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A Big 12 without Texas and Oklahoma Is Worth The Same as - or Less Than - The American

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The TV viewership numbers prove it

AAC Football Championship - Tulsa v Cincinnati Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

With Texas and Oklahoma now all but out of the Big 12 at some point, the question on many college football — and especially UCF Knights — fans is what the remaining eight schools in the Big 12 will do next.

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby released a fairly anodyne statement Monday about the remaining schools’ next direction:

Common wisdom says they have two options: Stay together or drift apart.

If they drift apart to chase better revenue in other conferences, this whole article is moot. However, should they stick together, the thought is that they retain enough economic power to remain a power-conference level league.

However, after examining the TV viewership data, that does not appear to be a slam-dunk case at all.

The Big 12’s current media rights deal with Fox and Disney ends in 2025. Should the eight schools ride that out (and it’s likely they would due to its Grant of Rights) and hit the market, viewership data from the past five years shows they do not carry much more audience than The American Athletic Conference’s teams.

I combed through the TV viewership data on SportsMediaWatch.com of the last five seasons (2016-2020) and pulled all of the viewership numbers for games controlled by both The American and the Big 12’s eight remaining teams (Conference-controlled TV games are just in-conference match-ups and non-conference match-ups where either the AAC or Big 12 team is the home team). The Big 12 numbers are comprised of any games involving neither Texas nor Oklahoma.

When looking at the average number of viewers per game from 2016-2020, here’s what we get:

Big 12 vs. AAC: Average TV Viewers (All Games)

Season Big 12* Avg. Viewers (M) AAC Avg. Viewers (M)
Season Big 12* Avg. Viewers (M) AAC Avg. Viewers (M)
2020 1.049 0.771
2019 0.708 1.022
2018 1.106 1.161
2017 1.009 0.801
2016 1.028 0.882
Average 0.980 0.928
* - Minus all Texas/Oklahoma games Data from SportsMediaWatch.com

That’s right. Over the last five years, the remaining Big 12 schools average about 980,000 viewers per game across all networks, just 52,000 more viewers per game than American Athletic Conference schools.

Graphed out over time, it looks like this:

Data: SportsMediaWatch

Now I’m not sure what accounts for the Big 12 teams’ resurgence in 2020, but it was a COVID year and the schedules for both conferences were a mess due to cancellations, so I’m willing to throw 2020 out altogether as an outlier.

But what we can say is that The American overtook the remaining Big 12 teams in 2018, and extended their lead over them in 2019.

The driving force behind that bump: UCF. When the Knights went undefeated in 2017 and claimed a share of the national championship, they drew the viewing public to their brand in 2018 and 2019. That made for big dividends for The American and ESPN/Disney.

This doesn’t quite make an apples-to-apples comparison, given the different networks and availability in play. But if we do want to compare apples to apples, let’s look at the numbers for the most prominent games: the ones on broadcast networks.

Remember that the Big 12 games air on both Fox and ABC, while The American only airs on ABC. But when looking at those numbers, again, The American comes out on top:

Big 12 (8) vs. AAC: Average TV Viewers (Broadcast TV only)

Season Big 12* Games Viewers (M) AAC Games Viewers (M)
Season Big 12* Games Viewers (M) AAC Games Viewers (M)
2020 11 1.857 5 1.504
2019 1 2.230 4 2.555
2018 4 3.457 5 2.797
2017 5 2.797 4 3.754
2016 6 2.446 3 2.567
Average 5.4 2.557 4.2 2.635
* - Minus all Texas/Oklahoma games Data: SportsMediaWatch.com

Let’s look at the graph:

Data: SportsMediaWatch.com

To be fair, the broadcast numbers include some ABC broadcast windows where there was regional coverage, such as the 2018 UCF/Memphis game, which was on a split window with a Pac-12 game between ABC and ESPN2. However, I included the audience number for that window and not the ESPN2 number. Over the five seasons I looked at, there were almost as many Big 12 games (4) as American games (5) that aired in a split window, which essentially evens out.

Also, the Big 12’s spike in 2018 was largely due to one game: Ohio State at TCU, which picked up 7.232 million viewers, which was almost twice as much as any other game the remaining Big 12 teams played on any network. If you take that game out, The American would have beaten the remaining Big 12 schools four seasons in a row before 2020. So it stands to reason that Ohio State, not TCU, was the driving force behind that outlier.

What does this all mean?

TV networks drive revenue for conferences, and they derive that revenue from eyeballs. Based on the available data, if the eight remaining Big 12 schools think they’re not going to take a hit to their bottom lines in their next TV contract in 2025, they’re in for a nasty surprise. They aren’t pulling in the TV eyeballs without Texas and Oklahoma, and their lame-duck media deal with Fox and ESPN expires after the 2025 season. It’s entirely possible that ESPN and Fox could ask to renegotiate the deal if Texas and Oklahoma pony up enough dough to leave the Big 12 early. Nobody in their right mind believes Texas and Oklahoma when they said in their statement today that they plan to “honor their existing agreements” through 2025 as lame ducks in the Big 12. Without them, The Big 12’s prospects for maintaining TV viewership is bleak at best.

On the other hand, The American can negotiate from a position of strength. Despite playing under a relatively lackluster media deal from 2017-2019, the American managed to provide more eyeballs to its broadcast partners than the remaining Big 12 teams did. In addition, last season’s bizarre scheduling hurt The American considerably, especially in the non-conference phase of the season, where it could have pulled in big ratings for games like North Carolina/UCF, which was canceled. This was the first season of The American’s new media deal with Disney, which goes through 2030 and provides more favorable opportunities on ABC and ESPN’s networks.

This is a big year for The American. If they can get their TV viewer numbers back above the remaining Big 12 schools in a non-pandemic season, they will have an even stronger hand if those schools come to the table.

The Big 12 schools still have the bargaining chip of their NCAA Autonomy status, which American Commissioner Mike Aresco has said he is interested in aggressively pursuing for his conference.

So it all comes down to what the remaining Big 12 schools decide to do. If they decide to hang together, things could get really wild. Some may find that they don’t have as much value in other leagues as they think. But if some of those remaining schools do find homes elsewhere in the Autonomy Five, whoever is left behind would be wise to give The American a call and hop on board. It would, after all, be in their best financial interest.