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Viewing habits will change all assumptions about conference realignment

A remote TV camera is suspended over the field during the second half of the Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game between Alabama and Florida, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
John Bazemore/AP photo

Earlier this summer, I plugged a brand-new Amazon Fire Stick into my television’s HDMI portal. With that one device, I stemmed the tide of college football conference realignment.

My household is among the growing number to eschew traditional cable, instead consuming television through services like Netflix, Hulu and SlingTV — streamed via a Fire Stick in one room, and a smart Blu Ray player in another.

Streaming seems to be the future of multimedia consumption, though the future has become the present much more quickly than anticipated. A spring 2016 Fortune report estimated then that one in five households were without cable, including 1.1 million cord-cutters in 2015.

2017 is already well on its way to smashing that estimate, with Recode reporting approximately a half-million subscribers doing away with cable in the year’s first quarter.

Each and every one of those figures tie into the landscape of college football conference realignment, a once-bustling frontier that has now been rendered relatively quiet.

The first major movements in the summer of 2010 and into the following autumn dramatically changed the look of college football. Utah and Colorado joined the Pac-12; Texas A&M and Missouri left the Big 12 for the SEC, and Nebraska departed for the Big Ten. In their place, West Virginia exited the Big East after two decades of football membership, while TCU split before ever actually joining.

Yet, amid all this movement, pundits and fans alike anticipated The Big One, the realignment event so significant as to fundamentally alter the face of college football as we know it. The reshaping of conferences would result in the death of a major league.

Depending on whom you asked and their interpretation of things — or agendas, in some cases — the ACC was bound for this death knell. Others insisted it would be the Big 12, which had already been stripped of four members and still faces lingering acrimony over the Longhorn Network (more on that momentarily).

The death of a major conference would supplement the remaining Power Five leagues — or Power Four, as it were — and create 16-team super-conferences. I can’t be too critical of this theory, since I was among those buying into this inevitable future.

But then, that future wasn’t so inevitable after all. Every cord cut around the nation has indirectly altered the reality so many of us were so certain awaited college football. Conference realignment was the byproduct of a cable TV model that is further damaged with every cancelled subscription.

To reach college football’s future, we have to return to its past. Get that DeLorean to 88 miles per hour and let’s go to 2010, when realignment rumblings first became reality.

A Business Insider report detailing cable subscription quarter by quarter in the 2010s shows substantial growth in Quarter 1 of 2010 at 1.5 percent. That growth slowed in Quarter 2, coinciding with the first major movements on realignment. Growth didn’t decline until a year later, a trend that has accelerated in the last few years, but no such indicators yet existed to suggest that would be the direction of TV viewership.

After all, in Q2 2010, there was still growth. Plus, the United States economy was just beginning the long and arduous climb from the depths of the Great Recession. There was little reason for anyone to believe cable subscriptions were in jeopardy seven years ago, when Business Insider reports Netflix membership was at 20 million. The company was known primarily for mail-order DVDs at that time, anyway, and was still ironing out its streaming model.

What’s more, Netflix subscribers were typically doubling as cable subscribers. Central to every one of those new and preexisting cable subscriptions was ESPN, sports broadcasting’s Goliath.

For its various properties, a Bloomberg Businessweek deep-dive from earlier this year reports cable providers pay $7.21 per subscriber with the network, dwarfing other entities.

ESPN has never had a viable competitor, and still doesn’t despite other outlets’ claims to the contrary. ESPN owes much of its dominance to cornering the market on content — and the network did so, in part, with lucrative contracts no would-be rival could match.

The money was out there for conferences to acquire, and most would go to those leagues that could cull together the largest potential TV audiences.

Potential is a difficult thing to quantify. FS1, a network that has branded itself the chief rival to ESPN since its launch four years ago, has the potential to reach 80 million homes in the United States through cable subscriptions. Potential and production are very different things, however, as evidenced in the regular 0.0 ratings some of the network’s regular programming receives.

Nevertheless, conference realignment was built around wooing TV paychecks — primarily ESPN paychecks — with the promise of potential. That meant offering home teams in geographic markets with the most potential viewers vis a vis cable subscriptions.

More members equal more of the map covered, which in turn equals more television sets in the conference footprint. All the better if those members are in or near a major population center.

At least, that’s the theory. However, the potential of the nation’s largest city — New York — has always lost out to the actual production of a much smaller city like Birmingham, which has a more vested interest in watching college football.

That returns the conversation to my Fire Stick. Channels offered through a cable package, like the aforementioned FS1, reached potential audiences but not necessarily active consumers. I left behind a cable package in which I received 500 viewing options, but only regularly tuned into a handful.

My streaming devices have applications loaded which I actively sought. After researching, I decided on the Amazon Fire Stick over Roku or Chromecast since NJPW World offered an app on Amazon Fire Stick. Likewise, I settled on SlingTV because it allowed me to keep ESPN, and as importantly, offered Pac-12 Network.

P-12 Net is particularly noteworthy in part because it’s the only Power Five conference network owned entirely by the conference, not beholden to a cable channel, and thus with the flexibility to go entirely streaming. It’s also much more niche than ESPN.

The new future of conference realignment, or simply conference alignment, is predicated more on the dedicated niche audience than a vast sea of potential viewers. Likely gone are the days of guaranteed paydays for theoretical viewership. Offering the most appealing service to the already-existing fan is prominent.

That may or may not be as lucrative, depending on conference. The next major event in the conference alignment landscape will come as TV deals brokered shortly after the shifts of 2010 come to an end, at which point a clearer picture should reveal itself. In the meantime, however, 16-team super-conferences are no longer on the horizon. Conferences won’t expand for the sake of expansion.

It’s a much different reality than the one anticipated seven years ago.

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