Every SEC School Will Make More TV Money Than Texas, Notre Dame
Remember when Notre Dame and Texas's television deals with NBC Sports and the Longhorn Network were going to revolutionize college athletics? So much for that. Over twenty years ago, way back in 1991, Notre Dame signed a contract to carry Irish games on NBC Sports. It was a breathtaking college sports deal in a marketplace when cable was still not dominant. Rather than join a conference Notre Dame decided to go it alone and reap all the benefits of its television rights without having to share that deal with anyone. There was talk that many other programs would follow the Irish lead. Back in 1991 it seemed like the Fighting Irish were in a revolutionary position, banking more TV money than anyone else could even dream of.
But then a funny thing happened -- cable sports began to thrive and Notre Dame's deal started to make less sense. Why? Because Notre Dame only had seven or eight home games to sell. That's 28-32 hours of total programming. (Notre Dame's road games are included in the television package of whomever is hosting those football games.) Thirty-two hours of programming isn't bad for a national network like NBC that has other programming to fill up the rest of the schedule, but it's a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of programming that voracious cable networks like ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, FS1 and NBC Sports Network have to fill. Individual teams just weren't that valuable.
Smart conference executives began to realize that going it alone wasn't a viable option, it was better to bundle your games and bring a bevy of content to the market. That's what Jim Delany of the Big Ten Network recognized when he became the first major conference to start a network. Larry Scott of the Pac 12 and Mike Slive of the SEC followed Delany's lead. Bundles of conference games made sense. Just like in the NFL, you were stronger based upon the quality of the teams you played. Sure, you might make less per individual game selling the bundles, but you made much more money in total. Plus, and this is key, you had enough football games to make people demand your network and you had enough content to fill all those hours of cable sports programming.
It's hard to blame Notre Dame for signing a deal with NBC since the Irish are still not a member of any conference. The Irish would probably make more television money in the Big Ten than they do now, but at least when they signed their deal in 1991 the marketplace had yet to evolve. By the time Texas decided to start its own network, anyone with half a brain saw the direction the market was moving. Everyone, that is, except for the Texas Longhorns. For some inexplicable reason -- hubris, overconfidence, willful blindness -- at a time when everyone else was emulating the Big Ten Network's path, Texas decided it wanted to be the next Notre Dame. So the much ballyhooed Longhorn Network arrived and killed the Big 12. Nebraska, Colorado, Texas A&M and Missouri surveyed the landscape and saw what Texas's move did, it killed any chance of a Big 12 Network, making it clear that the Longhorns, the most valuable brand in their conference, wanted to go it alone. So Nebraska jumped to the Big Ten, Colorado joined the Pac 12 and Texas A&M and Missouri headed for the SEC. Instead of starting their own network each school aligned their fan bases with a larger content provider, the conference as a whole.
Meanwhile, Texas went it alone, convinced the market for Longhorn athletics would be massive. And Texas was wrong. Starting the Longhorn Network was a stupid, shortsighted, and arrogant move by the Longhorns, but they got a ton of initial attention when the network was announced. Everyone in the media fawned over the genius move by the Longhorns, drinking up a ten gallon hat of lies. Except, you guessed it, the Longhorn Network is already a dry oil well. Every single SEC school will make more money off the SEC Network than Texas makes off the Longhorn Network. That's right, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt and Arkansas and, oh yes, Texas A&M will all make more money by combining their assets together and selling them than Texas will make by going it alone. The same will eventually be true with Big Ten Network schools and, provided they ever get their network in order, the Pac 12 schools too.
You can see all my math here on sports network revenue. Plus, here's a bit more detail on how I see the SEC math breaking down -- within three years I don't think there's any doubt that the SEC schools will be making over twenty million a year from the SEC Network. That's combined with the twenty million + that schools will be making of existing CBS and ESPN contracts.
The Longhorn Network is the least successful network launch in ESPN history and the SEC Network is the most successful network launch in ESPN history. That's not a coincidence. It's the games, stupid. The SEC Network will have more football games in its first two weeks than the Longhorn Network will have in its first five years. That matters. The Longhorn Network was all hat, the other conference networks are all cattle. You can get a tripleheader of football on the SEC Network every weekend. You can't even get three football games on the Longhorn Network all season.
The result is simple and painful for Longhorn fans -- Texas is trying to apply a 1991 business plan to a 2014 cable and satellite universe, the equivalent of running an offense that can't throw the football in today's spread offensive era. The Longhorns gambled that individual brands mattered in a conference era. They were sorely mistaken. As a result the fleeing members of the Big 12 -- Nebraska, Colorado, Texas A&M and Missouri are going to end up making more money off the Longhorn Network than Texas is. If Texas doesn't start the Longhorn Network all of those schools probably stay in the Big 12 and make much less money. Instead, they bolted and will end up better off than Texas will.
The ultimate and crushing irony of the Longhorn Network for Texas fans? It's going to end up making more money for hated rival Texas A&M than it is for Texas.
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