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There's No Accounting For Taste: The Media Positions Of The SEC and Big Ten

The SEC offers a better product on the field, but the Big Ten has a better position in terms of its media rights deals. For that, Jim Delany can thank the fact that his fans apparently do not care about the quality of the product on their TV sets.

A Big Ten team losing in Pasadena. How novel. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
A Big Ten team losing in Pasadena. How novel. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
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The SEC finds itself in an interesting position right now. On the field, its fortunes have never been better. The league's teams have won six straight national titles. The league is generally a shoe-in to get two BCS bids and when their teams get into BCS bowls, they tend to win. Moreover, while the league has a reputation of skirting the outer edge of NCAA rules, none of its teams are currently experiencing significant sanctions, i.e. a bowl ban or scholarship reductions on the level of what USC is experiencing. In short, the quality of the SEC's product on the field is as good as it has ever been, subject to certain stylistic complaints.

In terms of revenue, however, the SEC's position is not as strong. It is one thing for the SEC to be distributing less money to its members than the Big Ten does (although, as John Pennington points out, that is not an apples to apples comparison). It is another for the Pac Ten to have a more favorable media deal. If a league that draws half as many viewers for its games as compared to the SEC is striking a better TV deal, then the SEC has made some mistakes along the way. Hence, Mike Slive's sudden interest in expanding the conference so the league can revisit its TV deals and take advantage of a favorable market. (If only the Braves could do the same.)

It is this failure to convert the SEC's dominance on the field and passion in the stands into media money that has Ramzy Nasrallah (known to Michigan fans as the Reasonable Buckeye) crowing:

The most profitable and far-reaching college TV network in America is BTN. The second-most profitable will be the seven PAC-12 Networks, which consists of the mothership in San Francisco along with six regional networks spread throughout the PAC's footprint.

By comparison, the SEC does not have a network; it basically leases a timeshare held by Disney that makes ESPN shareholders wealthier at the expense of the SEC's sub-first tier content. That's why Mike Slive is now suddenly looking to fast-track the development and launch of an SEC network.

He's way behind B1G and PAC. They're lapping the field while we scream about plus-ones and rotating playoff sites.

There's a catch for Slive: Building a network is not that easy. MTN just turned out its lights. The ACC just undressed itself for ESPN and the Big XII and Big East deals cede power to the Worldwide Leader as well. The SEC doesn't have much of a geographical footprint; even worse, when its teams are lousy only the diehards outside of SEC country bother watching.

Dominance ebbs and flows in cycles. The decline of the B1G in football coincided with BTN, which provided the distribution framework in place to insulate B1G's institutions from any decline in on-field performance. Ask NBC what it thinks of its Notre Dame football ratings when the Irish are disappointing, which is a blip now entering its 19th season.

What does this have to do with setting the BCS on fire in favor of a playoff, like every other sport in the world enjoys? Everything. The power spectrum has no balance, and because of that Delany is still afforded the luxury of tinkering with college football to his liking.

Let's leave aside the fact that the Mountain West, the ACC, and the Big XII are not proper comparators for the SEC because they do not have the fan bases that the SEC has, either in terms of numbers or intensity of preference. (The Big Ten is the only rival for the SEC in this department.) Let's also leave aside the false claim that the SEC does not have much of a geographical footprint, as the league now has three of the ten most populous states in the footprint. The SEC has approximately 89M people in its states. That's enough of a population base to make money. Moreover, I'm willing to go out on a limb by saying that the SEC has the greatest number of fans who would phone in bomb threats to their local cable companies if they did not get whatever comes out of Project X. (It must be said, though, that Big Ten grads are no slouches in the bomb sending department.)

The most interesting sentence in the piece was this one: "Dominance ebbs and flows in cycles. The decline of the B1G in football coincided with BTN, which provided the distribution framework in place to insulate B1G's institutions from any decline in on-field performance." The problem with this claim is that conference strength is not cyclical. The SEC has structural advantages over the Big Ten and other conferences, most notably that it sits in a more talent rich region and then its member schools convert their barrels of cash into hiring the best available coaches. Likewise, the decline in the Big Ten's fortunes does not coincide with the creation of the Big Ten Network. A conference that has won two national titles in 42 years (or as many as the SEC has won in the last 18 months) and lost eight of its last nine appearances in the Rose Bowl (the Big Ten is 12-28 in its last 40 Rose Bowls, which raises the question "why is this conference masochistic?") has to confront decline on a time frame longer than five years.

However, the long-term weakness of Big Ten football on the field is actually good in a way, because it provides a positive answer for the conference as to the question that I really wanted to ask after reading Ramzy's piece: can the Big Ten continue to count on its fans to watch a mediocre product? If you haven't figured it out already, I like watching both Big Ten and SEC football, but I'm strange. The assumption underlying Ramzy's piece is that Big Ten games will continue to get good ratings, thus fulfilling the manifest destiny that JIm Delany has planned of every team in the league seeing its coffers filled on an annual basis. How long will Big Ten games garner good ratings as college football continues its progression from a regional sport into a national one and fans figure out that the race to win the Big Ten is irrelevant in terms of impact outside of the Midwest? And won't this problem come into view even more if the Big Ten starts playing the Pac Ten on a formal basis starting in 2017 - a development that Ramzy heralds as a masterstroke by Delany and Larry Scott - and the results mimic the Rose Bowl, i.e. Pac Ten teams winning two-thirds of the games? The answer is apparently that Big Ten fans will keep watching games, regardless of how good their teams are. They've been watching games for the past four decades, even knowing that the conference season is leading to the same end-point - a loss in Pasadena, so why stop now?

To use a soccer analogy, the Big Ten is more the English Championship (the second division of English soccer, the tier below the Premier League) than MLS. The Championship is the eighth-most valuable soccer league in Europe, despite the fact that its product is, by definition, a cut below the top in England. The Championship does well because its members - clubs like Leeds, West Ham, Southhampton, and Middlesborough - have large, devoted fan bases who will support their teams even when they are not in the Premier League. The level of quality doesn't matter so much as the strength of the bond between club and fan. In contrast, MLS has never quite grabbed the American sports market, despite the fact that soccer as a TV property is increasing in popularity by leaps and bounds. The most commonly offered reason is that American soccer fans would rather watch the best club teams in the world - the Champions League, the English Premier League, La Liga, and so on - than watch a local version of the sport that is not on the same level. American fans do not have long-standing ties to MLS clubs, so they would rather develop a tie to a top European team and watch soccer played in its highest form than commit to an MLS team and watch a lesser product. To come back to the Big Ten question, Jim Delany is counting on the ties between his member schools and their fans to overcome the quality of the product on the field.

For more on the SEC head over to Team Speed Kills and SB Nation's dedicated College Football page.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.