Our recent package on the business of college football included a story on the most expensive college football games of the year. That story featured the 20 regular season games with the highest ticket prices on the secondary market or, put another way, the most anticipated games of the 2013 regular season.
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That list highlighted the fact that the games with the most demand are in-conference rivalry games. That includes the Bedlam Series between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, the Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn and even the cross-Iowa battle for the Cy-Hawk trophy between Iowa and Iowa State. Two ACC games made the cut: Florida State-Miami and Florida State-Clemson.
According to a recent proposal, at least one ACC athletic director thinks it’s a good idea to get rid of some annual rivalry games.
An Associated Press open records request revealed that Syracuse AD Daryl Gross has suggested that the ACC move to a nine-game conference schedule. ACC teams currently play eight in-conference games, which include matchups against all six divisional opponents. The remaining two games are against cross-divisional teams, one of which is a standing rivalry game. The nine-game proposal would eliminate those standing cross-divisional partners, at least in some years.
Gross writes: “There are some playing-partner scheduling that simply don’t need to be maintained.” He goes on to say, “In fact I believe it would be in the best interest to prioritize playing multiple members of the conference over having a playing partner.”
While some of those standing games, such as Boston College-Virginia Tech, aren’t the most heated rivalries, Gross’ suggestion would impinge on some of the conference’s oldest rivalries: Clemson-Georgia Tech, North Carolina-NC State, Miami-Florida State. Those games would still be played in some years, but they wouldn’t have the annual schedule they do now.
The payoff for eliminating those games would be to spread the wealth; in other words, to grant each conference school an opportunity to travel to Atlanta and Boston, or host visitors from Clemson and Tallahassee. It’s of course worth noting that it’s the athletic director of Syracuse that’s making this suggestion. The school just joined the ACC this year and, as a result, doesn’t have a longstanding rivalry game to lose. Gross also specifically raises potential benefits to recruiting, an area where Syracuse is way behind its conference competition.
Most interestingly, Gross’ proposal makes specific mention of the potential impact to the ACC’s exposure, reportedly ending his email by writing:
“If we played everyone in the league equally our schedules would be much more robust giving our fans diverse schedules annually. Also our student-athletes would get exposures in all markets of the conference. Lastly we could maximize our television inventory by offering multiple and fresh matchups.”
What Gross doesn’t explain, however, is why “fresh matchups” are better than rivalries for hometown fans, or how scheduling diversity does anything to improve the conference’s exposure. Take his example of TV inventory for instance. Expanding cross-divisional play might create new games, but that would likely hurt TV viewership if those games are played at the expense of longstanding rivalries.
This year’s FSU-Miami game was played in primetime on ABC, making it one of the biggest games of the week. The game drew more than eight million viewers, a massive national audience. For comparison’s sake, consider that it was competing against Fox's showdown between No. 15 Texas Tech and No. 18 Oklahoma State; that game drew just 2.4 million viewers.
It would be fair to point out that viewership was particularly high this year because both Miami and FSU were ranked in the top ten, but even in seasons when either team is struggling the game ordinarily gets national coverage. Last year, FSU was No. 14 while the Hurricanes were unranked. It was still aired in primetime on ABC. That game had 4.6 million viewers, again dwarfing the competition: No. 4 Kansas State, undefeated at the time, took on No. 13 West Virginia in a game that was watched by just 2.3 million viewers.
Those major audiences were driven, in part, by a rivalry that stretches back sixty years. If the Seminoles had to play Pittsburgh or Virginia instead? It might be a fresh matchup, but in a typical season that game isn’t drawing a national audience. Rather, it would likely be an afternoon game buried in ESPN’s much harder to find lower-tier channels. And that doesn’t even touch on the fact that setting an attendance record would be well beyond the question.
When the ACC signed its $3.6 billion TV deal with ESPN, I argued that the conference didn’t get enough money for the additional rights it granted the network. The counter argument, and it’s a strong one, is that in the process the conference maximized its national exposure. But if the ACC truly wants to get the most bang for its buck, then it needs to provide ESPN the best possible inventory. That means maintaining rivalry games, and not mixing things up for the sake of variety.