The Big 12 is probably expanding. Everyone is definitely losing their minds. Texas has elected Houston president of the world. ECU is tweeting out maps for some reason. What a time to be alive.
By now, you’ve likely seen a host of varying charts and graphs comparing the expansion hopefuls to one another. SB Nation had a good one worth checking out (though they undersold UConn’s endowment a bit). However, there are a few elements that have gone unnoticed, or under-explored, and deserve to be pointed out.
Fairfield County is about 90 minutes from the heart of UConn’s campus. That’s about the same amount of time it would take you to drive from Colorado State’s campus to the major media market of Denver. Yet, estimating UConn’s television reach becomes complicated because Fairfield County (Connecticut’s wealthiest and most populated county) is folded into the enormous New York City market.
While Houston and its near 2.4 million TV homes would be a nice financial win for a potential Big 12 television network (both the Big 10 and PAC-12 networks charge subscribers about 39 cents per month), if UConn can deliver the New York market, an extra 8.3 million television homes come with them. While some national football writers seem skeptical of New York’s attainability, keep in mind that UConn already is in the market, playing on SNY. If the monied interests of Fairfield County (about 800,000 of New York’s TV homes) insist upon it, the Big 12 Network will be in their cable packages.
Rutgers is a national embarrassment with no fan support, yet the Big 10 Network added 8 million subscribers in the New York area after Rutgers joined the league, according to The New York Times.
If UConn can produce those same 8 million TV sets, at 39 cents per month, that’s a near $32 million cash infusion per year — more than UConn will take as a revenue share, at least for the first several years of their Big 12 membership. TV money alone should make UConn an obvious choice.
Aside from geography, the most frequent knock against UConn’s possible inclusion is the state of their football program. While trying to avoid triggering your Paul Pasqualoni PTSD, it’s worth examining the data to see if UConn is really that bad.
The conclusion: kinda, but not really.
The Huskies are 63-73 since 2005 (a year chosen due to availability of NCAA data). They made five bowl games in those 11 seasons, including the famous (infamous?) Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma in 2010.
Conversely, Cincinnati is 94-47 over the same span. Pretty good, right?
Definitely. Kudos, Cincy. However, over the same span, UConn has averaged more fans (35,537 per game vs. 30,288) while filling a larger percentage of their seats (87.4% vs. 85.1%).
Here are the attendance and capacity numbers of the Big 12 expansion candidates:
Football avg attendance (2005-15)
BYU is the clear star of the show here, showing both gigantic numbers and remarkable consistency, not dipping below 90 percent average capacity for a decade. Boise St. has a similar track record.
The AAC candidates all tell a similar story: they can pack their stadiums in good times, and struggle to fill seats during down years. That was true of UConn, who averaged 40,000 fans per game in 2005 and bottomed out at 27,461 in the their fourth straight losing season in 2014. That number ticked up last year (just over 28,000) and figures to bump further this season with increased enthusiasm over Bob Diaco’s team and its core players at skill positions.
Memphis and Houston are enjoying that good season bump right now. Just two seasons ago, despite an 8-5 record, Houston drew only 24,256 fans per game (60.5% capacity). Last year, en route to an AAC conference title and a bowl game win over Florida State, their attendance jumped to 33,980 per game (89%). While Memphis wasn’t quite on Houston’s level on the field, their 9-4 effort drew 43,802 fans per game — a near 30 percent jump from the year before. Yet, from 2007 to 2013, Memphis averaged less than 30,000 fans per game, bottoming out in 2011 when their stadium sat two-thirds empty as the Tigers lost ten of their 12 games.
It might be tempting for football-hungry Big 12 programs to invite the hot hands into their conference. But you don’t have to look too far into the past to realize that — aside from BYU and Boise, each of whom bring their own set of non-football challenges — there are no sure things in the mix. Notre Dame isn’t walking through that door.
THE INFLUENCE OF BASKETBALL
The monetary aspect of college sports is a bit of a juxtaposition at the moment, because football popularity drives the conversation between conferences and television executives when establishing networks. The Big 12 will be no different, surely. Texas and Oklahoma football are the crown jewels of the conference. Yet, once the network is on the air, there’s only so much football that can fill it — especially with so many conference games on national TV.
We already established that UConn football isn’t spectacular, but the university’s true value lies in its ability to put top-class basketball games on TV 60 times a year.
In 2015 — an NIT year for the UConn men’s team, but the only data available — UConn games on the ESPN family of networks drew an average of over 517,000 viewers per game. The closest rival among the Big 12 candidates was BYU at over 278,000 viewers.
Here are the average TV viewers for each of the candidates:
MBB Television Viewers - 2015 (in thou)
Again, since 2005 (a charitable benchmark all around for UConn’s competitors since 2004 was arguably the greatest sports year in Husky history), the men’s basketball team has made three Final Fours and won two national championships. In that same period, Memphis reached the title game once, BYU and Cincinnati each made a Sweet Sixteen. Everyone else under consideration has been some degree of consistently awful.
Unsurprisingly, the attendance numbers tell a similar story. UConn has consistently filled its arena(s) at the highest clip of the candidates (87.1%). Memphis (86.2%), BYU (78.1%) and Cincy (64.7%) follow. Not included are UConn’s impressive auxiliary performances at Madison Square Garden in New York — an arena that the Big 12 would love to utilize to feature the powerhouse basketball programs of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Iowa State.
Here are the men’s basketball attendance numbers:
MBB Attendance (2005-16)
While the minsogynst miscreants of the internet would tell you that women’s basketball is not a sport, you know who disagrees? The Big 12. The conference averaged 4,212 fans per game this past season, outdrawing the ACC’s total attendance in 81 fewer games. Slightly behind the women’s hoops heavy SEC (South Carolina and Tennessee led the country in attendance), the Big 12 could become number one — by a wide margin — with the addition of UConn.
The UConn women’s basketball team has averaged 10,018 fans per game since 2005. Its Hall of Fame coach is more famous than most men’s coaches, and its stars are national brands; Breanna Stewart has graced the cover of Sports Illustrated twice in the past four seasons.
Let’s back up one second because that 10,018 number is kind of important. Not only is it more than twice the Big 12’s average attendance (and five times the current AAC average), it is higher — substantially, in most cases — than the average MEN’S basketball attendance of all but UConn, Memphis and BYU. Yes, the UConn women average more fans per game than the Cincinnati men’s team.
Here’s the WBB attendance info:
WBB - Average attendance (2005-16)
Here’s an unbiased and obvious opinion: BYU should be in the Big 12. Their value in football is unmatched by the current expansion candidates. Their fanbase is rabid and global, and extends beyond football into the university’s other sports. If the scheduling (no Sundays) proves too onerous, landing BYU as a football-only member is the minimum the Big 12 should do.
Here’s a biased, but evidence-based opinion: UConn should be in the Big 12. While technically entry into the New York market isn’t a certainty, it’s pretty damn likely. The fact that SNY is willing to dole out over $1 million per year for UConn women’s games should be evidence enough. Add in UConn’s remarkable audience for live events in New York city, its established New York alumni base and a host of tangential evidence (UConn.nyc) and it would be a colossal missed opportunity by the Big 12 to pass over UConn.
So who else? That’s a good question. The prevailing thought seems to be the Cincinnati has long been a shoe-in. They’ve made laudable investments in their facilities, remained competitive in both football and basketball, and bring access to Ohio football recruits. The wild world of Texas politics seems to have rendered Houston another prohibitive favorite. While their membership would be somewhat redundant, overlapping U. of Texas’s overwhelming state dominance, if Houston’s destiny is predetermined, the Big 12 will be fine.
The Florida schools are intriguing. It appears USF’s basketball program is about to be beset by academic violations. It’s probably not that big of a deal since their basketball program barely exists anyway, but after the horrific happenings at Baylor, the Big 12 should probably make its new entrants run a tight ship. UCF would bring a decent media market, access to Florida recruiting and some recent football success. However, literally no one cares about UCF’s basketball programs, and non-football sports suddenly become important if a conference is trying to start a network. And the Knights’ awful 2015 football season doesn’t inspire much confidence either.
Memphis has some rich folks pushing their candidacy, but the numbers don’t particularly support them. Academically, they’re awful. Their media footprint is equivalent to Providence. Their best selling point at the moment seems to be FedEx’s willingness to sponsor at game that will have no trouble finding sponsors. Working in Memphis’s favor is that the Big 12 hasn’t exactly been known for its logic and reason during the last decade of conference realignment.
Official guess: BYU, Houston, UConn, Cincinnati.