Episode 2: Cord Cuts Continue and Boston Bowls

FINALLY something happens in the world of Boston sports

A few quick housekeeping notes:

  • Thanks for all the support so far. This newsletter has been open for a little more than a day and we’re already well over 100 subscribers. I reached out to lucky #100 for his prize Monday night, and I’ll probably do some more as we hit other milestones.

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  • The URL for this newsletter is now mattbrown.substack.com, NOT mattbrowncfb. MattbrownCFB is Twitter username for the Matt Brown at the Athletic. Until we can finally battle for the rights to use the name in The Octagon, I will switch to mattbrown to prevent additional confusion. Other than a few links in that first post for a few days, this shouldn’t impact y’all too much.

Okay! Lets get to some stories today.

Cord Cutting Continues…Crazier?

In my opinion, the single most important sports business-y type story that impacts college football over the next few years is what happens with TV.

The overwhelmingly most important influence in the governance of the sport, from scheduling to conference realignment to kickoff times to budgets, has been TV. The financial explosion over the last few years that has allowed schools to give grown men named Dabo or Jimbo tens of millions of dollars, or half a million to a strength coach, or palatial locker room facilities that need remodeling every decade…that’s all from TV. Not ticket sales. Not state support. Not alumni donations. TV.

But that game is changing. Perhaps quicker than we thought.

That folks are cutting the cable isn’t a surprise. Hell, I do it every year myself as soon as the NCAA Tournament is over, and I’d probably cut it entirely if I didn’t seem some obscure sports channels for work. But Greenfield’s data shows that trend is accelerating, at least for the start of 2019.

Companies like ESPN were able to hand out fat TV rights deals not just because those rights are valuable (and they are, nothing gets ratings like live sports), but because the networks were making money hand over fist, thanks to all those cable bundles that had to pay to include ESPN, even if the viewer didn’t care about sports and didn’t want it, almost like a de facto tax. But now folks who only want say, HGTV and a few TV shows can cut ESPN and the rest of their cable packages out.

That isn’t to say that ESPN or Fox is broke (they’re not), or that they won’t interested or able to pay hefty fees for live sports (they probably will). But many college administrators are probably hoping the rights market becomes more competitive by the mid 2020s, and Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 rights go up to market again. Hypothetically, if Facebook, Google, Apple, Netflix, etc joined the fray, prices could go ever higher, and the gravy train will continue.

Right now, they haven’t. There have been a few small efforts, like Youtube streaming 13 MLB games this year, and some small-scale Facebook broadcasts, but nothing huge.

The value of the two most recent college athletics rights deals has been mixed. The new AAC deal represents a very healthy increase for member schools (from around $2 million to around $7), but it locks up rights for a long time AND puts quite a bit behind the ESPN+ paywall, sacrificing exposure. The new Big 12 digital media deal also puts some content behind a paywall, and the price for the Big 12 title game was substantially below what the league was hoping for.

Will the market mature in time for some huge paydays soon? I’m skeptical, but a lot can change before say, 2023. But if you’re depending on another huge check from ESPN in a few years to keep everything going in your athletic department, you might want some of those cords to stay uncut for just a few more years.

Oh hey, we’re going to have a bowl game at Fenway Park

America clamored for yet more bowl games, and behold, the Gods listened. We’re getting a bowl game in Boston for 2020. Via Stadium, which broke the news on Tuesday:

Boston’s Fenway Park will host a new bowl game starting in 2020 featuring football teams from the Atlantic Coast and American Athletic conferences, sources told Stadium.

Fenway Park will join Los Angeles and Myrtle Beach as sites for new bowl games in 2020, which marks the start of the NCAA’s new bowl cycle.

Oh yeah, I totally forgot about the LA and Myrtle Beach bowls. Anyway, a few quick thoughts on this:

The immediate reaction on Twitter dot com was “lol who wants to go to Boston in December this is dumb.” I don’t think that’s an unreasonable take, and I’ve been told that one of the reasons a bowl game in Chicago at Wrigley Field didn’t happen, even though it seemed very close last season, was that leaders from Big Ten schools didn’t want to deal with an end of season game in Chicago (Big Ten officials and the Cubs wanted the game). I live here. I get it. All I want to do in late December is hibernate in my basement and look up real estate in Texas.

But we have bowl games in Detroit and Boise and New York already. It snows sometimes in El Paso, Nashville, and Annapolis. A football game in the 30s and 40s still counts, and a game played in that climate isn’t necessarily doomed to fail.

It’s probably true that attendance will be modest, but I think that has more to do with the fact that this bowl game is probably going to feature a 6-6 Pitt team against 7-5 SMU, rather than the location. Most bowl games struggle with attendance…their commercial value is as TV properties. A game that doesn’t matter between two teams that aren’t very good isn’t going to be a hot ticket in Boston, Miami, Qatar, The Moon, etc.

I will say this, as a son of the Midwest. There is something spiritually appealing about dragging a warm weather team up to the snow to face the hardened warriors of the Big Ten, since just about every bowl game is played outside of the Big Ten’s footprint. Watching Wisconsin kick the tar out of a disinterested Miami team in New York is pretty fun, if you happen to be a biased midwesterner. And I am. Regional pride is like, three quarters of the entire point of college football.

I’m not sure we’ll get that matchup here in the Boston Bowl (Bean Bowl? Chowder Bowl? Fenway Bowl? Horrific Sports Talk Radio Bowl? Idk). It’s cool to see a P5 vs G5 bowl matchup, but the underdog dynamic loses some luster if the southern team is the G5 squad. Temple waxing a meh NC State team? Maybe kinda interesting. Pitt playing East Carolina? Less interesting. Perpetual Boston College/Temple matchups? BOR-ING.

Even if this particular bowl game is boring, don’t complain that we have too many bowls. People have been doing that since bowl games existed, essentially. Lets close with the sage words of Grantland Rice:

I’m not in agreement with the general verdict that we have too many bowl games. Why not? Football isn’t that serious, the players want the trip—the diversion.

When in doubt, let’s remember. It’s football. It ain’t that serious.