The ACC gave up cash for exposure in its 2010 TV deal…does that look like a smarter decision now?

When the ACC inked their now-reviled 2010 media deal with ESPN, it was roundly hailed as a monster success. Negotiated during a recession, and during a pathetic stretch of ACC football performances, the fact that the ACC had managed to more than double its television revenue (to $13M per school) was unanimously declared a victory by media and sports business observers. However, hidden in the congratulatory parade was one barely-noted item that a few of us found disturbing.

It was widely reported that the deal with ESPN ballooned significantly due to an unexpected bidding war with FOX. Not a college football player at the time, Fox’s first attempt to make a splash in college football was the failed attempt to win the ACC’s TV rights. The ACC gladly used this to push up the price tag, but in the end, FOX was NOT afforded an opportunity to beat ESPN’s final offer, as "ESPN’s multiple platforms were just too valuable to risk passing up." Some of us realized that could be read another way…the ACC left money on the table, and gave up cold, hard cash in exchange for a few more eyeballs on its product.

It didn’t seem all that notable at the time, until the PAC 12 and Big 12, by including FOX in their rights deals, landed deals paying their schools $20M per team shortly thereafter. Within 24 months, the ACC’s 2010 deal with ESPN transformed from a triumph to a laughing stock. Several ACC schools were reported to be doing more looking than laughing, however, with Maryland eventually jumping to a more lucrative home in the Big 10. Many of us, including myself, were urging FSU to at least explore opportunities with the Big 12 and FOX’s deep pockets. By eschewing FOX and its cash, in exchange for ESPN’s exposure, it appeared that ACC commissioner John Swofford had grossly miscalculated, and jeopardized the future of the ACC.

Fast forward another two years, and thanks to expansion, the partial addition of ND, the adoption of a grant of rights, and likely the threat of dissolution, the ACC now has a renegotiated ESPN deal that, while still the poorest of the five conferences, brings it closer in line with the $20M/school received by the PAC and Big 12 for their rights packages. The decision to go all in with ESPN in 2010 still probably cost the ACC a couple million dollars per team…but how does the exposure side of the equation stack up?

Frankly, FOX college football ratings, and the Big 12’s in particular, are a disaster.

We don’t even have to go spend too much time looking at FOX’s cable outlets, FS1 and FS2. They are a major disappointment so far, competing more with NBCSN than ESPN. As for college football, the highest rated FS1 game this year has been 0.6 for the Thursday night game between UCLA and Arizona State on September 25. For reference, that’s about 900k viewers. For even better reference, that’s about the same rating Fresno State-New Mexico did on ESPN2 the following night, on a Friday. It’s also half the viewers that watched BC-Pitt on ESPN on Friday Sept. 5th. Suffice it to say, almost nobody is watching college football on FS1, which has also broadcast games featuring significant teams like BYU, Arizona, Texas, Baylor, Kansas State and TCU already this year.

But the really scary thing, if you are the Big 12 or PAC 12, is the poor performance of college football on broadcast FOX compared to ESPN, as well as CBS (SEC game of the week) and NBC (Notre Dame). The following ratings were compiled from Sports Media Watch.

In week 1, FOX’s only game was #15 USC-Fresno State in prime time. Not a great game to be sure, but featuring one of college football’s most glamorous programs. It’s rating of 0.9 was annihilated head to head, tripled by LSU-Wisconsin on ESPN (2.9) and quadrupled by FSU-Oklahoma State on ABC (3.8). Maybe more disturbingly, games in other time slots, like UCLA-Virginia (ESPN), Penn State-UCF (ESPN2 – at 8:30 am!) and Michigan-Appalachian State (ESPN2), did equal or better ratings.

In week 2, FOX managed their most successful rating of the year, the Oregon-Michigan State game, that was the second highest rated game of the week (to USC-Stanford on ABC). The 3.5 rating for that game remains the high water mark for FOX this season.

In week 3, FOX went with two games. The Illinois-Washington game at 4 pm was not a glamorous matchup, but did combine the footprints of the Big 10 and PAC 12. That game did a 0.7 rating, whipped soundly in the same slot by Iowa State-Iowa on ESPN (1.0). The noon ESPN game of VT-ECU, with a 1.7 rating, more than doubled the Illinois-Washington rating.

Then in prime time, FOX had #12 UCLA-Texas, featuring Texas’ big brand, an undefeated and highly rated UCLA team, and a pretty close game throughout. It’s 1.6 rating was beaten soundly in its slot by Tennessee-Oklahoma (2.2) and Notre Dame-Purdue (1.9), and was still lower rated than earlier games like VT-ECU and Ohio State-Kent State.

Week 4, FOX featured a prime time game between #4 Oklahoma and WVU, which scored a 2.0. That was annihilated head to head by FSU-Clemson on ABC, with a 4.5 rating. In addition, Georgia Tech-Virginia Tech at noon on ESPN scored a higher rating than OU-WVU in prime time.

Week 5, FOX featured #16 Stanford-Washington at 4pm, with an anemic 1.0 rating. FSU-NCSU did a 3.5 on ABC at the same time. But that was the high point, because FOX’s prime time game featuring #7 Baylor-Iowa State scored a 0.8, presumed to be the lowest rating in history for a prime time game on broadcast television. By contrast, almost as many people watched Miami vs. Duke on ESPN2 at the same time.

Finally, week 6 featured the biggest game in the Big 12 to date, #4 Oklahoma vs. #25 TCU. A close and exciting game throughout, it rated a 1.3 rating. The fact that it was beaten by Alabama-Ole Miss (CBS, 3.9) and Notre Dame-Stanford (NBC, 2.7) might be disappointing, but certainly not surprising. But what must have been disturbing for FOX (and the Big 12) is that the rating was thrashed by ABC, which scored a 2.3 with regional coverage of Baylor-Texas and FSU-Wake Forest. And to add insult to injury, 60% of the ABC viewing area was watching FSU-Wake Forest, and it still solidly topped OU-TCU.

Ratings are notoriously difficult to compare, and you can make them look different ways depending on what you are comparing, what the time slot competition was, etc. But there is no way to pick through the FOX and FS1 college football ratings, or the Big 12 and PAC 12 ratings on those channels, and paint a winning picture.

The SEC and Big 10 tend to dominate the ratings, and that’s usually going to be the case based on massive alumni sizes and, in the case of the SEC, football relevance. It’s not like the ACC is crushing ratings. However, the ACC is doing surprisingly well in viewership, thanks to the ESPN boost and aggressive non-conference schedules:

Appearance in games that rated over a 2.0 (through week 5, most recent week will full ratings data):

SEC: 11

ACC: 8

B1G: 6

B12: 5

PAC: 3

Now, it’s hard to parse intra-conference games, because it’s up for debate who the headliner is. Should USC-BC or Alabama-WVU really count equally for each conference?

So to look at it another way, we can look at just conference games:

Conference games that rated over a 2.0 (through week 5, most recent last week will full ratings data):

SEC: 5

ACC: 4

B1G: 1

PAC: 1

B12: 0

And that’s with the ACC having a very sparse representation in the Top 25 all season, compared to say, the Big 12 with five ranked teams in week seven, or the PAC 12 with six.

We all know that ESPN pumps SEC 24 hours a day to everyone’s infuriation, but ESPN has been very, very good for ACC viewership. The Big 12 and PAC 12 are suffering a major lack of exposure relative to their quality of football right now. While I have been highly critical of Swofford, and still believe the ACC’s rights deal was badly undervalued, the decision to go all in with ESPN rather than FOX, or even split deal with FOX and ESPN, was clearly the right move, even at some financial cost. Does anyone see Miami-Louisville or GT-VT scoring a 2+ rating on FS1?

And as far as FSU and the Big 12, it’s hard to argue credibly that we’d have more eyes on the Noles playing on FOX and FS1, based on the ratings performance of similar properties like USC, Oklahoma and Texas.

But what does it all mean?

Immediately, it’s hard to see a lot of impact. All the conferences are cashing their media checks regardless of ratings, and the ACC is still cashing smaller ones. It’s hard to imagine it affecting the playoffs, as the selection committee should be watching all relevant games.

Longer term…does the fact that more people are watching ACC football matter? Will it have a positive impact on recruiting? Will more people watching give the ACC a greater share of the public consciousness? If you subscribe to the theory (which I don’t) that the ACC and Big 12 cannot both survive, these numbers certainly make the Big 12 look more vulnerable, considering their tiny footprint is supposed to be offset by their national draw. For how long will Oklahoma and Texas appreciate pulling fewer viewers than Georgia Tech, NC State, Virginia, etc?

The effects might not be felt until the end of the media contracts…it’s going to be hard to argue the next time around that the Big 12 or PAC 12 are more valuable television, if these trends hold.

The terribly low FOX ratings could also affect the B1G’s leverage in their upcoming negotiations. It’s hard to imagine that the B1G can realistically consider moving 100% of content to FOX, given the viewership. It would be death to pull all programming off ESPN. That’s one negotiating weapon they’re not going to be able to wield anymore, which may keep the B1G’s impending payouts slightly less astronomical than many were predicting a couple years ago.

All of this is probably pretty good news for the ACC in the long term…with one exception. What if FOX cries uncle? The latest rounds of media contracts that resulted in tripling or more the value of media rights is directly attributable to FOX jumping into the college football arena. Should FOX retreat, ESPN will be the only player in town when the contracts run out in the 2020s, which will not be good for media rights values for the ACC. In that scenario the PAC 12 and B1G will at least have their own network competitors to play against ESPN, while the ACC, Big 12 and even the SEC (since the SECN is an ESPN property) will have little negotiating power with Bristol.

It’s a topic for another day, but with that in mind, it might be a good idea for the ACC to forego any ESPN-owned ACC Network, even if offered, during the length of the current contract. When the next contract negotiation comes around, the opportunity to launch an independent, non-ESPN ACC Network may be the only leverage the ACC has to avoid a single bidder scenario.

In any event, the ACC, and FSU, is very fortunate to be aligned with ESPN rather than FOX right now.

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