So, the SEC announced their new network last week. This was accompanied by much fanfare from ESPN, the SEC Network's new parent company. And why not? ESPN just locked up the best college football conference in the nation. They are going to promote the SHIT out of this thing. Remember the hoopla surrounding the launch of the Longhorn Network? The SEC Network's launch will be at least 14 times bigger.
About that Longhorn Network: That's looking like a bigger boondoggle by the day. Currently, Verizon FIOS and AT&T U-verse, along with a handful of regional carriers are the only providers for the Longhorn Network. Not quite the nationwide reach ESPN and UT originally envisioned.
That's unfortunate, because the supposed appeal of the Big 12 conference is each member's ownership of their third tier rights. The ability for each school to create their own network was supposed to be the bait to lure some big fish to the Big 12, fish like Notre Dame, Florida State or Clemson.
None of those schools bit. Notre Dame left the Big East for the ACC, while Florida State and Clemson just signed the ACC's 14-year grant of rights. The Big 12 is likely going to stay with their current model for the foreseeable future, which means ten teams with their own channels; the Longhorn Network, Cyclones.tv, KStateHD.tv, etc.
Frankly, this is a little insane. This model dilutes the overall ability of the conference to generate revenue and increase brand recognition. Hell, the Longhorns, maybe the biggest name in college football, can't make a dedicated network work for them, and they have a goddamn sports bar in Pakistan! With each school going it alone, schools narrow their potential subscribers to their fan base. This is fine for schools that want a little extra income (or a lot, if you're the University of Texas), but the lack of a dedicated Big 12 Network could potentially damage the conference as an entity.
Now, this individual ownership model of third-tier rights is still incredibly profitable, at least for the moment. At the low end of the spectrum, the Kansas Jayhawks made 6.5 million from the Jayhawk Network last year. At the high end... well, there's that Longhorn Network again. So why should Big 12 schools give up their third tier rights to a dedicated network?
Basically, it comes down to branding. The SEC doesn't really need to work to brand itself right now, the league has given college football its last seven champions; it's the Coca-Cola of college football. But the SEC will get an even bigger mouthpiece in 2014 when it launches the SEC Network. A single ESPN channel to beam the gospel of the SEC into homes across the country/world. Live games, classic games, documentaries and endless panels of talking heads dissecting the daily minutiae of what Nick Saban said on the previous night's call-in show, just feeding the cult-like insanity that surrounds the SEC.
Similarly, the Big 10 Network exists in part to brainwash people into thinking that the Big 10 is a good football conference. It's not, as anyone who's watched a Big 10 game lately can tell you. But the fact that the Big 10 has a dedicated channel to constantly promote the teams in the conference means that football fans living in Big 10 markets have a channel that exists solely to bombard them with Big 10 propaganda.
Which is kind of hilarious, actually. The rift between the bombastic promos for Big 10 football featured on the Big 10 Network and the actual product put out on the field keeps getting wider each year, but the general public's perception of the Big 10 hasn't really changed. Dedicated college football fans know that Big 10 football is wet garbage, but ask the casual fan and they'll likely put the Big Ten as one of the top football conferences in the country.
And then there's the Pac 12, the other major conference with a dedicated network. Actually, in the Pac 12's case, it's a series of linked regional networks. Despite, or perhaps because of his Genghis Khan-like lust for new territory to conquer, Pac 12 commissioner Larry Scott has been extremely smart about the launch of the Pac 12 Network. The Pac 12 is isolated geographically, isolated by its west coast/mountain time zones and has a more... let's say casual fans than the denizens of SEC and Big 10 country. So Scott knew he needed a platform to preach Pac 12 sports, and the Pac 12 Networks gave him that platform.
So where does that leave the Big 12? Squashed in the center of the country, bounded by the Big 10, the Pac 12 and the SEC on all sides. Each conference with a network, with a dedicated channel to promote their brand.
Make no mistake; the Big 12 is sitting on solid ground at the moment. The $26.2 million the Big 12 handed out to each of its members in 2012 was best in the country. Top-to-bottom, the Big 12 is the toughest football conference in the country, sending nine members to bowl games last year. And Big 12 football and basketball is some of the most fast-paced, high scoring in the country. These are excellent attributes.
But an exciting brand of sports only gets a conference so far. Remember the BCS run the Hawaii Warriors made in 2007? They played a thrilling, up-tempo brand of football, and the first time most of the country saw them play was when they were getting their asses handed to them by Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. They played in the WAC, a now-defunct football conference, a league that had no real way of promoting its teams, other than the broadcasting scraps the conference received from ESPN and Fox.
So right now, the Big 12 is doing just fine at getting its teams broadcast on TV (certainly much better than it was a few years ago). But the conference is falling behind in the ancillary marketing, the appeal to the average fan. The Big 12 needs to find new ways to promote its teams, and itself as an institution. A dedicated network could provide the solution, and unite the conference in the process.
Because from the start, the Big 12 has been an uneasy merger between the old-school Big 8 and the crumbling, corrupt Southwest Conference. The league barely survived two major rounds of realignment in consecutive years, losing four teams and adding two. This is a conference that needs to do everything in its power to shore up its foundation.
But the leadership of the Big 12 schools and current commissioner Bob Bowlsby seem content to stick with the status quo. That might be the best course of action; university presidents, athletic directors and Bowlsby have quite a bit more information about the vagaries of television deals and conference realignment than the average fan. In ten years, history may prove that the Big 12's individual ownership of third-tier rights could end up being the best course of action.
But it doesn't seem like it at the moment. At the moment, it seems like the Big 12 is just treading water, getting outflanked by other conferences just waiting for the Big 12's grant-of-rights to expire in 2025.
And the Big 12 could model its network on the Pac 12 network, allowing members to retain third tier rights and control content on an individual station, while providing Big 12 content and games for the overarching network. A conference network wouldn't solve all the problems that exist in the Big 12. But it would go a long way to promoting the Big 12 as a brand, unifying the member institutions and raising perceptions that the Big 12 is a conference that's here to stay.