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Last week, Action Network's Brett McMurphy sent every subreddit and c0llege football message board aflame with this report:
The wording in this tweet feels...oddly specific, and the fact that Schill, Mullens and Warren weren't involved made me wonder exactly how serious this sort of conversation was. After all, conferences often use consulting firms and third parties to run interference during coaching searches and realignment. Oregon megabooster Phil Knight has also reportedly been making inquiries about the Ducks' potential future, so it seemed reasonable to wonder if he might be involved in this sort of conversation.
I made a few phone calls since McMurphy's tweet, and I can confirm his report was accurate. The meeting, according to multiple industry sources, was between attorneys representing Oregon, attorneys representing the Big Ten, and a consulting company. No Phil Knight, no Nike, no boosters. I'm told that the bulk of that particular conversation concerned Oregon's potential value and fit with Big Ten broadcast arrangements.
That this meeting would exist is not unusual. USC and UCLA had similar conversations with the Big Ten before everything became official, and while the conversations look different at the mid and low D-I level, the type of things discussed in these meetings is pretty similar.
I've chatted with multiple college sports industry professionals with direct knowledge of how recent conference realignment moves have taken place, to better understand exactly what gets discussed in these pre-decision meetings, who participates in them, and why.
Before anybody joins leagues, both sides have to answer a lot of questions
I've heard this described a few different ways...as a 'packet', a 'deck', 'pitch', or just a series of long meetings. But multiple industry professionals have told me that when schools interested in potential conference affiliation changes typically share significant amounts of information up front, data that often has nothing to do with broadcast media rights.
Some of these major questions include:
The common trope for reporters is to look up a school's ranking in US News and World Report, compare that to the other rankings in a conference, and decide if a school is "good" enough. While the US News ranking is often one of the data points used, it isn't the only one, or even necessarily the most important. Schools are also often asked about research or institutional classification, funding sources, endowment, academic freedom, and other factors.
Rather than automatically trying to affiliate themselves with the most selective institutions they can, university presidents are often looking for like-minded institutions in realignment. How much this matters varies on the conference, but I have been consistently told that it does matter. Remember...schools often sell athletic conference membership as proof of their 'peer' relationship with certain other schools.
Recruiting...and not just for athletes
Schools are regularly asked to share data on where they typically recruit for students, and where their alumni typically live. While gaining access to athlete recruiting territory is important, conferences, especially at the mid-major level, also seek to gain access to new student markets.
As an example, multiple people familiar with the process told me that one of the reasons the Missouri Valley Conference ultimately extended an invitation to UIC was not just because of how the program looked athletically. The school's location was also a major asset. Chicago is a critically important student recruitment market for many MVC schools, and leadership felt that adding a Chicago-based institution would make it easy for schools to line up development and alumni engagement opportunities.
Big Ten officials have also regularly pointed the large swaths of Big Ten graduates who live in the DMV and NYC areas as a factor in their recruitment of Maryland and Rutgers.
All kinds of budget information
This isn't just a matter of a school printing off their FRS report and handing it to a conference commissioner. Schools need to be prepared to share highly detailed athletic department budget information. How many scholarships are they offering in each sport, and how many of those are charged at an in-state tuition rate? What are their support staffing levels? How do they project those might change over a few years? Where, very specifically, will a school need to spend in order to line up with their new conference peers?
Sometimes, school decide to answer all of these questions and produce documents in-house. But at the low and mid-major level, working with third party consulting groups is pretty common. A school might work with one of these groups to produce this information before they need to hit the realignment market, or even to discreetly make overtures for them, just like they might for an executive or coaching search. Examples include firms like Collegiate Sports Associates, Collegiate Consulting, or the PICTOR Group.
These same conversations happen at the P5 level too. But they become much more complicated thanks to one other huge issue...media rights
At the FCS and I-AAA level, expansion's impact on media rights agreements usually isn't a major factor, because those contracts simply aren't worth that much to begin with. The Big Sky is unlikely to pick one school over another because they might deliver, like, $10,000 more in ESPN+ money. Other considerations are more important.
But at the P5 level, and especially for the Big Ten, it's a very significant factor. Big Ten sources have told me that it honestly isn't the only factor (which is part of the reason the Big Ten, as of right this very second, has 16 teams and not 20), but it is a major factor. And any time you deal with a merger or acquisition that touches a billion dollar contract, a LOT of lawyers are going to be involved.
Because of that, I'm told that at the highest P5 levels, single consultancy firms usually aren't used. A school or conference may instead decide to use multiple firms, either outfits that specialize in specific components (media rights valuations, travel, scheduling, etc), or by using massive consultancies that work on high level projects across many industries, like a Deloitte, PWC or Ernst & Young.
So, in 2022, what sorts of questions get asked to determine how expansion would impact a P5 level media rights contract?
Every single industry source or academic expert I've ever talked to about this has told me that media rights valuation is much more complicated than just looking at pure market size and recent ratings history.
The biggest question, I'm told, is actually who is doing the buying? There is no currency exchange, where one redeems television viewership for dollars at some previously agreed upon rate. How much a "viewer" is worth doesn't just depend on whom the viewer is (more on that in a sec), but also who is trying to buy the broadcast rights and why.
For example, let's say you're the Pac-12, and you're going to market right now. FOX, CBS and NBC, all companies that might have been interested in your rights, just made a major financial commitment to the Big Ten, and (likely) have less money, interest and capacity to throw at your inventory. But with the MWC already off the board, you're also the last source of affordable inventory in the 4th (10:00 PM ET) broadcast window. A company that missed out on the Big Ten deal (like an ESPN) may be highly motivated to buy your rights.
A company like Apple or Amazon, or perhaps a broadcast company that hasn't been in the college sports game in a minute (like, just spitballing here, Discovery), knows they may need to overpay to get back into the marketplace. Could they be more motivated to spend relative to what ESPN would? Could anybody else to drive up the price?
Beyond that, industry sources told me that a college program's base market size and recent rating performance would also be considered, of course. But the raw home market size has become an increasingly less relevant metric, and that broadcasters really want engaged audiences, not just large markets.
As an example...Stanford and Cal both sit in the San Francisco TV Market, which is the 6th largest in the US. But multiple sources familiar with the Big Ten's thinking have told me that Stanford and Cal are not considered as attractive of expansion candidates as Oregon or Washington, schools that sit in much smaller markets.
Trying to nail down how large the 'audience" a school can bring is tricky. Broadcasters must consider the fact that not all markets are equally invested in television generally, and college athletics, specifically...so a smaller market that really love TV or really really loves football could be more attractive than a larger one. Broadcasters also try to learn about who each school's fans are, as demographic information can make a fanbase more or less attractive to potential ad buyers.
An example of this, I'm told, is the NHL. One expert told me that because the NHL's audience over indexes with wealthy fans, their inventory is more valuable to some advertising partners than broadcasts with slightly larger audiences.
A TL;DR here? While there have been good faith efforts on the internet to try and cobble together valuation projections based on existing viewership data, back-of-napkin audience size estimations and others, the industry folks I've talked to said that the figures floating around the blogosphere don't completely line up with what they've shared with clients.
Okay blah blah blah so is Oregon joining the Big Ten or what???
I don't know the exact answer to that question right now. I can make an educated guess, but I don't know.
Based on the conversations I've had, I would not say that Oregon to the Big Ten is a done deal by any means...but the fact that these conversations have happened in person is notable.
Do schools ever "talk" with other conferences, and then ultimately not join those leageues? Sure. Texas-Arlington gave a presentation to join the MVC, but ultimately ended up in the WAC. Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee were at one point "likely" to end up in the MAC....but ultimately didn't. Air Force and Colorado State considered the AAC...and the ultimately decided to remain in the MWC. The conversations that ultimately do not lead to conference membership changes don't always become public, but they do occasionally happen.
Getting accurate information about this process, while it's actually happening, is a major challenge. All parties involved generally prefer these conversations to remain private as long as possible, and when somebody does talk, they typically either don't have all the information, or are trying to advance a particular agenda. I wrote about this earlier in the summer...everybody ought to think critically about each rumor or report that trickles out.
I would not be surprised if other meetings similar to the one Oregon had become public at some point over the next several months. It might mean a realignment move is imminent. It might not.
Lord knows though, everybody involved has an awful lot to talk about.
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