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One Way Around College Football’s Superconferences? (Partially) Decentralized Media Rights

Conference realignment has long been part of college football’s landscape, yet TV’s only been a factor there for the last four decades or so.

A brief history, for those not as in the weeds on college sports rights:

The NCAA once controlled all college football TV rights, and was notoriously stingy about how many games could actually be televised. Media rights deals weren’t as rich then as they are now, even adjusting for inflation, and the thought was that more games on TV made for lower attendance at stadiums.

In 1977, 63 schools of various conference affiliations and a lack thereof formed the College Football Association (CFA) as a way to make more money televising games, but that vision wouldn’t truly come to fruition until Oklahoma and Georgia finished battling it out with the NCAA in court (the U.S. Supreme Court, as it would wind up) in 1984. NCAA vs. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and found the NCAA in violation of antitrust laws. As a result, college football TV rights were decentralized, allowing individual conferences and teams to negotiate deals on their own.

That competition led to more rights up for grabs, more networks involved, and more teams on TV. Notre Dame’s landmark 1991 deal with NBC (which we touched on last week) that led to them exiting the CFA was the beginning of the end for that centralized negotiating authority, which finally ceased existence in 1997. Since then, all individual conferences and independent teams have negotiated their own deals — though the number of conferences have also shrunk in the years that followed.

For the last two decades or so, conference realignment has pushed more teams into bigger (fewer) leagues with eyes on a lager payday amid a sharply escalating television rights war. The result has made the richest teams richer, for certain. And it’s the biggest reason why Texas and Oklahoma are leaving the Big 12 to cash in with the SEC. But that result is also leading to a consolidated college football TV rights structure similar to the CFA. Except now, every other school and conference will be chasing down the astronomical totals the SEC will soon be taking in under its about-to-be-updated $3 billion deal with ESPN.

And realistically, outside of the Big Ten, they can’t. And even the Big Ten (in the middle of a $2.64 million deal from three broadcasters over six years) has schools struggling financially and a limited upside with no clear additions to grow media value without reducing the size of the pie slices. With rights largely tied to a linear TV model that’s eventually going to give way to streaming, there’s only so much upside — even for the most bankable programming. What qualifies there is also a shrinking list, and may not even include all of the power conference college football games each fall (subtly gestures toward the Pac-12 and aspects of the ACC).

To-date, conferences have grown per-school revenues with consolidated media rights, overall revenue sharing and conference networks. Along with functioning as 24/7 advertising for these leagues and their schools, conference networks grow revenues via additional subscriber fees on the backs of tier-three content — games (especially football and men’s basketball) that don’t already appear on national or regional networks.

For the Big 12, while per-team revenues have lagged due to fewer members (10 vs. 12-14 for the rest) and fewer major brands than the other power conferences, teams have also sort of benefited from the unique freedom to bring those tier three rights to the open market. So while it’s hampered the Big 12 somewhat to not have its own conference network, teams have been able to pursue deals of their own for tier-three content. Many of those are housed on ESPN+ at this point, save Oklahoma and Texas’s. But it’s another way to tack on additional revenue ($5 million or so per school) without a dedicated network.

For schools that already have a dedicated network, though, those rights are locked in. However, Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish TV streaming service is already showing how even archival rights have value for fans, and could very well move to monetize subscribers in the near future. Clemson’s expressed interest in something similar, as have others, and that’s for a limited-scope streaming network.

Now imagine if they’re able to park more live game content on there.

This is not about stealing away football or basketball inventory from an ACC Network or Pac-12 Network or Big Ten Network, as much as it’s about either creating shoulder content and commentary around those games, and/or using team-specific streaming services as a way to also get additional attention for non-revenue sports (so track & field, women’s lacrosse, golf, softball, volleyball, etc.). And that attention, mixed with archival broadcasts and shoulder content can be monetized in a way that caters directly to fans while also growing respective teams’ media revenues.

A change like this wouldn’t even necessarily need much of an adjustment from the parties involved. Most Power Five schools are already content producers themselves and have on-campus studios as part of their conference networks. Fans are also used to tuning into school-specific social video platforms as it is for niche content. The major changes simply come from a) paying what could be a marginal amount for that content as a streaming service, and b) ESPN and FOX potentially yielding the rights to some tier-three, non-revenue and/or archival game inventory to help get these services off the ground.

Would they do so? It’s tough to say, really. If there’s value in those games, then giving up the rights to them — even temporarily — is forfeiting value. And media companies don’t have a ton of wiggle room right now following a rough year for live events and linear TV.

But at the same time, this partial decentralization of college sports content is really the only way to compete with a superconference like the SEC at this point. That league will be making money hand over first, and could still open up aspects of inventory for schools to play with to grow revenues even more because there’s only so much you can toss on the SEC Network with 16 teams, and only so much you can send to SEC Network+ (the streaming overflow for ESPN) or ESPN+ before there are diminishing returns.

For the other conferences, there’s value for individual schools, obviously, since it opens up new revenue sources and allows for schools to chip away at parts of the gap with the SEC. That’s a tall order for the ACC, Pac-12 and remaining Big 12 schools, who are tens of millions behind the SEC’s new deal and the Big Ten’s current one an an annual payouts basis. Still, every cent counts. And it also helps them stay competitive on the field — something that both ESPN and FOX would seemingly want to be invested in as well, to keep those products compelling and living up to the immense values they’ve paid for.

It would be ironic, ultimately, if the conference networks mean to be a liferaft for schools in a growing college sports financial arms race turned into an anchor. Letting some of those rights go now seems to be the only way to facilitate further growth for the rest of the Power Five outside of the SEC.