAA, however, already had a contract in place with ABC and CBS. The NCAA stated that CFA schools adopting the new contract would be “subject to disciplinary proceedings.” The matter eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, which in 1984 ruled that the NCAA’s ownership of television rights was a violation of antitrust laws.
The CFA was finally free to sell their own television package. Ironically, the first of these contracts was worth less than the original NCAA deal, but it didn’t take long for subsequent deals to become far more lucrative. The CFA agreed to a $210 million contract with ABC in 1990. Eventually, though, schools and conferences began to pursue their own arrangements. The 1990 deal was cut by $25 million when Notre Dame signed with NBC. The CFA was still able to bring in $300 million in their next contract, but the SEC and Big East made separate arrangements with CBS once that contract expired. With that, the CFA was effectively dead.
That wasn’t the end of conferences working together, however. The decline of the CFA coincided with the rise of the Bowl Coalition and the Bowl Alliance, the forerunners of the Bowl Championship Series.
At its heart, the BCS was really just another television contract. Rather than have the Rose, Sugar, Orange, and Fiesta Bowls compete with each other for New Year’s Day viewers, those bowls were much more valuable as a combined package broadcast at separate times. To ensure matchups with national appeal, automatic berths were given to the champions of the ACC, SEC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac 10– the most popular conferences. Teams would have to meet a minimum ranking criteria in order to be eligible for an at-large selection, with the crown jewel of the BCS contract being a guaranteed matchup between the #1 and #2 ranked teams.
The BCS was very lucrative for those conferences with automatic bids. For everyone else, not so much. The “BCS” and “non-BCS” labels became synonymous with “haves” and “have-not,” a distinction reinforced as the BCS conferences consolidated to generate even larger television contracts. The consolidation came at the expense of the Big East, and the six BCS leagues became what are now known as the “Power Five.” As the BCS system gave way to the College Football Playoff, more money than ever is making its way into those conferences’ hands, furthering the revenue divide.
And that brings us to today, where history has begun the process of repeating itself. Once again, a breakaway group has demanded (and received) more autonomy, this time based on revenue. As the “Power Five” conferences make more money, they will want to ease restrictions on using that money to their competitive advantage. For now, there hasn’t been anything too drastic; full cost of attendance scholarships and unlimited meals for athletes are expensive, but they aren’t anything that the average fan will notice. It’s difficult to believe, however, that the changes will end there.
The ideal goal for the American Athletic Conference, then, would be to keep the Power Five from once again creating a new top tier of college athletics. Unfortunately, that is pretty much asking for toothpaste to be put back into the tube. If we’ve already gone too far down that road to turn around, then the next goal would be to make sure that you are on the right side of the line when it is drawn.
At this point, it is good to remember why this is important. Most of the media coverage on these issues comes from sportswriters, so stories are framed as sports stories. They are not. They are matters of higher education. When colleges and universities choose to participate at the Division I level, they are making a strategic decision to position themselves as mainstream, national institutions. The nation knows its colleges first through athletics, and being left out of the highest levels of the most popular sport means being left out of that conversation. It is vital, then, to keep that from happening.
The question is how, and it’s a complicated one. Technically, if the Power Five conferences wanted to break away, whether officially or in a de facto sense, they could. They have autonomy now; they set their own rules. It isn’t quite that simple, though.
In the BCS era, it was common to hear objections to Notre Dame’s special status within the rules of the system. The Irish weren’t a member of any conference, but they had their own set of qualifying criteria for a BCS bowl. People complained that they were included on their own terms rather than being forced to join a conference like everybody else. If Notre Dame wouldn’t fall in line, then why didn’t the BCS conferences just exclude them from their system? It’s because those conferences knew that any system that didn’t include Notre Dame would lack credibility.
The BCS was a television cartel, but it was justified to the public on its competitive merits; it created an annual national championship game and bowl matchups between conference champions and highly-ranked teams. Imagine, then, a scenario where a top-10 Notre Dame team wasn’t eligible to be selected by a major bowl game. It wouldn’t fly. This was the downfall of the Bowl Coalition and the Bowl Alliance; without the Big Ten, Pac-10, and the Rose Bowl, the public didn’t believe that they were being sold the best possible product. That offers a hint at what the American’s strategy can be.
There is value in thinking that the Power Five will one day become the Power Six. I occasionally get invited to participate in “Group of Five Top 10” polls or other similar ventures. I always decline. I understand why people do these things, but to me they’re counterproductive; anything that casts the P5 and G5 as separate entities now just makes an eventual split easier for the public to accept. Of course, it doesn’t help to deny reality either. Rising to Power Five levels of revenue, if that’s even possible, would take a generation or more. But if the goal is to simply keep the American playing top-tier football, then it isn’t necessary. What’s necessary is to win enough so that any system that excludes the American wouldn’t be seen as legitimate. If the American is consistently putting 2-3 teams in the top 25 every year, it is hard to justify leaving them out of any top-tier framework.
It takes money to win. Money is what builds facilities, hires and retains coaches, casts a wide recruiting net, and now pays for the full cost of attendance. But consider the success that the American has had despite the revenue gulf that already exists. There’s an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Data loses a game to someone at the beginning of the episode, but wins the rematch by playing not to lose rather than trying to win. People hate that mindset, but in the American’s case, it’s not such a bad idea. Rather than match Power Five schools in revenue, the American can succeed instead by simply keeping pace.
The idea here is to fill the vacuum between haves and have-nots, creating a sort of college football middle class. That would be enough to put teams into the top 25 on a regular basis. This wouldn’t have to be limited to one conference, but as we discussed last week, only the American appears to be positioning themselves this way. The next task for the league is to keep that momentum going by turning it into something tangible.
Not surprisingly, that starts with television. The American’s current television contract is a seven-year deal that runs through the 2019-2020 season. It’s a shorter deal than others that were being signed at the time; the ACC agreed to a 12-year contract, for example, while the Big 12 signed on for 13 years. This was intentional, and most signs point to it being a wise move.
I say “most,” because there is some concern that the market for college sports might be changing. Conference-USA schools are bracing for a much smaller contract after their current deal expires. The Big Ten is about to make a lot of money selling half of their media rights to Fox, but there’s another side to that coin:
Fox’ deal is a blow to ESPN, which had held most of the conference’s rights previously. Sources said that ESPN presented a non-competitive bid several weeks ago, as the company continues to look for areas to save costs.
If ESPN is indeed looking to cut costs, there could be fewer competitive offers when the American starts the bidding process for their own television package.
On the other hand, the league should be in a much better negotiating position this time around. It was somewhat understandable that both NBC and ESPN low-balled the Big East/American on the current contract; they were bidding on a brand-new league with viability questions, built from the remnants of a conference that ESPN had just spent months trying to bring down. Today, the American is more established, and as it emerges as the top Group of Five conference, it is becoming more of a name-brand product. The next contract will also have one thing that the last one did not: Navy home games, including Navy’s share of the prized Navy-Notre Dame and Army-Navy properties. The league is simply more valuable now, and the next contract should reflect that.
Another short-term goal for the American would be to aim for a few higher-profile bowl games for affiliation. By that, I don’t mean the current New Year’s Six; those games are locked into the 12-year College Football Playoff framework and wouldn’t be a realistic target anyway. Instead, I mean the next tier of more established games with higher payouts. Take the Liberty Bowl, for example. At the moment it has tie-ins with the SEC and the Big 12, which last year led to a matchup between 6-6 and 7-5 teams. Meanwhile, the hometown Memphis Tigers were ranked in the top 25 heading into bowl season and routinely drew crowds of more than 40,000 in the same building. One could easily argue that they would’ve made for a more attractive matchup, as would any of the 10-win teams the game could have chosen from the conference after the Peach Bowl made its choice.
What about the Sun Bowl? At the moment the game has ties to the ACC and the Pac 12. Would a game played in El Paso be interested in a conference with three schools in Texas or Oklahoma? Would it be better to have a championship-caliber team from the American that’s excited to be there, or a Miami team that just fired its coach? At what point does inviting a better team outweigh having a more recognizable brand? And how does that change as American schools become more widely recognized themselves?
This is an area where the American can help itself with sustained attendance growth. The league’s ability to create big-game environments is what both television and bowls want to see. As the conference becomes more entrenched, it will create the big games and rivalries that fans want to see. And ultimately, that’s the bottom line. The so-called Power Five aren’t the best teams. They’re the most popular teams. If the American is going to keep pace, their own popularity has to grow, and that starts by bringing in the home crowds.
It’s sad that it’s necessary to think like this. Ultimately, I think that the further division of football’s top tier will harm the sport. While the Power Five might be made up of the most popular teams, what makes college football a national phenomenon is the diversity of schools, traditions, and styles. There’s a team for everyone, in every region, and they all start their season thinking that anything’s possible. As the field is narrowed down, that’s becoming less and less true.
As unfortunate as that is, wishful thinking won’t change reality. If this is the world we’re dealing with, then we all must adapt. The American has positioned itself well for future growth. Hopefully, short-term gains will turn into long-term momentum.