Austin Karp of SportsBusiness Daily has the television ratings for college football's 2012 regular season, and it’s tough to know what to make of them.
Aside from NBC, the home network for an undefeated Notre Dame team, the networks all saw declines in ratings this year. They ranged from ESPN losing roughly 4 percent of its audience from a year ago to NBC Sports Network hemorrhaging more than 70 percent of its viewers after ending its relationship with the Pac-12.
Although the headline is jarring, my initial reaction was that it should come as no surprise that ratings would come down. The usual suspects such as ESPN and ABC are now competing with the CBS Sports Network, Big Ten Network, Pac-12 Network and FOX College Sports regional channels. (Note that those stations are not rated.) Furthermore, viewers can access content via online channels — their PCs, laptops, smartphones and tablets with streaming capabilities. I don't know how the Nielsen Ratings account for that, let alone how popular they are with users yet, but it probably has at least some effect.
Factor in FOX’s entry into the national broadcast space and, all in all, it makes sense that as the market has witnessed a proliferation of viewing options, there are simply more mouths to feed from college football’s pie. It would take substantial growth in overall viewership, theoretically, for the slices not to get smaller.
I raised the issue with Karp on Twitter. His SBJ colleague John Ourand, who called the ratings “dismal,” addressed it as well. While both acknowledged that the growth of competition is certainly affecting the numbers, both indicated that the news still wasn’t good:
@blatanthomerism Cant answer 100% on Q of total viewership. But definitely more players in the game. Marquee games still on big nets though
— Austin Karp (@AustinKarp) December 21, 2012
@stholeary I see your point. It's one I just made with the NFL, in fact. In this case, though, the networks aren't happy with these numbers.
— John Ourand (@Ourand_SBJ) December 21, 2012
Both of these guys have more knowledge about the sports TV industry than me by a long shot. So, assuming that the ratings do reflect less interest in college football this season, how about some speculation as to why?
1. The Big Ten stunk.
It was clearly a rough year for the Leaders and the Legends off the field. Not only did the Penn State community slog through the Jerry Sandusky trial, but the NCAA threw the book at the football program for whatever perceived role it played in enabling his misconduct. Meanwhile, the amateurism police dinged Ohio State with a bowl ban for Tattoogate.
With two of the conference’s flagship programs marginalized on the national scale, it didn’t help that the rest of league was flat-out bad. It started with Michigan getting its doors blown off by Alabama in the marquee game of 2012’s opening week, and it never really got better as the season wore on. Even the conference title game produced a dud, as a 7-5 Wisconsin team pounded Nebraska in a rematch from the regular season.
While the B1G may be a punchline to some college football fans, it still remains one of the sports biggest draws. When the league is as irrelevant as it was this year, it can squeeze everyone.
2. The SEC has turned from an 800-pound gorilla into Godzilla.
Can you get too much of a good thing?
You may have heard this somewhere before, but the Southeastern Conference has won six consecutive national championships. A year ago, we were left with a situation in which the conference was playing itself for the crystal ball. It has almost reached the point in terms of public perception that the season has been reduced to figuring out who’s going to win the SEC. Sometimes that doesn’t even matter.
If the SEC’s excellence on the gridiron has left people feeling like the outcome of every season is fait accompli, it’s fair to ask if that is hurting broader interest in games outside the league. More casual fans may not be so interested in seeing a team like Oregon or Kansas State during the regular season if they ultimately view them as postseason cannon fodder for Alabama and LSU.
3. Conference expansion is diluting the product.
While the media has spilled more ink lamenting the dissolution of storied rivalries such as Texas-Texas A&M and the Border War, the conference shake-up has had a trickle-down effect on scheduling that could be affecting the sport even more significantly.
Unless you’re bringing in firecracker programs from outside the league, bloating conferences by adding more teams naturally means an increase in the number less-compelling games. In the Pac-12, for example, the conference gave up its annual round-robin format to add Colorado — a moribund football team that has been slumping for nearly a decade — and Utah — a mid-major upstart that lost its pluck when it moved up in weight class. Meanwhile, the SEC took on two middle-of-the-pack programs from the Big 12 in Texas A&M and Missouri.
Over time as the newcomers assimilate into their new homes, it could produce a net gain for all involved. For now, though, the leagues have to room for the new members in their scheduling. We’re inevitably going to see fewer matchups like Alabama-Florida and more like Alabama-Missouri. (Even in the case of Texas A&M, which saw major success in its first year in the SEC, the Aggies presently lack the national brand to make a game with Ole Miss anything close to appointment viewing.)
It’s way too early to draw any big-picture conclusions based on a year’s worth of data. After all, enough unknowns are hanging out there to give me reservations about the idea that interest in college football was down this year, despite the numbers.
Even so, while the first two points can possibly be explained away as artifacts of this particular moment in time, the third point should at least give pause to the leadership within the sport. The Powers That Be have already set in motion a reorganization of the college sports industry with the intent of capitalizing on a wildly popular product that was clearly undervalued.
If the more pessimistic interpretation of these early returns holds true, they may have set the sport on a course to make it less popular and worth less than the bottom line on their revenue projections.