By all accounts, the era of the superconferences is here, and it seems all but certain college football is one day heading toward a breakaway semi-professional league. SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey’s ultimate vision appears to be college football’s version of the European Super League, with the SEC at its center. In a reaction to this, the commissioners for the Big Ten, the Pac-12, and the ACC have come together in ‘The Alliance’ to counterbalance and send a message to the SEC — they won’t be the sole arbiters of the future of the sport.
But it’s possible such an alliance, which includes future scheduling meant to bring the conferences closer together, could one day eventually lead them to collectively negotiate TV deals.
ESPN’s David Hale reacted to a recent article by Stewart Mandel in The Athletic, which reinforced the point that Texas and Oklahoma’s move is being driven by — besides Sankey’s vision — TV money. Specifically, when looking at regular season Big12 conference games hosted on ABC, Fox, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU or FS1, how many watch when Texas or Oklahoma are on TV versus how many eyeballs do the other programs in the Big12 draw?
For the 2018 and 2019 seasons, Mandel discovered Oklahoma drew an average audience of 3.76 million, Texas 3.2 million, and the rest of the Big12 drew on average an audience of just 886,000. In other words, TV revenue is being driven largely by the programs that have national brands.
That begs several questions: how many eyeballs does Florida State Seminoles football — undoubtedly a national brand — draw? While FSU is effectively stuck in the Atlantic Coast Conference for at least another decade due to the horrible 2036 Grant of Rights (GOR) extension, just how valuable and attractive an option would FSU’s program be to potential realignment in the future?
We believe FSU is currently stuck in the ACC because it has been estimated it would cost the program somewhere in the realm of $250 million to $300 million to break the GOR. Texas and Oklahoma are looking at approximately $80 million each to force a move before the Big12 GOR ends in 2025. Should FSU ultimately stay, exactly how strong is the ACC, especially when you remove both of its two flagship football programs in FSU and Clemson?
For the purpose of our study, our methodology will be a little bit different than what Mandel used for his article. We are going to look at all of Florida State’s FBS (Division-1) games for the 2017, 2018, and 2019 seasons that were broadcast, including bowl games. They appeared on ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPNNews, CBS, and NBC. We aren’t going to include 2020 due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, and we aren’t going to include Florida State’s most recent glory days of 2012—2014 because the way people consume TV has changed since even then.
Mandel does note that the non-TX/OU 886k is also affected by the struggling FS1; counting just ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 raises that average to 1.37 million, just a little bit more than the 1.01 million the American Athletic Conference draws. However, we will use the same source Mandel did, Sports Media Watch. It’s also worth noting that the much-maligned ACC Network also depresses viewership, but where we could we didn’t include anything from the network.
We obviously can’t project exactly how much of a draw FSU will be ten years from now, especially as FSU and the ACC fall behind in college football’s arms race. By the end of the decade the Big Ten and the SEC are both expecting to distribute approximately $100 million per school annually, while the ACC is not expected to increase its share much beyond the $30 million it currently distributes per school annually, even if it were to also seek to expand. That’s due to the lack of national brands left to poach. The Big12 distributed $38.5 million to its schools in 2020; with Texas and OU gone, the estimated value of the remaining Big12 teams would result in a distribution of just $9 million to $14 million annually.
But 2017—2019 is not exactly showcasing the best FSU has to offer on the field either, so we feel it could provide a reasonable baseline.
However, just for fun, we’ll share some interesting numbers from the 2013 season. Jameis Winston’s coming out party in the primetime opener against the Pittsburgh Panthers drew an audience of 4.47 million. The Florida Gators and Miami Hurricanes noon matchup in Week 2 of that season drew 4.6 million, while Notre Dame vs. Michigan in prime time drew 8.65 million. FSU’s famous 51-14 beatdown of No. 3 Clemson in Week 8 drew 5.68 million. FSU’s home game against Miami a couple weeks later was watched by 8.35 million. The ACC Championship game against the Duke Blue Devils drew 5.66 million while the Big Ten and SEC championship games both averaged about 14 million.
One other thing before we show the results, is a note about the data. Since we’re only looking at the 2017—2019 seasons, FSU is obviously down while Clemson has never been better, bigger, or more popular. Because of this Clemson had more games that were televised, including in better time slots.
Since we included FSU’s bowl games, we’re also going to include Clemson’s playoff games, which all rival FSU’s 2013 title game in viewership. However, we have split it so you can see what Clemson did in the regular season as well as all games.
We included Notre Dame as an FBS matchup but not as a conference game.
Lastly, the data isn’t perfect — there are some games where viewership numbers weren’t available. But the sample sizes should generally be large enough to give us an idea.
Average FBS TV audience (27 games): 2.39 million
Average conference-only TV audience (19 games): 2.02 million
Average regular-season FBS TV audience: 3.14 million
Total average FBS TV audience (including playoffs — 35 games): 5.84 million
Average conference-only TV audience (24 games): 2.95 million
Other ACC programs
Average non-FSU/Clemson non-conference FBS TV audience (58 games): 2.34 million
Average non-FSU/Clemson conference-only TV audience (53 games): 1.22 million
Total average non-FSU/Clemson FBS TV audience (111 games): 1.80 million
Florida State 2012—2014
Just kidding, we knew you guys would want to know:
Average FBS TV audience (31 games): 5.65 million
It’s clear similar factors affecting the Big12 are at play in the ACC. Which was somewhat expected but it’s good to have evidence to support it. While the non-TX/OU Big12 teams averaged about 1.37 million for conference games on similar networks ACC games are broadcasted on, and 886,000 overall, you can see the non-FSU/Clemson ACC games averaged 1.22 million and when you include non-conference games, 1.80 million.
The results also reinforce the notion that FSU shouldn’t have anything to worry about when it comes to potentially being left out of a breakaway semi-professional league. Even if FSU and the ACC are relatively left behind the other conferences over the next ten years, it’s still unlikely that FSU would slip far enough into irrelevance to affect their placement. Even being currently down they’re still a big draw, and if Norvell and company can get the program back on track they’ll only draw even more eyeballs. Further, the Big12 planning to add UCF, Houston, Cincinnati, and BYU won’t significantly move the needle too much above $15-16 million per school per year, which should ensure that the ACC won’t be the weakest Power 5 conference.
The numbers unavoidably reflect that Clemson, in the midst of its greatest stretch in program history, is currently more of a draw than FSU. However, when FSU is elite, it generally pulls in greater numbers than Clemson and is more of a national brand. The Tigers’ higher total average when comparing elite stretches is skewed by the greater number of playoff games, which began in 2014 as FSU was entering its down period. Across 2012—2014 FSU had fifteen games with audiences of 3.75 million or more; just two of the fifteen were national title or playoff games, which naturally draw huge audiences regardless of who plays. Clemson had 16 games of 3.75+ million viewers between 2017—2019, but five of them were playoff or national title games.
It’s also reinforced by highest total audience: Clemson had two games where it was watched by 25.28 million (2018 Alabama playoff) and 25.59 million (LSU national title). But FSU’s title game with Auburn pulled in 26.06 million while its playoff game against Oregon drew 28.16 million. However, it should again be stressed that TV consumption has changed since those years, and it’s likely much more difficult to attain such large numbers these days.
Finally, for Florida State’s season opening overtime loss to No.9 Notre Dame, the game pulled in an average of 7.1 million viewers, and peaked at a whopping 8.8 million. Again, due to its rich winning tradition and history as the population in Florida boomed in the 80s and 90s, Florida State is a national brand.
The other, more relevant takeaway, is that FSU isn’t on quite the same level as Oklahoma and Texas. FSU is much closer, or even higher than that, when playing at a high level. If there was an opening for FSU to leave the ACC, is their viewership numbers enough of a draw to garner an invite from another conference to leave?
What are your thoughts on the results? Do you agree that FSU’s place is secure, regardless of what the college football landscape looks like five, ten, fifteen or more years down the road? Or are you worried FSU might slip into irrelevance before a breakaway league finally forms?