Once again, conference realignment winds are blowing. (Aren’t they always?) And once again, the Big 12 is in the middle of it, following the not-so-gentle prodding of Oklahoma president David Boren.
As of right now, there’s no reason to believe there will be any more tectonic shifts in the near term among the major conferences. The Big 12 may opt to add some teams from the mid-major conferences, but nothing on par with what occurred five years ago. That hasn’t stamped out speculation about Boren’s long game – with good reason.
In light of that, I thought now was a good time to revisit Nate Silver’s analysis of conference realignment from five years ago. As a refresher, FiveThirtyEight’s Silver, then of The New York Times, set out to estimate how college football fans are allocated among programs. Silver’s methodology was complicated, but the numbers that he came up with seemed solid. I realize the data are a little dated at this point, but I doubt demographics have shifted enough in the last five years to write off Silver’s conclusions.
Let’s see what they have to say about OU, the Big 12 and the national landscape.
OU and the Big 12
According to Silver’s estimates, the Sooners have approximately 1.2 million fans, ranking 19th among all programs. To be sure, OU trails behemoths such as Ohio State (3.17 million, 1st overall) and Notre Dame (2.26 million, 4th overall). However, OU lands in a cluster with headline programs such as Nebraska, Tennessee and USC. Not too shabby.
Relative to the rest of the Big 12, OU accounts for about 15 percent of the total fans in the conference. The only school in the conference with a larger following is Texas, which has 2.25 million fans. (No other conference has that type of concentration among its two big dogs, which probably has a lot to do with the issues that it’s currently facing.)
If the Sooners left the league, could the Big 12 handle losing a chunk that size out of its fan base? I’m no expert on these valuations, but the costs could be significant.
More importantly, OU leaving could set off a chain reaction that sends Texas looking for another home. Combine the loss of OU and Texas leaving and that’s more than 40 percent of the the conference’s total number of fans.
What about OU and OSU leaving together? That would work out to about 23 percent of the Big 12’s total fans.
OU as an Expansion Candidate
The fan allocations derived by Silver show why the Big Ten and SEC rake in big bucks.
B1G programs sport 1.36 million fans on average. The league’s membership includes the three most popular teams in the country: Ohio St., Michigan and Penn State.
The average SEC program has 1.19 million fans. As currently constituted, the conference has nine schools with fan bases in the range of seven digits.
As such, OU’s fan profile is right around the average in both conferences – a little lower than the B1G, a little higher than the SEC.
Conversely, the Pac-12 has an average of roughly 620,000 fans per program, roughly half the level of the SEC and B1G. Put the Sooners out west, and that figure gets bumped up to more than 660,000, an increase in excess of 7 percent. Adding the combination of OU and OSU to the Pac-12 mix would represent an 8 percent increase.
I’ve read chatter lately downplaying OU’s attractiveness as an expansion target. For example, Clay Travis posits that because Oklahoma only offers 1.3 million TV sets for the SEC Network to monetize, it would be a non-starter for the SEC.
Maybe so. On the other hand, OU’s avid following is nothing to sneeze at.
OU would immediately fall in the top half of the B1G, Pac-12 and SEC in terms of fan support, according to Silver’s model. Aside from being one of college football’s blue bloods, a team with that many fans can only add interest and value to a conference’s football product. Think ESPN and CBS and FOX wouldn't relish adding matchups such as Oklahoma-Alabama or Oklahoma-Michigan or Oklahoma-USC to their programming inventory. Not to mention, the quality of a conference’s games will only take on greater importance as the cable bundle continues to fracture.
To be clear, I don’t believe OU will be leaving the Big 12 in the near future. Even so, Boren is signaling that OU will eventually put itself on the market if the rest of the conference refuses to go along with his three-pronged plan for the league. A look at the big picture indicates that if it came to that point, the Sooners would have plenty of suitors.