This week the Virginia Pilot ran an article suggesting that Conference USA was destined to change as the landscape of college athletics changes. Diminishing TV revenues, expansive leagues, travel, have all contributed to the need for CUSA to either merge with the Sun Belt or restructure the article argues.
Conference USA members saw their television take decrease from just over a million dollars in 2015-16 to $200,000 in 2016-17. For those of you keeping score, TV revenue for SEC schools ranged from $41 million to $39 million. The Big 10 gave $32 million to its membership. The ACC's payout ranged from $27 million to $24 million while the PAC 12 and Big 12 handed out $25 to $20 million per institution.
From there the numbers fall of the table. The AAC for all its "Power 6" decals only garners about $3 million per school in TV revenue. The Mountain West pays out about $1.7 million and the MAC comes in at $800,000. The Sun Belt's TV deal pays out roughly $100,000 per member institution.
So in spite of expansion and rebranding, the Sun Belt and CUSA take home less than they took home two years ago and pay more for travel expenses. Travel eats at roughly 10% of most athletic budgets and that number continues to go up. Remember that for every football road game, non-revenue sports like soccer, volleyball, golf, baseball, and softball must load up two and three times as often and travel across the country for league games.
Without an increase in revenue, it's an unsustainable model and revenue hasn't exactly been flooding into from the networks. Chances are it won't. So what do you do if you're a G-5 program trying to compete in a world where you're essentially frozen out of the playoff and your "competitors" are banking $20 to $40 million more than you every year in rights deals alone? We have a few suggestions.
Create Your Own Party
The same skills that helped you survive junior high and high school will help you navigate these waters as well. In school if the cool kids didn't invite you to their party you had a choice, sit at home and wait for the phone to ring or create your own fun. That's why the band and drama kids at your high school had way more fun that you did, unless of course you were one of those kids in which case, you had way more fun that I did. Such must be the case with the G-5's. Get over the fact that the cool kids didn't invite you to their league and get on with your own good time. Create your own party. Invite your own friends.
That means letting go of the world that media markets and tiered rights holders have created. It also means getting over yourself. The economics dictate it. At this point the only difference between Conference USA and the Sun Belt is a title. The difference between CUSA and the AAC is less than you might think. They're all on the outside looking in. Whether you missed the train by a few minutes or an hour, it's left the station. You have to find another way to your destination. So learn to live in a new world, create your own party, but one that works economically.
That means a geographically and economically sustainable model that probably doesn't include traveling to Virginia, North Carolina and Florida regularly. It also would include pairing yourselves with some teams that aren't your first choice. There's no reason that the seven Texas G-5 teams couldn't get together with some combination of the Louisiana G-5's and Tulsa or Southern Miss to form a functional and fun league. We could call it the Cajun-Cowboy League. Just workshopping.
Those school all share geography, recruiting territory, and have natural or budding rivalries. TV sets didn't make Texas and OU an event, proximity and culture did. Good old fashioned hate did. That can't be manufactured from across the country.
Geographically based leagues also give your fan base the opportunity to see your product more easily. Flying into Boca Raton restricts access and opportunity. Plus all your non-revenue sports are now competing in what is essentially a bus league. Travel costs go down, opportunity goes up. That's the kind of party most ADs should be salivating for.
Market to Butts in Seats
For Conference USA, the AAC, and the Sun Belt they've chased the traditional modalities: market size, TV eyes, populous areas etc. They've worked under the illusion that a broadcast company is going to reimburse them for the reach of their media markets. That's gotten them to where they are now, millions of dollars behind the Power 5. The illusion is that Old Dominion brings ESPN or Fox the Norfolk area. It doesn't. The same way that SMU or North Texas or even TCU don't bring ESPN the Metroplex on a silver platter. TV execs know where the value is and what drives ratings and for eastern Virginia it's the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech or North Carolina. Texas, Texas A&M and OU bring eyes from the Metroplex. Florida and Florida deliver the greater Miami area if at all, not FAU or FIU.
The result of this misguided approach has been a conference alignment that is unwieldy and expansive, with few natural rivalries or connections. Adding Charlotte or Liberty don't help, at least not for the Texas schools. They just add another distant travel destination for volleyball or cross country. Media consultants will say that adding these key metro demographics help. But where has that gotten CUSA and Sun Belt members? An extra $200,000 grand. Not enough.
That's why the focus of the G-5's should be making gameday, on campus, the most important marketing event of the calendar. Incentivize Saturdays. Make them a celebration. Make them sacred. Note we said Saturdays. Weekday games are great to fill television schedules but bad for just about everything else. For all the #MACtion Action, coaches and alumni hate the midweek schedule. The TV revenue doesn't justify it.
Make Saturdays sacred and don't water down your most valuable resource - the gameday experience - by scheduling on days when your alumni base can't make the trip. Invest in ticketing and marketing practices that encourage student attendance. Creating those shared experiences, and having a winner, gives you a better shot at those students forming a lifelong connection with their alma mater. And don't stick your students in the end zones or non-premium seats. They are the atmosphere your atmosphere, put them front and center.
Do you like the Grove at Ole Miss? Replicate it. Plant some trees, roll out some grass, put in some electrical outlets and create a dedicated tailgating area. Serve booze and barbecue. Look around and find the best practices of other gameday experiences and emulate, borrow, and steal. If college football is the front porch of the university, change the light bulbs, add a swing and make it more inviting. Make Saturday an event and by all means market and cater to your customers.
Can't Miss Hires
This may be the most important component, no one wants to shell out money to watch a loser, especially your fringe fan base. The margin for error is slim, that can't be emphasized enough. Hiring the wrong person is death. It sets your program back on the field and worse off it. Winning football programs raise money, bring in applications, and give off one of the most effective first impressions for your institution.
Making smart hires, repeatedly, is essential to maintain the trajectory of your program. Arkansas State is the example of this theory on steroids. From 2011 to 2013, the Red Wolves hired three coaches and saw all three leave for better gigs after one season. Hugh Freeze led the Red Wolves to ten wins in 2012 and parlayed that success into the Ole Miss job. Arkansas State then turned to another offensive innovator, Gus Malzahn. He won nine in his one season in charge and left for Auburn. Then Arkansas State turned to Texas assistant Brian Harsin who went one and done to Boise. The Red Wolves, in spite of staff turnover for three consecutive seasons, won 72% of their games and three Sun Belt titles.
After the one and dones, Arkansas State hired Blake Anderson who has won 61% of his games and two more Sun Belt crowns. Arkansas State hasn't missed. They've averaged over 26,000 per home date in that time, or 84% of capacity.
The grim reality is this, if you make the right hire, someone is going to come in a poach him. SEC or Big 12 money is too good to pass up. So for the Group of five, longevity isn't a reasonable expectation. G-5s will need to make the right hire repeatedly which means their culture and identity will be dictated in much larger portion by the athletic director and administration.
Arkansas State has consistently hired young, offensive minded, Power 5 assistants to guide their program. From a practical standpoint that means they haven't forced a major change in overall philosophy. The Red Wolves haven't tried reinvent the wheel, they've found an archetype that works and have hired to that type. The program has an identity that spans across the individual hires. As a result the Red Wolves haven't missed on coach and have maintained a consistent level of success.
Master Emerging Technology
If the Power 5's have beaten you to the punch on exposure from TV deals, then beat them to the punch in the digital realm. It's the one area where the landscape is somewhat level. G-5 schools can have just as large a social media presence as anyone. In this day and age you have to, that's where your recruits are and where your alumni base is going. To not utilize the available formats and those that are emerging is a critical mistake.
UTSA had a very limited social media presence under Larry Coker, Frank Wilson has redoubled those efforts. Seth Littrell has executed a similar social media revolution at North Texas. SMU has a dedicated video department for their football program. Tom Herman completely overhauled Houston's social media and content efforts making #HTownTakeOver a household phrase for college football fans. A coach that doesn't have a grasp on or vision for a social media strategy is bear hunting with a stick.
So too are G-5 Leagues that aren't willing to use alternate or nontraditional media as a tool for exposure. The NFL licensed Thursday night games to twitter, the English Premier League revolutionized league wide content and now google, Youtube and a number of web based content providers down the pyramid are looking for original and live programming. It's a wave that smaller leagues and individual schools can get in front of and help revolutionize the way cord cutter consume live sporting events.
Just today the American Sports Network announced a merger with Sinclair Broadcast Group along with Silver Chalice and 120 Sports to produce a new multi-platform network. It's an opportunity to place CUSA, the Sun Belt and other Mid-Major leagues on the cutting edge of digital content and consumption. It's not going to bridge the dollar gap between the Power-5's and the disappearing middle class of college football, but it is essential to the growth and development of G-5 brands.
The college football universe has long favored the established blue bloods and it always will. The only way for newcomers and lesser knowns to compete is to think creatively and be proactive in growing their programs. It may the only way they can survive.