As the Arkansas fanbase dusts off the dirt and debris accumulated after time served in the college football ditch, Razorback fans can find comfort in knowing that better days — and better paydays — are ahead.
Starting in 2024, ESPN’s Borg-like assimilation of college football — in the South, anyway — will be complete. The SEC and Disney announced a deal in December that will give ABC and ESPN exclusive broadcasting rights for SEC football and men’s basketball beginning in 2024. Anticipated for about a year, the deal could increase the SEC’s annual media-rights payouts to member schools by almost $20 million.
While financial terms weren’t disclosed, Sports Business Journal estimates the new deal to be worth more than $300 million annually. CBS had been paying about $55 million a year to broadcast the SEC’s feature game each week (otherwise known as the Nick Saban Show with your hosts, Verne and Gary) during the season. With the new deal, Arkansas and its SEC brethren should begin cashing checks from the league each year worth more than $60 million, up from just under $44 million in 2018.
As Arkansas football emerges from the aftermath of Bobby Petrino’s wild ride (I’m just gonna go ahead and lay the past eight years at the feet of April 1, 2012), a brave new world is taking shape across college athletics with changes ahead in how college football, specifically, is delivered to the masses.
For the South’s favorite pastime, the financial driver of the college sports bus, things could get interesting soon. Pre-pandemic, Power 5 schools were generating a collective $4 billion in revenue each year, from TV rights to ticket sales and all the ancillary commerce surrounding game days. That translated to roughly $27.5 million in football profit per school, according to Fortune. And Arkansas already was in damage control. Before COVID-19 landed on the national radar, the program was exorcising itself from the Chad Morris era and the drop in revenue that resulted from back-to-back 2-10, SEC-winless seasons.
In 2018, Arkansas athletics took in more than $137 million in revenue, as reported by USA Today based on NCAA data. (And even that reflected a drop in football ticket sales resulting from Bret Bielema’s hard crash in Fayetteville.) Revenue dropped to $128 million and then for the fiscal year ending this past June, to $118 million. COVID’s impact has been felt, for sure, but not yet recorded. Sam Pittman’s ongoing resurgence will bring back those ticket buyers and donors who stepped away, but football’s troubles and the pandemic are having an impact.
Though spared the “hammer down”/COVID double whammy experienced on the Hill, Power 5 schools from the SEC to the Pac 12 are feeling the same pinch. Last summer, Stanford permanently dropped 11 varsity sports programs and reported a $70 million deficit in its athletics budget. Arkansas remains in good shape, one of a handful of schools whose athletics department operates in the black. And Arkansas baseball now is one of a select few collegiate programs that turn a profit.
But football pays the bills. It’s not yet clear just how much money Power 5 schools will lose because of the limitations placed on the 2020 football season, but they will be looking for ways to make up lost revenue. College football remains one of the most valuable sports properties in the United States, and the clamor for content will increase as the pandemic fades and the sport can function without the limitations imposed by it.
Last year, Navigate Research of Chicago estimated for The Athletic what media-rights payouts to individual schools and media revenue for each P5 conference would look like in the decade ahead. It forecast the average annual payout to SEC schools would rise to $82.3 million by 2029, still shy of the Big 10’s average estimated payout of $89.4 million. The Big 12 (assuming it’s still around by 2029) is estimated to reach an average payout of $66.7 million in 2029, with the Pac 12 at $60.3 million and the ACC at $51.4 million.
Playoff expansion to eight teams appears to be on the horizon for college football as well. There’s simply too much money on the table for it not to expand, not to mention fans’ appetite for opening up more spots at the table. Accounting for an eight-team playoff beginning in 2026, Navigate estimates annual media revenue for the Big 10 at $1.1 billion, followed closely by the SEC at $1 billion. Trailing far behind but still seeing significant increases would be the Pac 12 at $626 million, the ACC at $584 million and the Big 12 at $574 million.
For the 2019 fiscal year, P5 revenues totaled more than $2.9 billion, according to USA Today. The Big 10 and SEC, of course, led with $780 million and $721 million, respectively, followed by the Pac 12 ($530 million), the ACC ($455 million) and the Big 12 ($439 million).
Even with an increase of “only” $135 million or so a year, in the case of the Big 12, that extra money can help pay a lot of bills and fund worthy but unpopular spectator sports that operate with huge deficits.
Other factors to consider that likely will impact college football in the next few years include continued cord cutting, future conference realignment, the possibility of the Power 5 breaking away from the NCAA for football only and even new NCAA rules that allow players to benefit from the use of their names, images and likenesses.
ESPN has lost around 20 million cable subscribers over the past decade, and Sports Business Journal reported that Apple is interested in purchasing the tier 1 media rights to the Pac 12. (Media rights are broken down into three tiers; tier 1 essentially means first choice of games.)
Collective frustration with the NCAA regarding a number of issues, including its lack of leadership over COVID protocols, could push the 65 P5 schools to try and govern themselves. They essentially do this, anyway. The NCAA actually has nothing to do with administering the CFB playoff or bowl games. The wild popularity of March Madness — Investopedia estimates the organization made $933 million on the 2019 version when considering media rights, ticket sales, sponsorships and ads, most of it distributed to member schools across all levels — would likely keep the Power 5 in the fold for everything but football. Football is, of course, a different animal. It requires more players and thus more scholarships, more overhead, more everything.
Currently, 130 schools representing 10 conferences and a few football independents make up the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) of Division 1, the highest level of competition for college football. The Power 5 entails half that number — 14 teams each in the SEC and Big 10, another 12 in the Pac 12, 10 teams in the Big 12 and 15 in the ACC. (Notre Dame is an ACC member in all sports but football. COVID dictated the Irish join for it too in 2020. Many expect that football affiliation to stick.)
With a few exceptions, the athletic budgets, fan bases, resources and facilities at P5 schools are bigger and more abundant than they are in the Group of 5, those FBS conferences such as the Sun Belt not included in the Power 5.
Power 5 athletic directors and school presidents are weary of deferring to Group of 5 interests when it comes to the NCAA administering rules that impact D-1 ball. Last fall, a Knight Commission survey of P5 schools revealed that 61 percent of ADs were in favor of creating a separate division under the auspices of the NCAA for the Power 5, while 44 percent of all D1 schools were in favor of the P5 actually breaking away from the NCAA.
According to CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd, that comes out to 40 P5 schools wanting to break away and 15 percent of them against the creation of a new division for P5 schools only. Dodd further reported that a new division “would allow the Power Five to establish its own minimums for number of sports (currently at 16 per school) and scholarship (85 in football, 13 in men’s basketball) along with separate amateurism rules.”
The survey also reported “wide dissatisfaction with how Division-I college sports are run,” and “overwhelming support for major reform” of the NCAA.
And as streaming services become more prevalent in how CFB is watched, P5 conferences likely are looking at expansion through a different lens as they position themselves to appear more attractive.
No longer will market or geography matter so much as will brand. Previous conference expansions revolved around brand to a degree but mostly were centered on how many viewers and alumni a school could deliver. (Think Rutgers and Maryland, the Big 10’s most recent additions, not known for football pedigree but able to deliver the New York and Washington/Baltimore markets.)
Future expansion may hinge primarily on brand. The stronger the brand, the more bidders for media rights. And the more bidders, well, hello supply and demand.
For several years, the idea of a 64-team, super-conference model entailing four, 16-team conferences at the top of the college athletics world has been floated. (Any such model would have to account for Notre Dame, of course.) Texas almost left for the Pac 12 eight years ago, taking Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech with it. This Pac 12 almost-expansion to 16 teams was half an hour away from being official, it’s been widely reported. Instead, UT doubled down on the Big 12, which it essentially owns, and the Pac 12 has been fading in overall football relevancy since. But as conferences jockey for negotiating power in the years ahead, could we revisit such a scenario? That’s what it would probably take to set off another round of expansion dominoes.
The Big 12 by its very name is something of the odd conference out at 10 teams and a footprint small by comparison to other P5 leagues. And its members hate Texas, which operates its own (albatross) Longhorn Network through ESPN and whose influence essentially governs the league. The Big 12 has 10 member schools and not 12 because four members finally were fed up with Bevo. Texas A&M uncoiled itself from state political ties and happily bolted to the SEC, where it fits, along with Missouri (not a cultural fit but the SEC had to add a 14th, and MU brings academic prestige and on paper, the St. Louis and Kansas City markets). Colorado took off for the Pac 12 where it shares a more “wine-and-cheese” sensibility, and Nebraska left for the Big 10, a complicated dynamic in its own right.
TCU and West Virginia then happily accepted invitations to the Power 5 when Texas came calling, and the league decided that splitting a conference-revenue pie 10 ways was plenty. (In actuality, the Big 12 eagerly would’ve expanded back to 12 if there had been two more available schools that it deemed suitable.)
UT and cronies taking off for the Pac 12 would set off a round of expansion probably resulting in something like the super-conference model, and might even leave current P5 schools like Baylor, Kansas State and Iowa State on the outside looking in.
Arkansas, meanwhile, is fortunate to ride the SEC gravy train, and membership certainly hasn’t hurt its overall branding efforts, recent football dip notwithstanding. Despite perhaps not having as many actual fans as some other programs — we’re still a small state, after all — fervent fan support and Hog fans’ penchant for representing their team in the most unexpected places across the globe cements the Razorback brand as one of the strongest in college sports. Arkansas consistently ranks among the top 15 for collegiate merchandise sales, was sixth in the number of vanity license plates sold as of 2018 and, no real surprise, last year came in at No. 4 on the list of Walmart’s top collegiate sellers.
(Our own SEC invitation involved several factors, foremost among them Texas declining an SEC invitation that included A&M. Next up was Arkansas, in 1990 a geographic fit and still a strong football brand, and Florida State. The Seminoles said no — Bobby Bowden admitted later he advised the school to decline because it was easier to win championships in the ACC — and South Carolina fit the bill. Nostalgia notwithstanding, Hog fans to this day should say thanks for the wisdom of Frank Broyles in recognizing the coming demise of the old Southwest Conference.)
Whatever the Power 5 ends up looking like (will next-up schools like BYU, Cincinnati or Houston ever crash the P5 gate?), don’t be surprised to see it breaking off this decade for football only. Such a move might cement the CFB playoff at four times for the foreseeable future, however. Expansion talk is largely fueled by undefeated Group of 5 teams such as Cincinnati this year being left out as well A&M, a one-loss team in the toughest conference. But conference expansion is a glacier, and playoff expansion appears to be gaining momentum.
The money may be too big to pass up. A.J. Maestas, founder and CEO of Navigate, told the Mercury News of San Jose, Calif., that his firm’s research found that an eight-team playoff would add 60 million viewers to the combined playoff audience and increase the payout from $467 million per year to $560 million, resulting in tens of millions being distributed to conferences. A 16-team playoff, he surmised, would generate $1.45 billion per year.
All this after the powers-that-be — the grafters who ran/run the bowl system (read Dan Wolkien’s Death to the BCS) — resisted a playoff for decades. Until the CFB playoff was instituted for the 2014 season, the sport remained the only one in the world that didn’t determine its champion by means of a true playoff. But hey, bowl directors sure made bank.
Regarding the CFB playoff, Maestas wrote, “There are 130 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision, which is the largest collection of teams or set of competitors in any league in the world by a multiple of four. With only four of those teams getting into the playoff (three percent), that’s an extremely large league with an extremely small playoff.”
An exclusive club, indeed. But does an undefeated American Athletic Conference champion with a soft strength of schedule deserve a playoff spot over a one-loss team coming out of the SEC grind? Many Group of 5 teams would welcome the opportunity to take on that grind.
The pandemic necessitated some temporary changes to the way we do college football. But real change is coming, whether it’s in the form of conference realignment, playoff expansion or even the way we watch our teams. And one thing’s for sure. Arkansas remains a passenger on the CFB gravy train.