For long-time readers of this blog, you know how important that I consider TV rights to be in shaping the world of sports, both college and pro. It has driven conference realignment the past couple of years, convinced the reactionary leaders of college football to finally institute a playoff, turned the NFL into a financial juggernaut and exacerbated the differences in the fortunes of franchises in the NBA and Major League Baseball. From the first post that I had in writing about Big Ten expansion, I emphasized how important that the TV revenue from the conference’s deals with ABC/ESPN and the Big Ten Network would be in luring a football power when most fans only thought about geography and historical rivalries.
However, it feels as though the world has gone in the other direction where even hardcore football fans seem to believe that TV revenue is all that matters in conference realignment. That’s not quite correct, either, as I also tried to indicate in that original Big Ten Expansion post. Factors such as academics and cultural fit matter if a conference wants to be strong for the long-term as opposed to just the length of the current TV contract.
So, it was quite amazing to me to witness Andy Haggard, the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Florida State spew out inflammatory comments against the new ACC television deal with ESPN and suggest that the school should explore options with the Big 12. Never mind that Haggard was wrong about the details of that TV deal that he was complaining about, which was subsequently corrected by Florida State president Eric Barron and caused Haggard to somewhat backtrack from his initial comments. The damage is done – the Florida State blog and message board crowd, to the extent that they didn’t already believe that they weren’t getting screwed by the Tobacco Road crowd, are now wholeheartedly ready to sign over the deed to their athletic department to DeLoss Dodds.
Before I get into my opinion, I’ll give credit to The Dude from Eerinsider.com for writing about his belief that Florida State would be going to be Big 12 for several months. Frankly, I still don’t know how people from West Virginia could know more about the intentions of schools such as Texas, Florida State, Clemson and Louisville than those schools’ own respective insiders and beat reporters, but The Dude has certainly been unwavering in his beliefs and deserves some kudos for, at the very least, socializing the idea that Florida State going to the Big 12 is viable. I know that I and many others have been dismissive of that speculation, so I’ll need to eat some crow for that.
As for my opinion: if Florida State is seriously considering leaving the ACC for the Big 12, then that would be incredibly short-sighted. This is the ultimate “penny wise and pound foolish” move. Eight months ago, the world was discussing whether the Big 12 would even exist going forward. Texas or Oklahoma sneezing gives the entire Big 12 pneumonia and that’s something that’s never going to change. Regardless of how large and long the new Big 12 TV contract might be, the one thing that you know about the ACC is that its core of North Carolina, Duke and Virginia aren’t interested in going anywhere. Maybe the ACC can be weakened on the football front by defections by the likes of Florida State, but the league is going to live on. In contrast, the biggest flight risks in the Big 12 are the members of its core itself: Texas and Oklahoma. A blue blood athletic program like Kansas was talking to the Big East back in 2010 for fear of not having a place to land. As a result, any complaints from Tallahassee about the supposed power of Duke and UNC over the ACC ring hollow for anyone that can remember only eight months back to the primary example of what happens when a school truly runs a conference. The Big 12 is a power conference that has cheated death twice in two years.
This isn’t a criticism of Texas: the Longhorns have the most powerful college sports brand outside of Notre Dame, so they’re wisely leveraging the assets that they have. Any school would have taken ESPN’s offer for the Longhorn Network in a heartbeat. The skepticism comes in as to whether the “third tier” TV rights that are now the subject of so much consternation really have that much value for schools other than Texas. As Matt Sarzyniak noted, the definition of “third tier rights” is vastly different depending upon the conference. (Note that it is difficult to find accurate information about the value of third tier TV rights alone. Many third tier media rights calculations include radio rights, coaches’ shows and Internet streaming capabilities, which all of the major conferences, including the ACC, allow schools to keep for themselves.)
Is it reasonable to assume that Florida State would automatically garner $5 million extra or more per year from selling its third tier TV rights, or is that number going to be mixed in with radio rights that the Seminoles are already selling, so the additional dollars that would be garnered in theory by going to the Big 12 isn’t as much as it would seem? I don’t have an answer to that question, but it’s not nearly as simple as, “Texas is getting $15 million for its third tier rights, which means that Florida State has got to be able to make at least half of that amount.” The Longhorn Network is such an outlier for third tier TV rights that it can’t really be used for comparison purposes. In fact, the best comparison for Florida State would be what Texas A&M made off of its third tier rights in the Big 12 as school that is #2 in its home state with a large and loyal fan base. My understanding is that amount really wasn’t that much (which is partially why the Aggies had such an issue with the Longhorn Network in the first place). The third tier TV rights disparity ended up driving Texas A&M away from the Big 12 and now it’s being argued as a lure to draw Florida State in. (Note that the SEC still reserves third tier rights for individual schools in a similar fashion as the Big 12, so A&M might be seeing better revenue from those rights in its new home.) It’s fascinating to see that turn of events.
The bottom line: Florida State would be leaving the ACC for the Big 12 solely for money. That’s the entire argument. Now, that certainly can be a persuasive argument that will rule the day. However, in every other major conference move, there was something more than money at stake. Nebraska got a better academic home in the Big Ten, Colorado culturally fits better in the Pac-12, Texas A&M and Missouri received stability in the preeminent football conference in the SEC, and Pitt and Syracuse and West Virginia and TCU left even more unstable situations in the Big East for the ACC and Big 12, respectively. Even if you were to argue that money was the driving factor in all of those moves (and without a doubt, it mattered a ton), there were still other holistic arguments that could be made to respective universities that could convince the ivory tower types that there were positives beyond the value of the current TV contract. That simply isn’t the case when comparing the situations of the ACC and Big 12. Academically, the ACC is higher-rated than the Big 12 and is the only power conference besides the Big Ten with a research consortium*. Stability-wise, the ACC has stayed together since 1953 with only one defection (South Carolina
to the SEC became independent in 1971**) compared to the musical chairs in the Big 12 over the past two years. Geographically, Florida State goes from a contiguous coastal conference to one that starts looking like a big budget version of the Big East. Market-wise for recruiting and TV, Florida State would get access to Texas but lose all of the other fast-growing states in the ACC’s southeastern footprint. Culturally, for all of the talk about the ACC being a “basketball league” and the Big 12 being a “football league”, the ACC added Miami and Virginia Tech purely for football purposes (and drawing the ire of the supposedly almighty Duke and UNC) while pure football schools Nebraska and Texas A&M couldn’t leave the Big 12 fast enough.
(* EDIT 1: The SEC also has an academic consortium.)
(** EDIT 2: South Carolina joined the SEC in 1992.)
I know that plenty of fans will continue to believe that factors such as academics don’t matter and that it’s simply about the money. Heck, even Haggard himself believes that when he said, “No FSU graduate puts on his resume or interviews for a job saying they are in the same conference as Duke and Virginia. Conference affiliation really has no impact on academics.” That’s an understandable position and considering how much university presidents are searching for every penny these days, it’s not surprising. However, the people running universities day-to-day certainly don’t believe that, as Barron stated in a memo that the “faculty are adamantly opposed to joining a league that is academically weaker.” My much more connected SEC expansion counterpart, Mr. SEC, also says that academic prestige is a massive issue with actual decision-makers in conference realignment.
Look – I have no skin in this game. I’ve stated many times before that few things would make me happier than Duke being relegated to the Southern Conference. There is no personal affection for the ACC from my end at all. I’m just looking at this from an outsider’s point of view. If Florida State absolutely needs the short-term revenue boost from the Big 12 (and that could certainly be the case with the school’s athletic department deficit), then I understand the Seminoles jumping. I’m past the point of being shocked that a school would move for a few extra TV dollars. However, I would still be surprised if they defect on the basis that every single other factor for Florida State (academics, stability, geography, markets) points to staying in the ACC, which is unlike any of the other power conference moves over the past two years. Long-term, the TV money difference between the Big 12 and ACC on its face isn’t enough to discount all of those other factors.
The irony is that for all of the complaints that Florida State fans might have about the supposed basketball focus of Tobacco Road, if the Seminoles had performed half as well in football as they have had in basketball recently (four straight NCAA Tournament appearances, a Sweet Sixteen run and an ACC Tournament championship), no one would be talking about a “weak” ACC football league and ESPN probably would have thrown even more money toward the conference. Regardless, don’t just look at the TV money, as important as that might be. Nebraska would have gone to the Big Ten even if there wasn’t a clear increase in TV money. For that matter, West Virginia would have gone to the Big 12 regardless of the TV contract. However, the answer isn’t clear that Florida State would ever choose the Big 12 over the ACC if the TV money wasn’t a factor. There’s a difference between taking money for the short-term (and in college sports parlance, a 13-year TV contract can definitely still be “short-term”) and determining the best choice for the long-term.