So apparently SMU has made public its desire to join a BCS AQ conference. That sound you hear is 119 other schools chuckling at SMU holding a press conference to announce that water is wet.
SMU averaged attendance of just over 23 thousand fans last season in its 7 football games. Its stadium holds a maximum of 32 thousand (though SMU wants you to know it could expand to 40 thousand!). To put that into perspective, the Big 12 as a conference averaged more than 62 thousand fans per game. That’s almost three times what SMU actually averaged, and almost twice as many as the maximum that SMU could achieve.
On top of that, Baylor – widely considered to be the closest thing the Big 12 has to dead weight – averaged more than 40 thousand fans per game in 2010. In other words, Baylor averaged more fans last year than SMU could even fit into its stadium even after SMU’s claimed expansion. Non-AQ teams in the Big 12 footprint such as Air Force, BYU, and TCU all averaged more than 40 thousand fans per game last season. Even Rice drew more fans than SMU last season – 4-8 Rice!
SMU tries to make the case that “Dallas deserves a school” in a BCS AQ conference. No they don’t. No city “deserves” a school in a BCS AQ conference – and certainly not a city that can’t put more than 23 thousand fans in the seats for their newly respectable Mustangs. Left conveniently unsaid, of course, is that TCU – from neighboring city Fort Worth – will be joining a BCS AQ conference next season. And, thank you very much SMU, but the Big 12 doesn’t need you to “solidify the Dallas-Fort Worth TV market.” Even if both Texas A&M and Texas left the conference, the ripest target for shoring up the Dallas-Fort Worth TV market would be TCU.
In short, SMU adds nothing to the Big 12. If SMU were added to the conference, it would immediately be the weakest program in the Big 12 – by a healthy margin.
I hate to pick on SMU, but fans of non-AQ programs need to be realistic. Only nine BCS AQ programs drew less than 40k fans last season – and only two less than 30,000. There are 67 total AQ programs (including Notre Dame). And one of the programs at less than 30,000 was Duke, which also happens to have perhaps the most elite men’s basketball program in the country. (The other at less than 30k is the Washington State – and I assure you no one is looking for any more Washington States.)
Newsflash: BCS AQ conferences aren’t looking to increase the size of their weak tiers. To get added to a BCS AQ conference, the new team has to add value. If your favorite team doesn’t draw at least 40,000 fans, what kind of value would that program add? Don’t tell me about your “television market.” If your market is so big and great, why can’t you get anyone to show up for your games?
With 40k attendance as a cut-off, it is interesting to see which non-AQ squads meet that threshold. They are: Air Force, BYU, and East Carolina (and Air Force fell under that threshold as recently as 2009). That’s it! Central Florida just barely missed the cut-off with an average of 39,600 fans. I didn’t include TCU or Utah, which have already received their BCS AQ invitations. If you generously dropped the line to 30,000, you add to the list: Army, Boise State, Fresno State, Hawaii, Houston, Navy, San Diego State, and UCF. At least with those programs they could credibly argue they wouldn’t be as weak as Washington State, although when you consider how disastrous things have been at Washington State, that’s not high praise.
Why does attendance matter so much? Money, of course. First, home attendance is a decent proxy for measuring fan support. If people aren’t showing up for games, then the interest on the TV side is likely flat as well. Also, the size of a stadium reflects support both in the amount of fans that show up but also in the amount of money that the school has been able to raise to build/expand the stadium. Boise State fans may claim that they could fit in more fans if they had more than 33,500 seats, but that misses the point. The fact that their stadium only has 33,500 seats tells a story about Boise State’s historical support. If Boise State had shown a capability of putting 40k or 50k butts in seats every week for a long period of time, then the stadium almost surely would have been expanded to that range already. As it is, the stadium only held 20k fans until 1996. What happens if Boise State’s program slips? Will they have sufficient residue of support to still fill their already small stadium, or will they go back to where they were at just 15 years ago? When you put the ceiling at 33,500, that doesn’t leave Boise State any margin whatsoever, and that hurts their viability.
Second, let’s take an example of how home attendance adds up. Oklahoma puts 84k fans in its stadium on average. Before someone protests that Oklahoma isn’t a fair example because it is relatively high in attendance even for the BCS AQs, let me point out that if a team is going to compete in a BCS AQ conference like the Big 12, they will have to compete against the Oklahoma’s of the world – like it or not. Now take a school that averages 34k fans. Not bad in the non-AQ world, but 50k fans behind an Oklahoma. Over the course of an average 7 game home schedule, however, the gap grows to 350,000 fans.
Now, let’s cast aside the additional donations that most Oklahoma fans have to make to get their tickets. And let’s generously under-price the cost of Oklahoma tickets. For the sake of fantasy, let’s say that the tickets for both Oklahoma and the 34k school are sold at an average cost of $40 per ticket. That means over the course of a season Oklahoma would draw an additional $14 million in revenue over the 34k school. That doesn’t include concession sales. And the additional costs required to seat the additional 50k fans per week are marginal (For example, Oklahoma would not need any more PA announcers or field maintenance crew than the 34k school). Once you take that difference and add on the concessions/memorabilia difference, along with the booster donations that come along with the ticket purchases, you see the massive financial difference. It is likely larger than the amount of TV revenue each conference school receives (it would be, for example, more than most Big 12 teams have made from their overall TV deals). Even against a school like Kansas State, the difference would be 15k per game – a more than $4 million starting gap in our basic hypothetical from even one of the poorest Big 12 schools.
It is true that these financial differences already exist within BCS AQ conferences. For example, Texas attendance dwarfs Baylor’s attendance. But, again, these conferences aren’t getting excited about adding any more Baylors. While no one would expect a Utah to compete with a USC financially right out of the box, the key is that Utah can compete financially with the rest of the Pac-12. In fact, I fully expect Utah to be roughly in the middle of the pack attendance-wise in 2011. The same will be true for TCU when it joins the Big East. If your favorite non-AQ school can’t say the same about the AQ conference you hope it will join, then my advice is not to get your hopes up too high.
[UPDATE: Something that was added in the ESPN coverage of SMU’s BCS fantasy press conference was SMU’s argument that since the SEC and Big 12 were essentially tied in the ratings in the Dallas Metroplex, then the Big 12 could use SMU to shore up its ratings in Dallas. My initial sense is that SMU is playing games with numbers here. Regardless, they’re engaging in logical fallacy to support their argument for inclusion on these grounds. The proper comparison to determine SMU’s value is not between the Big 12 and the SEC, but between SMU and the Big 12. If SMU’s games are rated higher in the Dallas Metroplex than the Big 12 games, then SMU actually has an argument that they would improve the Big 12’s ratings in the Dallas market (to the extent the increased value is sufficient to warrant inclusion). But given that SMU didn’t use that proper comparison, I’m guessing it was because the right comparison does not really reflect so well on SMU. As I mentioned above, if a school can only get 23,000 to show up for games, what is the likelihood that they are blowing the roof off the ratings?]
[UPDATE II: Just to illustrate the issue of how behind SMU is from the Big 12 schools, note that even if SMU expanded their stadium to 40,000, and even if SMU was able to sell it out every single week (something they’re not coming close to now in a 32,000 seat stadium), they still would likely be dead last in the Big 12 in attendance (Baylor averaged slightly more than 40k fans last season, so it is possible they could slip). In other words, SMU would struggle to keep up with even the Iowa State’s, Baylor’s, and Kansas State’s of the conference. SMU has a long way to go to make a decent case for entry into the Big 12. A long way.]