Boy, everybody hates TV

The Pac-12 is mad. MAC fans are mad. BYU fans are mad. And there's little relief in sight

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November 20th 2019

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I’ve got a bunch of little stories I’d love to talk about today. Let’s get into it.

#MACTION brings up the question…just who is college football for?

If you’re a college football fan who didn’t go to a MAC school, you probably love #MACTION, especially weekday night #MACTION. The conference decided to put more and more conference games on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights during the back half of the season, allowing the league to get prime national television real estate they’d never otherwise have. And then a nation of casual fans could watch Central Michigan play Toledo when we should be doing homework or chores. It’s pretty great.

Unless, of course, you actually went to Toledo or Central Michigan, or at least consider one of them your primary rooting interest. It’s fun to watch some random midwestern colleges duke it out on TV from our warm, comfortable couches. But it’s a huge pain in the butt to actually travel to the stadium on a weekend to watch the game. Especially because the weather….well…I say this with love, as a native Ohioan and proud Midwesterner. In November, that weather is pure, unadulterated ass.

Rodger Sherman at The Ringer wrote an interesting and fair profile on what those weekday MAC games mean for everybody. This passage in particular really stood out to me.

Teddy Piepkow felt a twinge of sadness when watching a midweek Bowling Green game against Toledo, a matchup between two schools located 20 minutes from each other that should have featured a stadium packed with fans of both teams. “Lots of people would come out and attend a game on a Saturday, close to a sellout crowd. And then you play the game on a random Wednesday on a 40-degree night and there’s nobody there, and it takes away from the experience for the fans and players.”

I think it’s hard to argue against that. Anybody with a TV can tell that these stadiums are almost completely empty for Tuesday and Wednesday night games. That sucks for the schools, who are trying to build atmosphere and community. It sucks for the students and local fans. And perhaps most of all, it sucks for the players. Nobody wants their Senior Night game at an FBS university to be in front of a worse crowd than their Senior Night in high school. It isn’t a stretch to say that happens for some players.

It’s easy to understand the intellectual argument for why the schools subject themselves, and their fans, to this schedule. ESPN is willing it pay them a lot of money to play on Tuesdays, and their games just aren’t very commercially valuable on Saturdays. They need the money, so they do what TV tells them. And hey, most MAC schools aren’t exactly swimming in cash, so maybe it’s a little easier for a fan to draw a straight line between that ESPN deal and something they actually can witness or care about.

But this dynamic, which isn’t unique to the MAC, cuts to a pretty core question, to me. Who, exactly, is college football really supposed to be for? If the core constituent here is the broadest possible definition of fan, then Tuesday night #MACTION seems pretty logical. This is the most efficient way to generate scale of audience, and now, folks in Arizona and Arkansas and New Jersey and Oregon all see commercials for Ball State. They are aware of Ball State.

But if you think the most important constituents are the students, or the players, or people directly tied to the university, or perhaps the local community…then this just isn’t a fair move. The folks who would be inclined to care the most about MAC schools, your future boosters, the folks who might be most inclined to send their children there, or donate to the school…they’re the ones who are pushed out of this experience. It’s hard to go to Athens, Ohio, or Mt.Pleasant, Michigan, on a Wednesday night if you don’t live right next to campus. It’s cold. It sucks.

I realize this is easy for me to say from my couch, a guy that doesn’t have an athletic department budget to balance. But I really think, big picture here, college football should belong more to those closest to that school, that community, that region, and schools should make decisions that benefit them first. And if that means Kent State or Ball State or Akron need to drop a level, or make other sacrifices, in order to play games where people can sit in the stands together, shuffle through the ol’ quad, and be connected…then I really think that’s a change worth having. It’s worth trading Ball State Awareness in Arizona or whatever.

The MAC’s TV deal is booked for the next decade. I wouldn’t expect any earth shattering changes in the near future. Love it or hate it, Miami of Ohio is probably going to be on your TV on some random November weekday for the foreseeable future.

Want to watch BYU play UMass? Lol better pay up!

If you don’t want to deal with ESPN or Fox’s demands, you could always decide to play your games on a different channel or platform. UMass, for example, has their home inventory on FloSports, a streaming platform (as well as NESN, locally). The rights fees aren’t nearly what they’d be on a linear cable network, but hey, you get a lot more control that way.

The disadvantage, of course, is that FloSports isn’t on your regular cable package, or Youtube TV, or Playstation Vue (RIP, gone too soon), or any other bundle. It’s another streaming service in a world that’s increasingly crowded with them. So if you want to watch UMass, or CAA football, or anything else they control, you gotta pay up.

BYU fans are learning that the hard way. From KSL.com:

FloFootball is a subscription-based service so you have two choices. One, sign up for an annual subscription to FloFootball at a $150 price tag. Or you can sign up for the monthly option at $19.99 per month.

Back in August, UMass announced a two-year contract with FloFootball.com to carry their home football games. Home teams always control the broadcasting rights, so once the Minutemen signed their new deal with FloFootball, that was final. Nothing else BYU can do in this matter.

Nobody else really complained about this, because the Minutemen's other home games this season included UConn, Liberty, Southern Illinois, Coastal Carolina and Akron. No disrespect to the fanbases, but they aren’t very large. BYU is a rare example of a non-regional opponent of some weight making the trip to UMass. Depending on how you feel about Mississippi State, you might argue this is the most prestigious non-regional opponent to play a road game there.

Way back when Extra Points started, I wrote about the CAA’s deal with FloSports, and thought the whole operation had some potential. But since then, D.C United ended their deal years early, in large part because the product simply wasn’t good enough. And fans of CAA schools have complained about the technical quality of the broadcast, which, by the way, is more expensive than ESPN+.

Which begs the question…why the hell is BYU doing this? Sure, scheduling in November is difficult for independents, but it isn’t so hard that BYU HAD to play multiple games, on the road, against one of the worst teams in college football. The school has the money and leverage to insist on at least a two for one schedule arrangement, rather than the two for two agreement.

Remember, part of the entire point of BYU going independent at all is for exposure. We can debate the value of “nationwide exposure” for those MAC programs, but for BYU, a school that views their athletic department as marketing and missionary vehicle for the school and faith…it’s a different ballgame. You want to be in front of as many eyeballs as possible.

Now, the team will play in front of a tiny audience in person, and a tiny audience online, thanks to an expensive price point and questionable service (and not to mention, probably a terrible game). Not a great combination.

Oh yeah, the Pac-12 is mad about TV too

That fans of a mid-major league or wayward independent might have frustrations with cable networks is not super surprising. But they’re not the only ones upset about making sacrifices in the name of higher rights fees. Pac-12 fans are also upset. And their athletic directors know it.

Here’s Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens, speaking to Register-Guard:

The Ducks will host the Wildcats for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff on ESPN, marking the third time in six home games this season that Oregon will play at 7:30 or later. The Ducks have not had a home game start before 4:30 p.m.

“Obviously, we are disappointed,” Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens said Monday morning in an interview…“We have a very passionate fan base that has been supportive of our team this year and we’d love to have an afternoon game. We are six games in and they are all at 4 o’clock or later with five of them at night.”

“We are in the middle of a contract and there are some benefits to that contract, but one of the unfortunate, unintended consequences was late TV windows,” Mullens said. “We have all taken note of what the experience has been like and how hard it is on our fans. ... Our TV partners have invested significant resources in the Pac-12 and added exposure in other ways. It is all a balance, but it is unfortunate when you get a string like we did at Oregon this year.”

Late games are particularly challenging for Oregon, since a ton of Duck fans live near Portland, and drive in for games (Eugene isn’t that big). Plus, the weather can also be a challenge late at night. Nobody likes always being at night.

They aren’t the only upset fanbase. Here’s Utah AD Mark Harlan, speaking to The Oregonian.

There is no question that it has caused a lot of damage. We have to follow this contract, and it’s tough. (7:50 mark of the interview)

This is all the same principle, just expanded for higher profile programs. The Pac-12 signs a TV deal intended to maximize revenue (which it did!), and now they’re forced to have institutions play at TV times that hurt their attendance and ability to cultivate hardcore local fans. For the Pac-12, perpetual late kickoff times may hurt the league’s standing in national awards, or maybe even the Playoff, since some of their best teams are regularly playing when the nation’s media corps are in bed. I don’t mind telling you guys, I watch a lot more college football than your average beat writer, and I’m not staying up until 1 AM to watch Cal unless my boss makes me.

The only solution I can see is a league being willing to really sacrifice revenue, or at least, TV revenue, and there’s not really an incentive to do that. Fans want you to, sure, but an AD will enjoy better job security (or prospects) from being tied to fat TV revenue and fat spending projects, not balanced budgets and full stadiums. And given the financial pressure a few Pac-12 institutions are under, like Oregon State and Washington State, I’m not sure the collective would vote to leave any money on the table, at least in the short term.

In the long run? It’s a risky strategy. But the only ones sticking around long enough to really suffer the consequences might be the fans.

In the meantime? Best to stock up on hand warmers or Monster energy drinks.

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