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Super Conferences, Mizzou, and You: A Primer

The best way to get to where you want to go is to figure out where you currently are

Arkansas v Missouri Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Hello. It’s me, the most hated man in the Missouri sphere after I tweeted this last week:

I’ll admit that was a little more absolute than I was intending but, then again, I didn’t expect anything to come of it as it was mostly venting in public. Was it wrong? Maybe! The entire conference realignment beast is constantly morphing and it’s silly to say anything with certainty. But if you listen to what others are saying then you’ll know where your favorite school stands.

Listen to Dennis Dodd. And Nicole Auerbach. And Steven Godfrey. And Richard Johnson. All of these folks are well connected with athletic departments, staffers, school presidents, and all sorts of drones in the realignment machine and their reporting, as of right now, their articles, tweets, and podcasts are saying the same thing about what the powers-that-be want and how they’re trying to get there.

So I thought this was a good opportunity to dive a little deeper into this reported information and my thoughts and explain how I ended up at that conclusion.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 15 Georgia National Championship Celebration

What is a super conference?

For college football purposes, a super conference is a conference of 20+ teams.

2021 Cure Bowl - Northern Illinois v Coastal Carolina Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

What is the main motivation?

Realignment never follows the same rules twice and, unlike previous realignment sagas that were driven by teams or conferences, the current driver for these moves is ESPN and Fox. It’s worth noting that ESPN owns 100% of the SEC Network and the ACC Network. Fox splits the media rights to the Pac 12 with ESPN (but owns the majority) while also owning 61% of the Big Ten Network.

Utah v USC Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

Why the heck are media companies pushing for realignment/super conferences?

It’s kind of like a television Cold War: these two media superpowers are trying to ally themselves with as many key properties as possible to siphon off inventory from their competitors and drive viewership to their streaming services. And this brings me to my first big point that I want everyone to understand:

MEDIA MARKETS NO LONGER MATTER.

Read it again. And again. Put it on a shirt or stitch it on a pillow because it’s important you realize this aspect of the college football world before we go any further.

ESPN’s “College GameDay” Films At Boston College Photo by Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

So...why don’t traditional media markets matter anymore?

Simply put, it’s not how we consume media anymore. When NCAA v. Board of Regents established that the NCAA’s television plan violated the Sherman and Clayton Antitrust laws, independent schools and smaller conferences joined the closest regional conferences to pitch their rights to regional broadcasters who would put them on TV and give them advertising revenue. The realignment saga of the 2010s was those new, bigger conferences trying to spread their media footprint outside of the regional footprint and into markets that they didn’t traditionally exist in, which is why moribund Rutgers was added to the B1G (and Missouri - with a bonus of two elite teams in the recent past - was added to the SEC because it had St. Louis and Kansas City). Conferences (and their affiliated networks) needed those markets because they would then negotiate with cable providers to add their network onto the provider’s package, forcing all cable subscribers to pay $3-4 (at the time) to have ESPN/conference network x in the cable bundle whether they watched it or not. Whether it was your Uncle Tony who consumed all sports or your grandma who had cable purely for HGTV, it was all rolled into the cable bill and the sports networks got that money regardless of if an individual watched the channel or not.

But that’s not how tv works any longer! Yes, there are still cable providers and people who use their services, but the vast majority of media consumption is on-demand, and the live sports version of that is streaming. Streaming is light years better than cable packages. Each company has all the information they could possibly want from you, they control all their inventory on their terms, get 100% accurate viewership numbers, and, best of all, get $6.99 per person instead of $4 for being part of a cable package.

The downside, however, is that people need to choose to sign up. And that’s where the super conference comes in, which leads me to the second-most important point:

SUPER CONFERENCE ADDITIONS ARE ABOUT BRAND, NOT ABOUT SCHOOL OR TEAM

This one isn’t a huge stretch - hell, everyone talks about their own “personal brand” anyway - but it is worth explaining.

There are media members - many of whom I respect - that still point to win/loss records or program history as a valid reason for Team X to be added to/kept in Conference Y. Folks, that just doesn’t matter. It didn’t matter when Rutgers became a member of the B1G, and it certainly doesn’t matter now. Much like bowl reps choosing teams for their game, what matters is the value of a team’s brand (the elusive “helmet game” where people will tune in because they recognize the team and watch out of curiosity). If you want to grow your subscription base you need to incentivize as many as people as possible to get them to sign up, and popular/recognizable brands are the easiest way to do it. How many bandwagon fans do you have? How much value do your colors and helmet design generate in people and what does that make them do? A rabidly loyal fanbase of x isn’t as valuable as a hot-and-cold fanbase of 100x when what you’re ultimately looking for is an individual paying to watch something. And, thanks to the fact that you can buy a streaming service no matter where you live, a subscription in Casper, WY is just as valuable to ESPN or Fox as a subscription in New York City. Simply put: if a brand/team can incentivize many people to spend money to consume it, then that brand is a worthy property to add.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 04 Big Ten Championship Game - Michigan v Iowa Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

How do you figure out the value of a team’s brand?

Good question! One that I can’t answer and I’m not sure would be answered the same if you polled 500 different people working in Bristol or Indianapolis or Birmingham. But there are a few metrics you can observe to start to get a good idea of brand value.

First: Number of alumni. A bit of a nebulous measure, sure, since not all alumni feel compelled to support their college, but just to set the benchmark Missouri claims to have 300,000 living alumni, of which 34,000 are part of various alumni networks. As a comparison, Alabama claims to have 200,000 living alumni with 36,500 part of alumni networks. Indiana (725,000), Michigan (547,000), Florida (450,000), Colorado (450,000), Florida State (360,000), and Georgia (340,000) - to pick a few - all have a larger alumni base than Missouri does.

Second: Athletic budgets. Again, a bit of a nebulous measurement but it gives you an idea of how much a program can invest in anything athletics-related and shows how much gold their fundraising efforts got into the war chest. In 2020-2021, Missouri spent $113,915,145 on athletics and $31,103,932 on football. Here’s a list of athletic programs that spent more in that same timeframe: Oregon, Illinois, Arkansas, Minnesota, Washington, Clemson, South Carolina, Louisville, Kentucky, Michigan State, Iowa, Virginia, Wisconsin, Florida State, and, of course, all the bluebloods you can think of. I understand Missouri not having as much money to spend as a Michigan or Ohio State or Alabama. But Iowa? Louisville? Virginia? In addition, the Wall Street Journal ranks Missouri as the 56th-most valuable program in the country, behind the likes of Oregon State, Utah State, Iowa State, kansas, Mississippi State, Texas Tech, and...well, 55 other programs. According to the WSJ, Missouri is the 12th-most valuable college football program in the SEC.

Third: Attendance. ESPN and Fox would prefer you stay home and watch the game but attendance is one way of ranking fan interest and commitment to spending money on the team. Pre-pandemic, Missouri’s five-year average of 57,211 (reported attendance, not actual) ranked 28th in the country and 12th in the SEC. Virginia Tech, UCLA, Iowa, Michigan State, Clemson, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Nebraska, and Tennessee all had better (reported) attendance numbers during that same time frame.

Again: I have no idea if any of this data would be used in valuing a team’s brand and worth in joining a super conference but it’s certainly worth looking into. And considering there are teams outside of the B1G/SEC with higher rankings than Missouri: Clemson, Florida State, Virginia, Miami, Virginia Tech, Louisville, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech...you wonder what sort of moves could be made to secure whatever is valued the most and which of those programs are highest on the target list.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 22 Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl - Missouri v Army Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

So...what does this all mean?

This just brings us back to my conclusion: There are plenty of college football programs out there that can bring more value to a conference than Missouri can. Yes, the Tigers were hitting their peak under Pinkel during the last go-around but their real value was something that doesn’t matter anymore: TV markets. On the whole, Missouri is a middle-of-the-pack football team: 66th in all-time wins, squarely in the middle of national rankings in alumni base and athletic spending, in the Top 30 of attendance before COVID hit, and a fan base with a reputation - fair or not - of mostly not caring whether the team does well. If the SEC wants to bring in more valuable programs they have the leverage and ability to do so; if they need to cut the dead weight programs - which absolutely has been discussed and relayed by various outlets (citing Vanderbilt, Missouri, South Carolina, Rutgers, Purdue, and others) - they will.

The biggest lie college football tells us is that Alabama, Missouri, and New Mexico State are all playing the same sport and have the same chance at winning it all, and that’s just not the case. Coaches and players are part of that but also funding, marketability, internal support, and that bachelor’s degree. And there is a portion of every fan base that need to be told that their program is perfect and special and that there’s nothing wrong with it other than the coaches and that they’ll win a championship eventually. That’s fine if you believe it, but I strongly believe that getting an accurate read of where your program resides vis-a-vis national rankings helps you reach the goal faster since you know what needs to change in order to be valuable to future realignment negotiations and, hopefully, the chance to hoist some hardware.

College sports are unique in that the average fan has a larger impact on their favorite program as opposed to the pros. To stay relevant in a super conference conversation - whether that be maintaining SEC membership or being plucked from the SEC for some as-yet-unnamed-B1G-SEC-merger conference, the team needs to win more. They need to spend more. They need more funding for the Tiger Scholarship Fund and the NIL collectives. They need higher attendance numbers. They need to incentivize people to fill the stadium. The average fan can’t fix all of that but we can help contribute. And I, for one, am excited to take part in pushing Missouri to the level of greatness we all believe it can achieve.