It was reported that Conference USA (CUSA) signed a 5 year, 38 million dollar deal today with Fox Sports replacing the former 6 year, 22 million dollar TV deal with ESPN. This deal was hailed as a success in CUSA circles as a "tripling in exposure and a doubling in rights fees".
It is true that CUSA was able double its number of televised appearances over the ESPN contract which provided national exposure for CUSA's football and basketball programs. The issue is that this exposure on Fox is regional, every last drop of it. Fox is not even broadcasting the CUSA football championship game over the air. Only the biggest sports fans view Fox Sports Net as a major staple of college sports programming.
Financially, the deal offered by Fox to CUSA is in the same ball park as the CBS-CS offer. Both offers are right around 7 million dollars per year. The total combined value is about 1.2 million per school up from the previous 5 years of ESPN/CBS-CS at 1 million per school. Rights fees are only up 20% while CUSA is gone from ESPN in both football AND basketball.
The rights fees have also remained essentially flat for the (College Football Assoication) CFA group of schools that comprise CUSA (all except UAB, UCF, Marshall) which has hovered around 1 million per school since the final early 90's CFA contract while former CFA affilated leagues like the SEC and ACC have ballooned from 1 million per school in TV money to 15-20 million per school leaving CUSA (and its predecessor leagues) in the dust. The reality is that ESPN and the other networks have very little interest in televising CUSA athletics. Fox for example paid the Big Ten 23 million for its championship game and the PAC-12 a large 25 million sum to for a championship weekend double header, both sums over 3 times what was offered for an entire 20 game CUSA package.
The only reason CUSA is even making the TV money it does is because those schools have what I call "salary history". ESPN walked CUSA back down from the 11 million a year contract in 1999 to 3.65 million in 2005 after the membership defections to the Big East but CBS-CS was there to step in and overpay with its second tier distribution network another 8 million to keep CUSA close to that coveted 1 million per school a year mark. In 2010 CBS-CS offered an even lower 7 million per year and CUSA had to sign another second tier contract at 7 million+ to stay above water. Fox has bid aggressively for other properties like the ACC and PAC-10. This time with CUSA ESPN decided not to raise or even match the tiny 3.65 million per year it was paying.
ESPN has lost CUSA as part of its programming inventory and its partner on the West Coast the WAC with whom it was paying 4 million per year (a much larger sum per school than CUSA) sustained major damage due to Mountain West Conference (MWC) membership raids this summer. The MWC is not going back to ESPN which instead wants to pay BYU 7 million per year by itself as an independent school, almost much as what it was previously paying CUSA and the WAC combined.
Additionally, ESPN has oversigned the SEC for Saturday timeslots pushing the ACC to Thursday night games, Big East Friday night, and MAC exclusively midweek. With the ACC signing bigger with ESPN, those football telecasts once going to CUSA will probably end up in ACC hands. The Big East is feeling the TV money squeeze and may be tempted to leave ESPN in football for Fox Saturday over the air coverage for a larger dollar value (Big East football only brings in 2.3 mill per football school under the current contract).
As difficult as it is to admit, at this point in time the MAC would be best served continuing to be ESPN's midweek sideshow. Leaving ESPN was a disaster for the MWC as recruiting suffered at the Colorado States and New Mexicos now lagging behind in talent. Fortunately, the top of the MWC has performed very well masking how much the bottom has fallen off in recent years. CUSA may also see further eroision of its talent base by leaving ESPN and moving to Fox.
What then should be the strategy for the MAC to renegotiate a better TV package with ESPN? Its clear the MAC would be more marketable as a counterweight in the Mid-Atlantic region to the Big East by adding UMass, USB (Stony Brook), and FIU giving the MAC schools opposite of Syracuse, UConn, Rutgers and USF. A 16 team MAC would demand more exposures on ESPN and increase revenue per school.
The advantages of MAC membership moving to 16 schools:
Inventory: The MAC has with its 8/7 game football schedule 52 regular season games, plus a conference championship game. If the MAC expanded to 16 teams and moved to a 9 game conference schedule that would increase the MAC football inventory 72 games, or up 38.5%. That would obviously be more attractive to TV partners.
Depth: The MAC at 16 schools would be a deeper league, really 2 leagues merged into one; a midwest (mostly traditional MAC) and a mideast (w/ a few Ohio schools). The league would be able to support 2 regional games of the week on ESPN for both the East and West divisions. The MAC could structure midweek games for Tuesday and Wednesday by rotation throughout both October and November.
Its clear that the MAC's expansion to a 12/13 member league from the 9/10 one that it was in the 80's and early 90's has helped the league to produce more bowl eligible and ranked squads than what it was doing before. A move to 16 schools in football would only further that trend and a 9 game MAC schedule would have the league playing less FCS schools for a better overall SOS.
Leverage: As far as an ESPN property is concerned the MAC has been about equal to CUSA over the last 5 years while vastly behind the WAC in per school payout/exposure while solidly ahead of the SBC. In 2010 WAC has been badly damaged by the realignment and is trying to survive as a reincarnation of the SWC (planning to add Lamar, UNT, La-Laf) which could in turn damage the SBC. The MAC is now at the top of the list as far as non-BCS conferences on ESPN and can further strengthen that position with a few more membership additions.
Similar to the way the MAC boxed out the SBC with backup deals to bowl games last year, the MAC has a chance to box both the SBC and WAC out of midweek ESPN games and bowl agreements. The MAC would keep the Humanitarian bowl (now against the MWC). the Little Caesar's Bowl, possibly trade the GMAC for the New Orleans and add games in Boston (with UMass vs. Big East?), Miami Fl (with FIU vs. CUSA) and possibly make a run at the Pinstripe(vs. Big East #4).
TV Money: The MAC under the current deal is making 1.4 million a year in rights fees (1.15 from reg season, 250k for MAC Championship game). Increasing the regular season TV rights by inventory 38.5%, doubling appearnces on ESPN, doubling leverage, and increasing championship game payout to the CUSA level (as the MAC would be replacing them) would increase the MAC rights fee to about 8 million per year.That is more than what CUSA is making individually with either of its Fox or CBS deals and about what the WAC of Boise, Fresno, Hawaii is making per school.
Future: Its not certain how much longer the BCS will exist or what its future bowl format or payout will be but a larger 16 team MAC will have a say at the negotiating table. The non-AQ schools receive collectively 14 million. If the MWC becomes a BCS conference (very close on the criteria) the MAC at 16 schools would represent 35% of all non-AQ schools and if the BCS cash distribution was split per school that would be 5 million yearly to the MAC, not including additional revenue if the MAC or another non-AQ conference places a school in a non-BCS game. The amount of the non-BCS payout has been increasing at a rate of 50% per every 4 year BCS TV agreement.
The football scraps the MAC is getting fed are getting larger. It won't be enough money for the MAC to catch up to the SEC, Big Ten, and PAC-10 in football. It could however turn the tide for the MAC in the world of mid major basketball like it did for the MWC which was able to land basketball giant UNLV because of football money. Signing Temple and UMass for football could eventually lead to them wanting in for basketball, greatly elevating TV interest and recruiting. As time marches on the non-AQ conferences will continue to have the ability to pick who they want to expand with from the FCS level and will end up stronger than the FCS leagues in both football and basketball long term.