Does Mark Cuban Know Anything About College Football?

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was last known in the college football world for trying to set up a playoff system. He certainly had the populist (albeit wrong) side of that argument. However, his latest on conference realignment represents a tremendous misunderstanding of how college football scheduling and television works, as well as a curious misunderstanding of basic mathematics. I know that we’re all supposed to bow before his fly-by-the-pants wisdom, but I can barely get past his “problems” to get to the justification of his solution. Taking the problems in order:

1. More schools will NOT mean more TV money. … Maybe the SEC has an escalator in their contract that increases the total value of the TV contract, but I’m guessing that it still will result in a reduction in the dollars paid to each school when compared to the amount paid had an additional school not joined the conference.

Either the SEC has an escalator or they believe that the temporary losses outweigh what they will get when it comes time for renegotiation. It doesn’t take a “guess” for this to be the case. We can be relatively certain of this because of what the SEC is doing. They are throwing themselves into uncertainty for a midling-performance Big 12 school in a media-rich state. I am more inclined to believe that they know what their contract states and if it meant losing money, they wouldn’t do it. I’m not one of those people that believes it is “all about the money,” but in this case there is little reason to do what they are doing except for the money. They don’t need expansion. They don’t need A&M’s performance. They are doing this because it improves their situation. Could they be wrong about that? Sure. But not in the obvious way that Cuban suggests. I suspect that they have covered that angle.

2. Fans will hate the scheduling impact … I’m guessing that the only way to get all those games through a single TV network partner is to start very, very early or to go very very late. … Which is exactly why the big networks are very supportive of the Super Conferences. They know they will be able to force matchups OFF of tv and on to internet based broadcasts.

This is where mathematics comes into play. Between the major conferences, there are (or will be, next season) 68 BCS teams of note (counting TCU, which enters the Big East next year, and Notre Dame). Depending on how everything unfolds, there is likely to be roughly…. 68 BCS teams of note when all is said and done. Maybe more (if a couple more teams get brought in to round out a BE+B12 merger) or maybe less (if a couple of teams get left out and have to go down to the likes of the MAC or Conference USA). Cuban overlooks something very basic here… the demise of the Big 12 (as we know it) will leave a huge, gaping hole in college football scheduling. One to easily be filled by the slightly larger conferences elsewhere.

3. Say Goodbye to Cupcake Football Games … With every school added to a conference they are going to have to remove a cupcake to make room on their schedule. Coaches are going to HATE this. Of course the smaller schools are going to lose their pay day as well.

Nonsense. This assumes that every team within a conference must play every other team within a conference. We already know this isn’t true because it’s already not the case. Conferences limit themselves to 8 or 9 conference even when they have ten or more teams. The same would apply if they went to 16. The only difference is that, in a Pac-16, almost all of the games would be intra-division. The old Pac-8 would spend seven games against fellow old Pac-8 members, and then one or two against eastern division teams. This isn’t rocket science. It’s already happening.

4. Goodbye Geographic Rivalry Games I don’t care how good a game OU vs Oregon could hypothetically be, fans from both sides are going to second guess the economics of going to the games. And if it’s an off-year for either team, then what ?

As I said above, Oregon would spend over three quarters of its conference games against old Pac-8 rivals. Only one or two of the opponents would be outside the Pacific time zone and teams that they have not been playing for decades. He’s not quite as far off the mark here, though, as you will have teams in Arizona and Oklahoma in the same division. But Oklahoma would be in a division with four former conference rivals in addition to the three in Arizona and Utah. I think they can live with that. The losers in this arrangement are actually Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah, who would be cut off from their California ties. I am actually genuinely curious why these three, in addition to Colorado (who was in a losing situation in the Big 12 and would not benefit from a B12-like situation) and Stanford (who can’t be salivating at the likes of being conference-mates with Oklahoma State and Texas Tech), would go for this. My guess is, contra #1, there is a lot of money at stake.

As for his A&M example, it’s true that they are switching out a number of Oklahoma and Texas schools in favor of southeastern, but it’s not like Louisiana is Pennsylvania. They are an outlying team, but the state borders two SEC states and Arkansas, which he also cites as a team out of its geographical depth, borders three (four if Texas A&M joins). But, apparently A&M feels as though its current conference arrangement has left it overshadowed by schools that are too similar and being in the SEC would give them a way to separate themselves from the pack. This is not exactly an unusual attitude, as Florida allegedly is less than enthusiastic about letting Florida State join because being in the SEC is a competitive advantage for UF. Separating yourself from in-state rivals is pretty common. Twenty years ago, A&M and Texas were both in a conference that was almost entirely in-state. It didn’t work out.

5. Big Dogs Hate Becoming Little Dogs In a huge conference a school that was once a “leader” in its conference will inevitably become an also ran. They will be the school that used to get national games that now is relegated to the internet broadcasts or a small coverage regional game.

This one actually isn’t far off the mark, at least as it pertains to A&M-to-the-SEC. It’s often been mentioned that Texas A&M may have trouble competing in the SEC. But Arkansas made the transition from conference leader to middling school and apparently has no regrets. Being in the SEC has meant more exposure to them than they had in the Southwest Conference and arguably what they would have had in the Big 12. That last part is less certain though. It remains to be seen how well the teams departing for the Pac-16 do when playing Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah rather than Baylor and the Big 12 North schools. Oklahoma State and Texas Tech have reason to be concerned, but they’re likely to be the tagalongs (at least, they hope they will be) and go where UTex and OU go. UTex and OU would be just as likely to be dominant forces in the Pac-16 east as in the Big 12.

Now, these are more legitimate questions for the four or five schools left behind in the Big 12. They could restock their shelves and become conference leaders, or (more likely) scramble to join or merge with other conferences. Either way they are reacting rather than acting. They would almost certainly prefer the Big 12 stay in tact. It’s just that their opinion doesn’t really matter.

As for his justifications for staying put, they are similarly wanting. I’ll go through these more briefly:

1. The Big12 becomes the AL East of College Football. Texas vs OU has the same cachet and regional and national intensity. If either team moves they will have a difficult , if not impossible time replacing the quality of this rivalry. What’s more, the remaining teams because of the quality of the programs can quickly evolve into significant rivalries

This is only true if they separate, and something I am sure they are both considering. But they played each other out of conference before, so there’s no reason that they can’t do so again (unless Texas were to join the Big Ten, in which case more of his arguments would apply, but nobody is talking about that right now). Because, as previously mentioned, more conference members does not mean more conference games. Anyhow, this is the status quo. It has its advantages, but it also has its limitations.

2. Money, Money, Money Probably the most important reason to stay in a smaller Big 12 is that fewer schools means more money to the conference. The Big 12 is looking at a new TV deal in just a few years. … Their TV partners want quality, marquee games with national significance. That happens with the top 2 to 4 teams in every major conference. It doesn’t matter whether your conference has 9. 12. 16 or more members. There are only 20 teams in the Top 20 and 10 in the Top 10.

It doesn’t matter, though, whether those top 20 teams are split between four conferences or six. You’re still dealing with the same number of teams. And the Pac-16 east is likely to be roughly the same as the Big 12. Arizona and Arizona State will likely be in a better position, since the Pac teams are historically better than the Big 12, but for the others it’s likely a push or only a little bit tougher. A 9-3 team is likely to be ranked whether they are the #3 team in the Big 12 or the #3 team in the Pac-16 east and #5 in the Pac-16 as a whole.

And here’s the other thing. The fewer top-tier conferences there are, the more leverage they have with ESPN. ESPN could afford to blow off one of the top 6 conferences, if it came down to it, but they cannot afford to blow off 1 of 4. And a single 16-team conference could provide the entire sports programming for an NBC Sports Network. Indeed, the CBS Sports Network is built off a 12 team mid-major conference, two independents, and periodic games from another mid-major conference. A Pac-16 spanning from California to Texas or Missouri offering to give all of their first-tier rights to CBS or NBC Sports would make the network and pose a real threat to ESPN’s monopoly.

This is why ESPN was one of the parties anxious to keep the Big 12 together, Cuban’s protestations notwithstanding. ESPN and Fox both really stepped up to the plate to renegotiate a contract that they were under no obligation to renegotiate, because they see the threat of bidding wars with 4 conferences to be that much more intense than with 6.

3. Out of Conference TV Ready Games Fewer teams in the conference means more opportunity for out of conference games.

No. See above.

4. They Can Pay Players Larger Stipends or Start an NFL Like Development Fund The Big 12 can take the 20mm, 25mm or whatever the amount that would have gone to Texas A&M and do any of the following or whatever else they can think of …

They could do that now, without dipping into the A&M departure fund. Larger stipends would be a drop in the bucket. This is a separate issue.


None of this is to say that I like the idea of superconferences. On the whole, I don’t and would rather the Big East and Big 12 expand to 12 a piece and call it a day. However, what I want doesn’t matter. The Pac-16 could seriously benefit the schools involved. Or it might not, though hardly for the reasons that Cuban cites. The main concerns would be for specific programs like Arizona and those left behind. And those are schools that are vulnerable in part because they lack influence. As for the schools with influence? Well, they all have their own agendas, monetary and otherwise. And unlike the pro sports leagues, there is no central governing authority that can tell them what to do (unless they have a tribal mascot).

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.


  1. His point #2 is actually a good one. I think you misunderstood him. Yes, there are the same number of teams. But, if there is one Big10 network that could reasonably accommodate 3 or 4 games on a given Saturday, getting the majority of teams on the network, they will be unable to do that if they become the Big20. They’ll need to have multiple channels. Which may be part of the plan. But the issue is not, “How do you get 68 teams on TV?” It is, “How does one conference channel get 20 teams on TV with only one feed?”

    Overall, I think you bring up a lot of great points that at least show the populist perspective isn’t the slam dunk so many think it to be. I just had to quibble with what I think was a misunderstanding of Cuban’s point (unless I misunderstood your point).

    • You’re right that I didn’t quite read him correctly on that. In my own defense, it’s because he made a mistake that I didn’t catch by assuming that they have a single TV partner with a single channel. The Big Ten has its own channel, of course, but also has deals with ESPN/ABC and sells OOC games to FSN.

      Every conference has its own contracts, typically with more than a single outlet. The Big 12, for instance, has a contract with both ESPN and Fox Sports Network. There are also Third-Tier rights, which is what the whole Longhorn Network thing was about. The SEC sells its overflow games to regional and local networks.

      The (pending) demise of the Big 12 allows for more games to be sold off BTN. If it were the case that BTN were the only outlet for conference play, Cuban would have a point. But conferences aren’t generally limited to that. The closest case to a conference bound to a single network is the Mountain West Conference (the binding being one of the reasons BYU left), with the MTN, though even they have games on CBS College Sports and Versus, so something got worked out at least part of the way. And the MWC doesn’t have nearly the leverage as the Big Ten.

      Does all of this make sense?

  2. Yes, it does. I didn’t/don’t know exactly how it impacts a conference’s revenue stream to have games played on affiliated networks/channels as opposed to the primary network itself (like the Big Ten Network), but my hunch is the conference has enough control over that to refute Cuban’s point.

    Is it true that the Big Ten Network would be unable to showcase 5 marquee games in a weekend? Yes.

    Does this mean the conference loses out? Probably not.

    Most importantly, couldn’t the conference structure its schedule to avoid such situations most weeks? Obviously, you’ll have surprise marquee games here and there, but no reason to schedule three of your biggest rivalries all for the same weekend.

    • Obviously, you’ll have surprise marquee games here and there, but no reason to schedule three of your biggest rivalries all for the same weekend.

      Well, there’s tradition. Most schools play their arch-rivals on the last game of the season, typically around Thanksgiving (sometimes the week after, though with conference championships that’s less frequently the case because they need to close out the season a week early). The good news is that because it’s around a holiday, you have more days to work with. Even then, some rivalries don’t make it. A lot of T-Day rivalries actually got moved for this reason. It also used to be not-uncommon for the first game of the season to be a rivalry game when the teams are out-of-conference, though that never seems to happen anymore. My non-top-tier school used to play its rival on T-Day weekend, then later on the first game, but now it’s just kind of stuffed in there. So even with the traditions, it works itself out.

  3. Quite honestly, even though it’ll never happen, I think college football is somewhere that the promotion/relegation aspect of soccer could work quite well. Imagine a ‘superconference’ of the top 16 teams. Then another conference of the next 16. And so on.

    You can still have non-league games against your geographic rivals, there’s drama even in now ‘meaningless’ games to see whether Oklahoma can hang on to it’s spot in the Sears Superconference and whether TCU or South Florida will win promotion up to the Superconference and so on.

    I mean, it’ll never happen, but I can see it working a lot better in college football that has the right number of schools compared to say, NFL football or even major league baseball.

    • Some have suggested promotion/relegation between the BCS conferences, non-BCS, and I-AA/FCS. Obviously, it wouldn’t happen due to the institutionalism of the NCAA (the big conferences are snobs, it doesn’t matter how good Boise State or BYU get, they won’t be allowed into the Pac-X because they’re a low-rent school and a Mormon school respectively).

      I have in the past wondered if the top two mid-majors should expand to 16 and have their own promotion/relegation from divisions (instead of an “East” and “West” have an “Upper” and “Lower”). Both conferences have some quality teams, but some real deadweight, too. If they kept the “deadweight” to the lower division, they could actually be somewhat competitive.

  4. Relegation only works when the players have virtually no control over where they play. Soccer loans and sells players all of the time.

    Relegation would just lead to the destruction of programs and all of the good players abandon a school that is being relegated. That is why is took SMU decades to recover from the NCAA Death Penalty. All of the players and coaches moved on and the school was faced with rebuilding a program from scratch.

    The super conferences are about cable television networks (for all of their sports and just not football). The Big Ten network receives $0.25 per month for each household that subscribes to the Big Ten network in a state with a Big Ten school but only $0.05 in states without Big Ten schools. Adding New York (Syracuse), New Jersey (Rutgers), Missouri, and Notre Dame increases the value of the cable network and thus the income to all of the schools.

    In the long run, there will only be 64 football playing schools as all of the minor conferences either move down to I-AA or drop football (and possibly all sports).

    • Relegation would just lead to the destruction of programs and all of the good players abandon a school that is being relegated. That is why is took SMU decades to recover from the NCAA Death Penalty. All of the players and coaches moved on and the school was faced with rebuilding a program from scratch.

      Not really. You only get four playing years and transferring means that you have to sit out on one of them. The only time you can transfer without losing a year is a case where your program is in deep doo-doo with the NCAA. You can’t leave a school because it changes conferences without significant cost.

      In the long run, there will only be 64 football playing schools as all of the minor conferences either move down to I-AA or drop football (and possibly all sports).

      I see no particular reason to believe that all of the other schools would drop football or fall to I-AA. Troy is not running the deficits laboring under the illusion that an invite to the SEC is right around the corner.

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