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SEC, Big 10 Dominate College Football TV Ratings

Regular Season TV ratings showed once again that the SEC and Big 10 are first among equals when it comes to the Power Five Conferences.

Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

2015 has been a very good year for the Big 10. Ohio State captured the first college football playoff back in January, Michigan State is in the Final Four this season, and a total of 10 league teams will go bowling.

But as good as 2015 has been for the Big 10, 2016 shapes up nicely as well. The leagues media deals for 1st and 2nd tier rights to football and basketball end after the 2016-17 seasons, and the Big 10 is gonna get paid.

Paid to the tune of over $2 billion for a 10-year deal, if industry experts are right.

More on the how and why of that windfall later, but a look at the just completed regular season gives ample evidence as to why the Big 10 and the SEC dominate the media and money landscape of college athletics.

First, here are the 10 most-watched college football games of this past regular season.

11.1 million      LSU/Alabama                                        CBS

11.1 million      Michigan State/Ohio State               ABC

10.6 million      Ohio State vs. Va. Tech                  ESPN

8.0 million       Alabama/Wisconsin                          ABC

7.9 million           Oregon/Michigan St                      ABC

7.7 million       Notre Dame/Clemson                      ABC

7.6 million       Mississippi/Alabama                       ESPN

7.6 million          Clemson/Fla. State                         ABC

7.4 million       Michigan St./Michigan                   ABC

7.3 million       Notre Dame/Stanford                    FOX

You will note that of the Power 5 conferences, the Big 12 is the only one not to be represented in that list.

The Big 12 really needs both Texas and Oklahoma to be good.

Each conference has network deals for their 1st & 2nd tier rights. These are the games picked over by FOX, ABC/ESPN and CBS. The majority of a University's TV product (10 or 11 football games - most basketball games) will be involved in these TV contracts.

ESPN loves college football - it is cheap programming that brings in a solid audience. FOX recently has made noises with FS1 that they want to cut into the percentage of ESPN's inventory, but it will be expensive to make any kind of dent in ESPN's dominance of the sport. Take a look at that Top Ten list - 8 of which were on the ESPN family of channels.

All 5 Power Conferences are making good money for their games. All 5 Power Conferences are getting a decent amount of games on the airwaves. It's when and where they air that gives the gives the SEC and Big 10 such an advantage.

FOX is trying to elbow its way into college football with the Pac 12 and Big 12 as the conferences they have the most control over. Right now that isn't all that great a deal for those leagues.

ESPN controls so much of the inventory that it generates other advantages. John Skipper, CEO of ESPN is famous for saying, "We don't buy games, we buy programming," and that creates a circle of promotion.

All those games help generates daily and weekly shows (College Football Today, College Football Live: Coaches Hot Stove, Road to the College Football Playoff, etc.). Those in turn run promos for all the games as well as other shows.

FOX meanwhile is perceived as an NFL network, where college football is an afterthought. They launched FS1 in hopes of building it into a real competitor for ESPN, but that is a long, long uphill climb that has just started.

Which means right now that Pac 12 and Big 12 games are on the front lines of the battle, without the ammunition and backing that others find on ABC/ESPN.

Here is a look at the distribution breakdown for the Power 5:

Big 12 Final Breakdown:

ABC - 6 games

ESPN - 9 games

ESPN2 - 4 games

ESPNU - 3 games

FOX - 6 games

FS1 - 21 games

49 games over 1st and 2nd tier networks

ACC Final Breakdown

ABC - 5 games

ESPN - 15 games

ESPN2 - 11 games

ESPNU -- 9 games

FOX - 1 game

FS1  -- 1 game

42 games over 1st and 2nd tier networks

Pac 12 Final Breakdown

ABC - 4 games

ESPN - 17 games

ESPN2 - 5 games

ESPNU - 2 games

FOX - 9 games

FS1 - 10 games

47 games over 1st and 2nd tier networks

Big 10 Final Breakdown

ABC - 17 games

ESPN - 11 games

ESPN2 - 13 games

ESPNU - 8 games

FOX  -- 2 games

FS1 - 2 games

53 games over 1st and 2nd tier networks

SEC Final Breakdown

ABC -- 1 game

CBS - 12 games

ESPN - 22 games

ESPN2 - 8 games

ESPNU - 7 games

Total 50 games on 1st or 2nd tier networks

The Big 10 and SEC combined for 103 games telecast by the networks - with 99 of them on CBS or the ABC/ESPN channels. The Big 12 had 49 games telecast by the networks - with 27 (55%) shown on FS1. In fact the Big 12 supplied 79% of all the college football contests shown on FS1

The Big 12 really needs both Texas and Oklahoma to be good.

What about audience ratings?


The Big 12 appeared on ABC six times in 2015, averaging 4 million viewers a game. Oklahoma was involved in five of the six contests.The Big 10 appeared on ABC 17 times, and averaged 6 million viewers per game. CBS had the SEC on 12 times and averaged 4.8 million viewers per game.

The Big 12 really needs both Texas and Oklahoma to be good.

As for cable giant ESPN, the Power 5 breakdown looks like this:  Big 12 - 9 appearances. ACC - 14 appearances.  Pac 12 - 17 appearances. Big 10 - 11 appearances. SEC - 22 appearances.

Again the SEC and Big 10 lead in popularity, with their games averaging an audience of 3.4 million for ESPN, over half a million a game more than any other conference.

The Big 12 really needs both Texas and Oklahoma to be good.

Back to the happy circumstance that the Big 10 now finds itself. The Big 10 Network is a money maker (not as nice as the SEC Network, but what the hell, it will do). Obviously there will be two major bidders for their 1st and 2nd tier media rights. Both ESPN and FOX are anxious to have live programming that appeals to the young adult male.

Both have also indicated that the money spout may be rusting a bit, as ESPN fights cord cutters by cutting back on staff. Meanwhile FOX had also made noises that the bidding for media rights has gotten out of hand and they intend to become more sensible when out shopping.

ESPN doesn't want to lose its foothold on college football. FOX needs an elite sports entity to tie to its growth of FS1. FOX will no doubt push that they A) will make the Big 10 the Jewel of its FS1 programming, and B) already have a strong partnership with the league since they own 51% of the Big Ten Network.

The Big 10 does have some leverage. They are the only major sports property, pro or college, to be on the market place for the rest of this decade. They no doubt will bring up the names Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh many, many times during negotiations.

Industry observers believe that the Big 10, under commissioner Jim Delaney, will work out a deal that will give both ESPN and FOX a piece of the action. Delaney likes money, but he also values the exposure his league gets over the ESPN network of channels.

So should be Big 12 hope for a FOX win, thereby strengthening the FOX and FS1 sports brand (and probably cutting into the league's exposure on FOX)? Or should it go along being the semi-big fish in the FOX pond.

Did I also happen to mention that the Big 12 really needs both Texas and Oklahoma to be good