[cq comment=”CQ-ed on all, some of this can be cut or broken out into siders, if that works better? Thx! -SK” ]
When Brock Huard thinks of Colorado football, his mind races back to a slew of boyhood memories. Those Orange Bowl tussles with Notre Dame. Games with national title implications. The “Fifth Down” at Mizzou. Kordell Stewart’s Miracle at Michigan.
Here’s the problem: Huard just turned 46.
And those memories? Well, they’re starting to fade.
“If you’re (the Buffs), you’re not where you want to be,” the FOX Sports analyst and former University of Washington and NFL quarterback told The Denver Post recently. “That’s just as flat-out and as blatant as I can say it.
“It’s not (coach) Bill McCartney’s Buffaloes anymore. Just like it’s not Don James’ Huskies anymore. And in college football, that’s the bottom line. That’s why Oklahoma and Texas were poached (by the SEC). That’s why USC and UCLA went along for the ride (to the Big Ten).”
Why was Nebraska, CU’s old rival, invited to the Big Ten? Its football brand. Why did the SEC snap up the Sooners and Longhorns out of the Big 12? Same deal.
What made the Trojans and Bruins, tentpole programs in Southern California for more than a century, attractive to the Big Ten, whose physical headquarters is in suburban Chicago and cultural hub resides in the Great Lakes and the Plains? B-R-A-N-D.
“East Coast media bias is real,” laughed Russell Wright, managing director of Atlanta-based Collegiate Consulting and a former executive at College Sports Television (CSTV), which later became CBS Sports Network.
“Outside of (USC and UCLA), you don’t really hear much about Washington or the Bay Area schools, or even Arizona State (in the southwest), unless they’re doing something screwy and they’re about to get a show-cause (penalty from the NCAA). And that’s why I get why the Big Ten went (west). And why USC and UCLA were (willing to leave) for what they were told would be gobs of money.”
So where do CU and Colorado State fit within that “brand” ecosystem, where television networks that pay for broadcasting rights up front call the shots? Where the lack of a national unifying voice for college football has created a leadership vacuum that’s been filled by individual financial interests first?
And what advice would Wright give to the administrators in Boulder and Fort Collins given the respective states of the Pac-12, which saw two of its biggest brands get plucked, and the Mountain West, where the same thing could happen?
“Talk to everybody,” Wright replied. “Be proactive.
“You’ve got to know the lay of the land. You don’t want to be caught blind … be proactive in a way that if the opportunity comes, you’re not flying blind and you can make an informed decision, which I’m assuming all these (presidents and chancellors) are doing in both the Pac-12 and the Big 12. Everybody’s got their heads on a swivel.”
“They deliver Denver”
Why is the “brand” discussion so imperative?
Because without national oversight — the NCAA has little power over FBS football and none over the College Football Playoff — conferences are essentially their own little National Football Leagues.
CU’s current home, the Pac-12, is an entertainment conglomerate that’s seeking to corral and sell the most valuable content — ergo, the most valuable brands — to television networks that’ll pay through the nose for live programming. And colleges are adhering to another NFL market truth: The more networks bidding for your content, the higher the price.
The Big Ten reportedly just agreed to a seven-year media rights deal with three networks — FOX, CBS and NBC — worth a reported $7 billion to the league, or $1 billion annually. The SEC has a contract with ESPN worth up to $7 billion over 10 years.
The Pac-12’s current media deals expire in 2024. The league, which announced in July that it has opened broadcast negotiations, was expected this past spring to command as much as $500 million from broadcast outlets. But that was before USC and UCLA announced they were leaving for the Big Ten.
During a recent University of California Board of Regents hearing, state officials estimated the loss of the Trojans would cut the TV value of the conference by at least 30% and the loss of the Bruins another 10%. That dropped the Pac-12’s projections from the $500-million neighborhood to the $325 million-$350 million range per year.
And here’s the best part — or the worst, depending on your rooting interest. The Big Ten likely isn’t done expanding. Commissioner Kevin Warren has repeatedly indicated future expansion is a distinct possibility. The Action Network reported earlier this month that the Big Ten’s new TV arrangements include an “escalator clause” for added schools that could push the total value of its deal to roughly $9 billion-to-$10 billion. The Big Ten’s first choices to fill those slots, the report continued, are longtime target Notre Dame and longstanding Pac-12 members Oregon, Washington, Stanford and California.
So how can we gauge the “value” of the Buffs and Rams football brands in 2022? It depends on the methodology.
“I’ll go back to something that you probably are very much up to speed on,” said Lee Berke, a sports media guru whose LHB Sports, Entertainment & Media company specializes in sports media rights. “Remember when they were pitching what eventually became the Colorado Rockies? The presentation that was made was, ‘The time zone without a team.’
“When you’re building a conference, you need to be able to offer up the Denver DMA, the state of Colorado and the Mountain time zone, because there are relatively few schools that move the needle (there). And CU and CSU are two of them, because they deliver Denver and the state of Colorado.”
What the two programs haven’t delivered consistently over the past 15 years are wins. Not counting the pandemic season of 2020, the Buffs since 2003 have finished a season ranked among the final Associated Press Top 25 just once (17th, in 2016).
The Rams have also struggled for national relevance. During former coach Sonny Lubick’s 15-year tenure, CSU posted at least eight wins seven times and ended a season among the final AP Top 25 three times. In the 13 non-COVID seasons since, the program has produced one eight-win team — a 10-3 squad in 2014 — and zero postseason Top 25 appearances.
For both schools, a lack of success exacerbates the same vicious cycle: The ability to draw television eyeballs matters, and networks preserve their best broadcast slots for either the biggest brands — bluebloods such as Ohio State, Texas, Alabama or USC — or the biggest football matchups on a particular weekend.
Conversely, less-desirable games, as determined by networks that have already paid for them, are shifted down the pecking order to channels with less market penetration (ESPN2, ESPNU, FS1, FS2, conference networks, etc.) or less-desirable time slots (early mornings, late evenings).
In a survey of 1,000 high school football players released last month by OfficialVisit.com, the Buffs ranked 57th nationally among a pool of 66 Power 5 programs plus Notre Dame and BYU in terms of “brand” score — just behind Northwestern and just ahead of former Big 12 stablemate Kansas State. Among current Pac-12 programs, the Buffs finished 10th in the poll, ahead of only California (No. 59) and Washington State (No. 64).
But to networks, TV ratings are the criteria that truly move the needle.
“(CU has) some reasonably good history, back not too long ago,” Bob Thompson, former president of FOX Sports and FOX Sports International, told The Denver Post. “And then it went downhill for a while. (Network) people love to do games in Boulder. It’s great TV. (Athletic director) Rick George’s done a good job trying to get everybody (in the football program) back on track.
“I put (CU’s brand value) on par, based on market size, right up there with Arizona State and Washington. … A lot of the schools that are left in the Pac-12 once USC and UCLA go are pretty comparable.
“I think maybe Oregon State and Washington State and Arizona might be outliers, but CU, Utah, Oregon, Washington, Arizona State, Stanford and Cal, because of market size, are pretty comparable in terms of value. Now what that value is, that just depends on how they’re ultimately going to carve this next (Pac-12) deal up. And who bids.”
“We need to win more often”
While networks might “love” doing games at Folsom Field, they need a winning team to attract viewers.
According to data gathered from SportsMediaWatch.com, CU from 2012-2021 (excluding the pandemic season in 2020) played a regular-season game on network TV just 10 times, or roughly once per season.
Outside of 2020, of the Buffs’ last 109 regular-season games, 57 of them (52.2%) were broadcast on the Pac-12 Network, whose national footprint is so miniscule its ratings aren’t tracked by SportsMediaWatch. For context, USC appeared on network TV 52 times during the same period, while rival UCLA had 37 games shown on a network.
CU’s average television number per regular-season game for those nine seasons: 1.292 million viewers. The Trojans averaged 2.54 million while UCLA saw a reach of 1.82 million.
WestCoastCFB.com last month pooled figures from SportsMediaWatch’s 2016-21 ratings into a report that ranked CU football ninth out of 12 Pac-12 schools in overall television audience over the last past seasons.
“Certainly, eyeballs and viewership are important,” CU athletic director Rick George told The Denver Post. “We do know that obviously the television networks are looking at that — and that’s exactly why we schedule non-conference games against quality non-conference opponents.”
To wit: CU’s two most-watched games over the last six years were matchups against Texas A&M from the SEC (4.5 million viewers on FOX) last fall and at home vs. Nebraska from the Big Ten (3.45 million on FOX) in 2019. Which is part of the reasoning, George explained, behind future non-conference matchups that will include the likes of Florida, Oklahoma State, Missouri, Kansas State, Northwestern and Georgia Tech.
“We want to schedule those types of games because it elevates our brand and gives us more exposure nationally,” George said.
CSU had only 17 games from ’12-19 and ’21 that turned up numbers that could be tracked by SportsMediaWatch, with the majority relegated to CBS Sports Network, streaming services such as ESPN3, or regional channels such as AT&T Rocky Mountain. The Rams’ charted regular-season telecasts averaged 866,133 viewers, which proved comparable to Mountain West peers Boise State (1.01 million) and San Diego State (657,071), two schools often floated as potential replacements for USC and UCLA in the Pac-12, or as possible expansion targets for the Big 12.
But all three schools are well behind the regular-season ratings of games featuring Cincinnati (1.485 million), BYU (1.438 million) or UCF (1.237 million). The Bearcats, Cougars and Golden Knights are joining the Big 12 on July 1, 2023.
“We need to win. And we need to win more often,” Rams athletic director Joe Parker told The Denver Post. “And we need to win with a sustained ability — not just one season, but over multiple seasons. And we haven’t been there as a program, quite frankly, from a sustained perspective since Coach Lubick was leading CSU football. We didn’t really have it before Sonny and we haven’t since Sonny, consistently.”
Time for patience
As to where the Buffs and Rams go from here, Thompson offers two words of advice:
“Be patient,” said Thompson, who now heads up the Thompson Sports Group. “(For CU, be) flexible and quick to react if necessary. (For CSU), the Mountain West is a place you can compete and thrive, so embrace it.”
So what can Buffs and Rams fans expect from the conference realignment picture in, say, 2030? Get ready for another dose of the unexpected.
Thompson said he thinks in eight years the current round of TV deals that have either been recently announced (Big Ten) or are being hammered out (Pac-12) “will have been renegotiated or will be about to be renegotiated, and we will have another round of realignment either right before or (in 2030).
“CSU (is likely) still in MW, but it might be called PMC — the PacMtn Conference. CU will be in something that starts with the word ‘Big.’ I’m not sure what the number behind it is.”
In other words, buckle up. Because the key to a brighter, more secure football future in Boulder and Fort Collins is more about fixing the present than fixating on the past.
“The (Buffs) have more of a history (than CSU) and a tradition of doing it,” Huard said. “But now it’s been 30 years …
“If they were just 7-5, if they were just 8-4 — it’s not like they have to go 12-0 or 10-2. But one winning season in 13 years, that’s just hard. And in college football, where it’s about revenue and ratings, people aren’t watching your games when you’re at the bottom.
“And when you can’t even get to .500 more than once in the last 13 years? It’s an uphill climb. It’s a 14er, for sure.”