It’s the great chicken-or-egg debate going in college football right now: is it better to play at odd times and get on TV or play at a regular time and forgo the TV money?
Playing on Wednesday night or at 8 p.m. local time on Saturday often comes at the direct expense of paying customers — or, perhaps, would-be paying customers — in exchange for getting in front of a larger audience and increasing the conference’s per-school payout. But what if nobody’s actually watching on TV? And what if the payout isn’t really that large? Does it still make sense then?
In most leagues, the chicken has eaten the egg. The MAC has surrendered entirely to ESPN’s wishes; the league won’t play a single Saturday game in November. The Mountain West, though, is considering going in the complete opposite direction.
MW commissioner Craig Thompson said at the league’s media days that the conference is considering going to a streaming-only television model that would reduce the league’s TV payout while helping fans actually attend games. From The Colordoan:
The conference might even cut the cord entirely, going the way of millions of millennials and others who are dropping their cable and satellite TV packages in favor of digital alternatives, when its current contracts expire after the 2019-2020 school year. Five of the largest pay-TV providers in the country lost a combined 527,000 subscribers in the second quarter of this year alone, Reuters reported Friday.
Craig Thompson, the Mountain West’s commissioner since its start in 1999-2000, said the conference could have just as much reach with a digital-only package as it has with its current mix of partners. But he’s not sure a digital-only option could replace the revenue conference schools currently receive from their 10-year deals worth $116 million.
That $116 million contract sounds like a lot of money, but it actually equates to about $1.1 million per year per school. And in exchange for that, the Mountain West gets on ESPN after most of the country has gone to sleep and on CBS Sports Network, a network so small it isn’t included in Nielsen’s ratings.
Is that really worth asking Boise State to play nearly half its schedule on weeknights with zero afternoon home games? Or asking fans to travel home from remote, cold weather cities — which, by the way, is more than half the league — after a November home game that ends after midnight?
The Mountain West has deals with ESPN and CBS Sports Network, both of whom, Thompson says, have offered to renew — at their current rates. (The Big Ten, keep in mind, got a massive raise in its latest media deal.) But the league’s current contracts don’t end until the 2019-20 academic year, giving Thompson and conference presidents time to weigh their options.
“We’re trying to keep up with the times, and part of it is generational,” Thompson told the paper. “You’ve got a couple hundred thousand students that are 18 to 20 years old on our campuses. They’re not watching cable; they’re not watching satellite. They have a Netflix account, and they’re doing social media.
” … How do people consume their information?”
Make no mistake: like any other league, the Mountain West needs as much money as it can get its hands on, from whatever avenue they can get it. Going to a digital-only media package would be a risk. There’s no doubt about that.
But here’s the question college athletics leaders below the Power 5 level should be asking themselves: as the American media landscape plunges, hour by hour, minute by minute, into the great unknown future, how much of a risk is simply keeping with the status quo and hoping for the best?