Yesterday, the Mid-American conference signed on with ESPN for another 13-years, keeping weeknight MACtion on the Worldwide Leader through the 2026-2027 season. While this deal has lots of perks, including nearly every MAC football and men's basketball game being streamed on ESPN3 throughout its life, some feel the reported payout wasn't enough and the MAC may have been able to get a better ($$) deal somewhere else.
One of the key talking points about this deal was the continued "exposure" it would provide the conference. There's no denying ESPN provides the MAC with exposure. Without the nationally televised weeknight games in November, there's no MACtion. Without MACtion, we may not exist (humanity would be worse off without Hustle Belt, you know that's a fact). But is the exposure as valuable, and large, as the MAC claims?
Using the 2013 college football season TV ratings from Sports Media Watch I pulled out all the MAC games on ESPN and compiled them, with ratings and viewers below (* denotes MAC Championship):
|0.1||199K||Thur. Aug. 29 / 7:00 PM||Tulsa||Bowling Green||ESPNU|
|1.1||1.89M||Sat., Aug. 31, 12:00 PM||Buffalo||Ohio State||ESPN2|
|1.2||1.76M||Sun., Sep 1, 3:30 PM||Ohio||Louisville||ESPN|
|0.2||326K||Sat., Sep. 7, 4:30 PM||Toledo||Missouri||ESPNU|
|0.3||601K||Sat., Sep. 14, 7:00 PM||Kent State||LSU||ESPNU|
|0.1||195K||Sat., Sep. 14, 12:00 PM||Bowling Green||Indiana||ESPNU|
|0.1||86K||Sat., Sep. 14, 8:00 PM||Marshall||Ohio||ESPNEWS|
|0.1||174K||Sat., Sep. 21, 12:00 PM||Vanderbilt||UMass||ESPNEWS|
|0.4||501K||Sat., Sep. 28, 12:00 PM||Northern Illinois||Purdue||ESPN2|
|0.1||171K||Sat., Oct. 19, 12:00 PM||Navy||Toledo||ESPNEWS|
|0.4||559K||Tue., Nov. 5, 8:00 PM||Ohio||Buffalo||ESPN2|
|0.1||167K||Tue., Nov. 5, 8:00 PM||Bowling Green||Miami (OH)||ESPNU|
|0.4||592K||Wed., Nov. 6, 8:00 PM||Cent. Michigan||Ball State||ESPN2|
|0.1||182K||Tue, Nov. 12, 7:30 PM||Buffalo||Toledo||ESPNU|
|0.7||1.04M||Wed., Nov. 13, 8:00 PM||Ball State||N. Illinois||ESPN2|
|0.1||147K||Wed., Nov. 13, 8:00 PM||Miami (OH)||Kent State||ESPNU|
|0.3||435K||Tue., Nov. 19, 8:00 PM||Kent State||Ohio||ESPN2|
|0.1||130K||Tue., Nov. 19, 8:00 PM||Buffalo||Miami (OH)||ESPNU|
|0.7||1.05M||Wed., Nov. 20, 8:00 PM||N. Illinois||Toledo||ESPN2|
|0.6||881K||Tue., Nov. 26, 7:00 PM||W. Michigan||N. Illinois||ESPN2|
|0.1||168K||Fri., Nov. 29, 1:30 PM||Bowling Green||Buffalo||ESPNU|
|1.2||1.87M||Fri., Dec. 6, 8:00 PM||Bowling Green||Northern Illinois||ESPN2*|
As you can see, the two highest rated regular season games were played on the road, in non-conference season, and had nothing to do with the MAC's ESPN TV Deal. The average rating of those weeknight games in November (excluding the MAC Championship) was a .37. That's not a terribly impressive number as far as live sports ratings go, and averages out to about 500k viewers per game. It's merely OK, especially when compared to the exposure other Group of 5 football conferences are getting.
Let's take a look at some overall TV rankings, as derived from Sports Media Watch, courtesy of our pals at MWC Connection.
|Rank||Conference||Avg Viewers||Avg Rating||# of Rated Gms|
Taking in ALL TV appearances, the MAC pulled in a .50 average (this includes, of course those heavily watched non-conference appearances, the MAC Championship, and bowl game viewership. That puts them squarely in the middle of the Group of 5 in terms of exposure on TV. What did the MAC earn from this exposure? $1.4 million from ESPN. Conference USA pulled in near identical numbers (exposure), without the great Worldwide Leader (C-USA has national deals with FOX Sports and CBS Sports), and received at least $12 million for that, more than 10 times what the MAC received for identical exposure.
How about bowl games? The MAC was once again OK in terms of exposure in their five ESPN bowls.
|1.4||2.06M||Sat., Dec. 21, 5:30 PM||Buffalo||San Diego State||ESPN||Famous Idaho Potato Bowl|
|0.9||1.27M||Mon., Dec. 23, 2:00 PM||ECU||Ohio||ESPN||St. Petersburg Bowl|
|2.2||3.28M||Thur, Dec. 26, 9:30 PM||Utah State||Northern Illinois||ESPN||Poinsettia Bowl|
|2.1||3.35M||Thur, Dec. 26, 6:00 PM||Pittsburgh||Bowling Green||ESPN||Little Caesar’s Bowl|
|1.1||1.71M||Sun., Jan. 5, 9:00 PM||Arkansas State||Ball State||ESPN||GoDaddy Bowl|
The Ohio-ECU game was the second lowest bowl game of the 2013 season on ESPN, but the awkward time of that game surely played a role. The rest of the MAC's bowl appearances were about average for non-BCS bowl games. A good showing, but still no more than 3.35 million people tuned in to watch a MAC bowl game, and the MAC had a few that were the only bowl games on their respective days.
So is the exposure of being on ESPN worth less money in the end? It's hard to argue for that considering the numbers the MWC and Conference USA are putting up without primary deals with ESPN. They're getting as much, or more exposure, for substantially more money, and more fan-friendly viewing times. Some fans claim the MAC has sold its soul to ESPN (and sacrificed attendance for serving ESPN's wishes) and it's easy to see why some people feel that way when you see these numbers. Other G5 conferences have managed to carve out as much or more exposure as the MAC, without funky scheduling, and in some cases without ESPN's help.
Then again, it's a double-edged sword. Sure, the MAC is fun, and has previously been criminally undervalued by ESPN. But, it's hard to see the MAC actually being able to land a better deal than it just got from ESPN until it earns better ratings, The fact is, when it's the only thing on TV it's merely keeping pace with conferences who are on TV on crowded Saturday afternoons. When we take that into perspective, suddenly this new MAC-ESPN deal seems pretty MAC-friendly.