Is The SEC’s Business Model Vulnerable?

Back when college football was king and the NFL a mere sideshow, professional teams often resorted to “barnstorming,” playing most, if not all, “home” games in other cities — basically, any place where people would pay for the novelty of pro football. My personal favorite barnstorming team were the Oorang Indians. Nominally based in LaRue, Ohio, the Indians were founded by the owner of the Oorang dog kennels, who saw an NFL team as a promotional vehicle. The Indians posted a dismal 4-16 record — all but one game played on the road — in two seasons before folding in 1922.

While the NFL has grown by leaps and bounds in the 90 years since the heyday of the Oorang Indians, barnstorming has started to make a comeback. The Buffalo Bills now export one home game a year to nearby Toronto. The NFL now schedules one game per year in London’s Wembley Stadium — and recently the St. Louis Rams announced they would be the “home” team for the London game for the 2012–2014 seasons.

This barnstorming-lite, if you will, is a sign that the NFL’s stadium model is starting to crack under the strain of overproduction. The league is having trouble selling out stadiums in marginal markets, so the owners are trying to compensate by sending games to new markets where the “novelty” factor masks the substandard product. Since the NFL is presently constructed to maximize consumption, not profit, we’re bound to see more barnstorming in the future. Keep in mind, the league desperately wants to expand output by at least 12.5% in the form of an 18-game regular season.

College football was popular long before the NFL, whose recent success is almost entirely dependent on television. Colleges benefit from a loyal customer base, regional alliances and a sports product that’s not dependent on producing a handful of “superstars.” But that doesn’t mean college football, notably the SEC, may not be vulnerable to a host of internal and external economic changes.

Despite the media’s hatred for the NCAA and the college football bureaucracy, that bureaucracy has largely checked the type of gluttonous schedule expansion that’s plaguing the NFL. Yes, there are the bowl games, but those are exhibitions managed by third parties. College football’s regular season remains fixed at 12 games and there’s no indication the powers-that-be want to go beyond that. Indeed, there’s even been chatter about dropping back to 11 games, eliminating the traditional game against an FCS school that’s effectively a form of reverse-barnstorming (“front porching”?)

College presidents remain adamantly opposed to a multi-round playoff. Critics contend the colleges are leaving money on the table; a playoff would certainly be boom times for all, they claim. But that’s largely speculation driven by BCS hatred. While a playoff may well be a boon for broadcasters — particularly ESPN, which would undoubtedly pay a premium for such an event — it’s unclear how it would help the SEC or its member schools. More TV money doesn’t always solve your problems; just ask the London (nee St. Louis) Rams.

In fact, television may be the SEC’s biggest obstacle. The rapid increases in television rights fees for all sports, particularly pro and college football, represent an unsustainable bubble. Put simply, ESPN is overpaying for sports rights fees in order to justify its own high carriage fees to cable operators, who carry the channel for a premium price as part of their basic packages. ESPN depends on the widespread belief that sports are so essential to viewers, no cable operator will move them to a premium or a la carte tier.

But there’s always a point where the bubble bursts. There are already rumblings about cable operators revolting against ESPN and other sports content providers. Internet streaming, legal or otherwise, continues to erode the proprietary model of cable programming, just as it has for music and other media. Within ten years, ESPN’s current model is likely to collapse, leading to an overall decrease in rights fees — or at least less growth than schools have seen in recent years.

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The SEC is also at a crossroads because of increased competition from the Big 10 and Pac-12, both of whom have their own networks. The SEC’s recent addition of Missouri and Texas A&M was thought to be a prelude towards the establishment of an SEC Network, but it’s unclear what the conference’s plans really are. If and when we get to a point where ESPN — or CBS, the SEC’s other television partner — is clearly in decline, a proprietary conference network goes from being a luxury to a competitive necessity.

An SEC network is just one piece of the puzzle, however. The larger question is how will the SEC provide football content to its fans in an ever-changing marketplace. As we’ve seen with recent battles over copyright legislation, established media players often take a defensive stance, insisting more government intervention is necessary to restrict “piracy” from infringing upon existing businesses.

In reality, this is just rent-seeking. Movie producers don’t want to adapt their model to a culture where Internet consumption rivals, if not overtakes, people going to theaters. Similarly, the NFL demands more subsidies for its stadiums as fans continue to prefer the superior television product offered by the networks. The SEC needs to learn from the struggles of these other entertainment companies, and hopefully avoid wasting time and resources on protectionist campaigns that will ultimately prove futile.

Ideally, the SEC needs to integrate every aspect of its operation into social media and decentralized networks. It needs to provide — and yes, find a way to charge for — “inside” access and information. And I don’t just mean for donors and high-end boosters. Or if nothing else, it needs to get out of the way and let other entrepreneurs do these things without threat of legal recrimination. Remember, a major reason for the NFL’s current success is the rise of fantasy football — a product that exists outside the formal control of the league’s owners. Anytime there’s a large, committed customer base, folks will find a way to service them, if they are allowed to do so.

If the SEC takes the initiative, it will continue to be the dominant player in college football, not just on the field but in the business world. Otherwise we could be looking at a time where we hear about Mississippi State and Texas A&M playing a conference game in Mexico City.

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COMMENTS

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  • I’d watch Miss State and Texas A&M in Mexico City…

  • The establishment of an SEC Network is a certainty. Listen to Commissioner Slive’s latest interview with Paul Finebaum.

    The key for the SEC is to retain flexibility over various content platforms, and not get locked into decades of straight cable TV contracts.

  • I think the big difference between the NFL and the SEC is that most SEC fans are Alumni with personal ties to the school. The NFL is pure entertainment and those dollars are the first to dry up when things go bad, but for college sports in general, and the SEC in particular, that connection makes it more than just entertainment. SEC sports is entertainment but it is also recruiting (for the Academic side as well as athletic), it’s recognition, it’s the primary connection point for the alumni. You make some good points but I think the college and pro games are so different that it is difficult to find many parallels.