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College Football Independence and How Conference-Less Teams Can Stay on TV

Maybe you’re not a college football fan — or at least not a college football fan in the same way I am. And if not, here’s a quick primer on how TV works for the top level of the sport, the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS, for short):

Right now, 130 FBS-level teams are largely split up into 10 conferences; some of which have been around for a nearly a century, while others are fairly new. The main reasons for being part of a college athletic conference originated as a means to more easily fill out an annual schedule, potentially reduce travel costs and get access to some postseason games (there used to only be a handful). Today, college conferences are about collective TV revenue and exposure, maybe some geography and yeah, access to the most prestigious bowl games, which also happen to be the most lucrative ones.

Despite those financial benefits (the Big Ten paid out a whopping $54 million to 12 of its 14 schools following the 2017-18 academic year), however, there are still schools that choose to avoid conference membership for football. And actually, an increasing number have done so in recent years.

Before television revenues became enormous aspects of college athletics, there were many “independents,” as they’re typically referred to. That number dipped by the 1990s and actually stayed pretty low (between two and four per season) until very recently. Schools that previously went it alone needed the TV dollars to stay afloat, and with the formation of new leagues — like the Big East — for that very reason, it was a no-brainer to take the paycheck.

The lone, long-term holdout has been Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish football program has never been in a conference, and it’s a point of pride within the fan base. They also have a fairly beneficial all-sports arrangement with the Atlantic Coast Conference for other sports, and their own football-only TV deal with NBC that pays out around $18 million per year thanks to their national fan base and affiliation with the Catholic church. So they’re fine.

Not every team is Notre Dame, however, and that’s where things get more complicated.

Last season, there were five more independents: Army, BYU, Liberty, New Mexico State and Massachusetts. This coming season, Connecticut joins that group. Army has a deal with CBS Sports for all home games, which puts them in quite a few households. BYU is signed up with ESPN, which puts them in even more, actually.

But Army and BYU are unique cases, pulling fans from around the country, too. Army’s fans don’t just come from the immediate area near West Point, N.Y., but most families of current and former Army service members. BYU, given its affiliation with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also has a wide-reaching base that extends far beyond its location in Provo, Utah. Additionally, they have a greater mission of spreading awareness of the church, and the football team’s exposure is a big part of that.

For the rest, it’s much tougher. UMass games are parked on regional sports network NESN and (streaming) FloSports. Liberty’s games are mostly on (streaming) ESPN+, but are broadcast in large part by the school’s own TV network. New Mexico State’s on FloSports. UConn’s yet to figure out where football games will go, but one would bet it’s probably regional sports network SNY. The latter three teams would love to be in a conference if one would have them. UConn recently gave up its conference affiliation with the American Athletic Conference in favor of non-football sports going back to the Big East (where all of its traditional rivals are, especially for men’s basketball).

The point is, independence is difficult in football if you want to even approach profitability. And foregoing conference membership for independence is not something taken lightly.

This is all a long way of getting around to the potential developing situation with Boise State and the Mountain West Conference.

First off, would read this primer from Matt Brown on the situation over at Extra Points (also, if you don’t subscribe already, it’s a great newsletter that gets into a lot of the off-the-field finances around college sports). But the basics are that the Mountain West signed a new TV deal with CBS and FOX, but it seems that Boise State — by far, the league’s most valuable brand — may not receive the same preferential treatment in said deal anymore. As Brown notes in his piece, those privileges have been in place largely since 2011.

The extra money for the Broncos made sense. Since 1986, they’ve sported blue turf on their home field — something done specifically to catch the eye of late-night channel surfers — and combined with a lot of on-field success, plus city and university investment in the program, the team’s become a fixture in and around the top 25 for nearly 15 years now. They also gained traction from a thrilling 43-42 upset over Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl — a game that ended with a proposal, and is regularly considered one of the best in the history of the sport.

But now that the MWC wants to amend the arrangement, Boise seems agitated, and could very well opt for independence if they can’t find a better arrangement. The Big 12 Conference is one option, though probably not a near-term one. The Pac-12 is even less likely. So independence becomes the next-best thing, short of working things out with the MWC and remaining a member there.

Over on Banner Society, Alex Kirshner spells out all of the options for Boise, using BYU as a reference point for how things could go if the Broncos go the independent route. BYU’s arrangement is tenable over their previous membership in the Mountain West because the dollar amount is pretty close to what they would’ve gotten otherwise and the exposure is greater. For Boise, there’s potential to be in the same ballpark in an ESPN deal, though who knows if they’ll be able to wrangle the same caliber of opponents (pretty good) that BYU has managed. Whether or not they can land power conference teams is critical to how lucrative said deal would be.

For Boise, or any team, the worst-case scenario is winding up on a regional network or streaming-only platform. This isn’t because those options are bad, or because they don’t have reasonable dollar values attached (they do). But for the time being live, linear TV sports programming remains the best game in town for audience exposure and resulting revenues. There’s a road ahead where streaming sports is at parity. But for college athletic programs trying to appeal to fans and potential recruits RIGHT NOW, it’s a harder sell than it is for a new series on a fledgling streaming platform.

Plenty more to come on Boise’s decision here, whatever it may be. But should they opt for independence and land successfully on TV, it could be something that spawns even more teams unhappy with aspects of their conference arrangement (USC? Texas?) to consider the idea as well.