Mandel: TV numbers show Pac-12 might be healthier than we think (for now)

Right after the Oklahoma-and-Texas-to-the-SEC bombshell broke last summer, I conducted a frantic research project examining the TV value of the eight Big 12 schools left behind. There was speculation at the time that the Pac-12 or another Power 5 conference would swoop in and invite several of those schools. I quickly realized that wasn’t going to happen, upon seeing how poorly programs like Oklahoma State and Baylor fare in the Nielsen ratings when not facing the Sooners or the Longhorns.

A year later, the Pac-12 finds itself in much the same predicament following USC and UCLA’s shocking departures for the Big Ten. Given the Big 12 has since stabilized itself with the additions of BYU, Cincinnati, UCF and Houston, there are now rumblings of that league trying to poach a combination of the remaining Pac-12 programs.

With the Pac-12 knee-deep in a 30-day negotiation window with ESPN and Fox for its next deal, it was a no-brainer for me to conduct a similar study of the 10 remaining Pac-12 schools’ TV performances. Are those schools worth more, less, or roughly the same as the eight Big 12 holdovers? And does the data support the prevailing notion that Oregon and Washington are particularly valuable brands?

The one regret I had about that Big 12 story is that it only looked at two seasons’ (2018 and 2019) worth of data. That’s too small a sample size. Fortuitously, my colleague Andy Staples (with the help of Sports Media Watch) has since compiled a massive database of every regular-season Nielsen-rated game since 2015 (excluding the statistically worthless 2020 season). This allowed me to not only go deeper with the Pac-12, but revisit and update the Big 12 for apples-to-apples comparisons.

(I did not include BYU, Cincinnati, UCF and Houston in the Big 12’s sample, as they were not Big 12 members at the time and, in the case of the latter three, were largely facing Group of 5 and not Power 5 opponents. )

Both conferences’ home games on ABC, Fox, ESPN, ESPN2, FS1 and ESPNU were included. Unfortunately, no data is available for the Pac-12 Network, Longhorn Network or ESPN+, which began airing Big 12 games in 2019. But it’s still a relatively similar amount of inventory — after removing the departing members’ games, about 52 per year from the Big 12 and 48 from the Pac-12.

Some key takeaways…

Losing USC and UCLA is not as catastrophic as losing Oklahoma and Texas

It’s absolutely still a gut punch, but neither USC or UCLA have been as big a draw recently as Oklahoma or Texas. Over six seasons, the Sooners averaged 3.26 million viewers per game, the Longhorns 2.7 million. Over the same period, the Trojans averaged 2.17 million per game, the Bruins 1.55 million. While Oklahoma and Texas were the Big 12’s clear-cut top two, USC was not significantly higher than Oregon (2.02 million), while UCLA ranked sixth in the Pac-12.

Of course, this period coincided with Clay Helton’s underwhelming tenure at USC, in which the Trojans went 46-32 and won one Pac-12 title. The TV networks would know much better how well USC rates when it’s winning big, like it did during the Pete Carroll era.

That said, Texas was 40-36 during the same stretch and averaged a half-million more viewers than the Trojans.

There’s an obvious reason for that, though. The conferences’ two media partners generally put their best games every week on over-the-air networks ABC or Fox, where games usually draw higher ratings than on cable. Oklahoma and Texas appeared on 46 and 33 such broadcasts, respectively, compared with 28 for USC and 16 for UCLA.

In total, 73 percent of Fox and ABC’s Big 12 selections included the two departing members, versus 53 percent for the Pac-12. In fact, Oregon was chosen for the top spot 18 times, two more than UCLA.

Why, then, isn’t the Big Ten taking Oregon instead of or along with UCLA? Because the Los Angeles television market is much more valuable.

It currently comprises nearly 5.5 million households. Getting the Big Ten Network (which is majority owned by Fox) onto basic cable tiers there is expected to generate tens of millions annually in new subscriber fees — whether or not those subscribers watch a single UCLA game.

Oregon and Washington draw well—but don’t forget Stanford

Oregon, which went to the College Football Playoff the year before this period began, won a Rose Bowl in 2019 and finished in the AP Top 25 two other seasons, averaged 1.96 million viewers, even with its USC and UCLA games removed. For perspective, the top remaining Big 12 program, Oklahoma State, averaged 1.28 million.

The next-highest performer was a mild surprise: Stanford (1.83 million), which edged out Washington (1.73 million). While the Cardinal have been dreadful the past few seasons, they were notable ratings draws in the days of Christian McCaffrey and Bryce Love. In 2016, a Friday night ESPN game between No. 7 Stanford and No. 10 Washington drew 3.3 million viewers, third-highest of any Pac-12 game that season.

Stanford also gets significant mileage out of its every-other-year home games against Notre Dame. The two have played every year (save 2020) since 1997. The four installations during this period averaged 4.8 million. While there is no guarantee the series continues forever, an ESPN or Fox might pay handsomely just for the rights in the event it does.

Everyone but Arizona and Oregon State averaged at least 1.2 million viewers

Below is a chart of the remaining Pac-12 and Big 12 schools’ average TV ratings, from 2015-19 and 2021. (Games against Oklahoma/Texas and USC/UCLA are excluded.)

TEAM VIEWERS

1.96 million

1.83 million

1.73 million

1.59 million

1.49 million

1.44 million

1.28 million

1.27 million

1.22 million

1.19 million

1.10 million

1.07 million

1.04 million

866,000

815,000

748,000

723,000

409,000

That 1.2 million number would get laughed at in the Big Ten or SEC. As Staples recently wrote, Auburn, even with marquee games against Alabama and Georgia excluded, has a median audience that’s twice as high (2.4 million).

But it may be of relevance given the current Big 12/Pac-12 jostling taking place farther down the track.

That 1.2 million average is more than all but two of the eight Big 12 holdovers (Oklahoma State and TCU). Even Oklahoma State (1.28 million) would only rank seventh among the remaining Pac-12 schools. On the surface, that seems preposterous, given the Cowboys, who went 12-2 last season and 57-22 over those six seasons, are light years better on the field than the forlorn Buffaloes (33-42).

But I think I know the answer.

Pac-12 After Dark is a sneaky-big advantage

As much as Pac-12 coaches and fans loathe those late games, they may be the league’s saving grace in its next deal.

While the Big 12 and Pac-12 have the same two TV partners, their deals are structured differently. The Big 12’s leftover eight had far more of their games relegated to the ratings graveyard that is FS1 than the Pac-12’s, while the Pac-12 got more pickups by main ESPN. And that’s entirely because the league is able to place games at 10:30 pm ET, when no other Power 5 leagues are playing.

In 2021, Pac-12 teams appeared on 12 ESPN games that kicked off at 10 pm ET or later. Those games averaged 1.34 million viewers, and all but two broke 1 million.

Because ESPN reserves its earlier time slots almost entirely for the Big Ten, SEC and ACC, the Big 12’s best cable windows are usually daytime on ESPN2. Ratings-wise, it’s still better to be on main ESPN, regardless of kickoff time.

For example, on Nov. 20 last season, Arizona State and Oregon State — two of the Pac-12’s lowest-drawing teams — played a 10:30 pm ET ESPN game that garnered 1.11 million viewers. In doing so, they narrowly beat a Noon ESPN2 game that included Texas (against West Virginia). It sounds crazy, but the latter, which reached 1 million viewers, went up against both No. 4 Ohio State vs. No. 7 Michigan State on ABC (5.3 million) and Clemson vs. No. 10 Wake Forest on ESPN (1.6 million), whereas the Sun Devils and Beavers were the only Power 5 teams still in action.

The Pac-12 might be OK if…

In conclusion, the Pac-12 may be in better shape than one would have assumed three weeks ago — provided it can keep the remaining 10 schools together.

The league won’t come anywhere close to the SEC or Big Ten in its next TV deal, but a consensus has developed recently among TV experts that ESPN will likely offer something enticing enough to calm the waters. (Fox, now that it has the existing Big Ten and USC and UCLA, is likely out of the picture.) Keep in mind, that new deal will likely include the rights to 30-plus additional games a year that currently air on the soon-to-go-dark Pac-12 Network. ESPN would likely place on them on its budding ESPN+ streaming service.

Of course, if at any point the Big Ten changes its mind about Oregon and Washington, then the remains of the Pac-12 would be no better off than the remains of the Big 12. But that does not appear to be imminent. In the meantime, commissioner George Kliavkoff should urge those 10 schools to welcome a couple of new members (San Diego State would surely be one), embrace 10:30 pm ET kickoffs and look forward to a new era with more streaming (hello, ESPN+ ) and possibly no FS1 or Pac-12 Network dumps.

The money won’t be $80 million a year like the Big Ten’s 2024 projections, but should be within shouting distance of the ACC, which got $36.1 million last year.

Like the Pac-12, the rebuilt Big 12 is to be determined. But based on the ratings numbers in this story, it’s hard to see why the Pac-12 would be in a weaker position.

(Photo: Jeff Halstead/Getty)

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