The CAA signed an agreement with the FloSports streaming service this offseason. Conceptually, the agreement is for FloSports to stream roughly 50 CAA Football games, 140 men’s and women’s basketball games, and an additional 110+ events in other sports. They will also provide shoulder programming (highlight films, articles and the like) for free on their website.
All of that had already been happening on CAATV, and on the conference members’ websites. On their own sites, the conference members had the flexibility to post whatever they would like at their leisure and the self-control to know that if they wanted something to be posted or broadcasted at a specific place and time, it would happen. Compare that to the FloSports umbrella, with which DC United prematurely terminated their eight-figure deal this fall. The Major League Soccer club cited amongst other more substantial issues that extensive shoulder programming, such as specials and studio shows, failed to come to fruition. Additionally, stream quality and the dropping of the feed itself during games were behind the DC teams decision to terminate.
So why choose a partner that no other college sports conference is on while losing sovereignty over the league’s transmissions? A partner that is of lower quality than alternatives. And if agreeing to lose the power to host, why would The Association choose to turn their back on the industry media titans (again)?
There were just over one million annual reasons to do so. That is the yearly payment from Flo to the conference. That matters, especially when we speak of alternatives. There are a number of players in the marketplace but let’s boil it down to the highly-competitive options. To do that, lets flip to a random date and time on the calendar: This Saturday night, 7pm. There are 9 NCAA D-I Men’s Basketball games being tipped at that time. The breakdown of their broadcast looks like this:
-6 games on the ESPN family of networks
-1 game on CBS Sports Network
-1 game on Pluto.tv
-1 game on AT&T SportsNet
Look further and you will find that ratio holds up. In this marketplace there are three significant options. Be on ESPN, be a power network that commands your own TV channel or be on the outside. Again, for a little over a million dollars, or about one hundred thousand dollars per institution, The Association seems to have chosen to be an outsider.
But it was not a choice, as neither of those first two options were in the cards for this version of the CAA.
What no one wants to say out loud is that ESPN was never a viable option. There were multiple reasons for this, but the deal breakers are simple. ESPN demands exclusivity (to a point) as shown in their deal with the American Athletic Conference:
“I’m sure it comes as no surprise that we are disappointed that there will be a reduction in linear TV exposure for our men’s and women’s basketball programs, including but not limited to the potential loss of our successful partnership with SNY,”[UConn] athletic director David Benedict said in a statement. “While there are many things to celebrate about this new and forward-looking agreement, any potential loss of linear distribution of our men’s and women’s basketball programs would be disappointing for our fans and our student-athletes.”
The American is in a much stronger negotiating position than the CAA. So for schools with local market priorities like Northeastern (NESN), Hofstra (MSG), Drexel, Delaware and JMU (NBC Sports Regional Affiliates) those packages disappear with an ESPN+ deal. At a time when more slots on those networks are becoming available because other leagues are joining ESPN, it would doubly hurt to lose that ability to broadcast in the local market.
Additionally (and here is where the million dollars comes back in, part 1), ESPN demands a broadcast quality that some Drexel fans have already noted, certain league teams south of the Mason/Dixon line fail to meet. Not only would those schools lose the incoming cash that Flo provides through the deal, they would have to pay to upgrade their production standards in order to join ESPN. This would be a double whammy on some of the Association’s more cash strapped athletic departments.
Given the current D-I media landscape, once ESPN was out of the running, the CAA was destined to be an “outsider”. But why an outsider that chose Flo rather than continuing down the self-governing media umbrella that they had been in?
We are back to those million dollars.
With that cash, the CAA has invested in a TV package with CBS Sports Network to have 11 games shown nationally. In what appears to be a handshake deal, every CAA team will be featured in at least one game in that package. From a campus perspective, the trade of sovereignty over game transmission seems to be as simple as that. Give up people going to your school’s website to watch the game in return for a national TV spot. It has been made abundantly clear that the national TV spot, no matter what network it is, is important to head coaches in the CAA. This is the win the coaches got out of the deal, the trade that they were more than happy to make.
The reader may have noticed that we have not spoken of the FloSports very premium paywall to date. Or the CAA fans. College of Charleston Athletic Director Matt Roberts, on the Holy City Hoops Podcast, stated “the biggest concern we had was going behind a paywall.” Matt Roberts has been one of the most successful ADs in the conference in his tenure at C of C, and is a rising star in the industry, so it is with genuine respect and apologies, that I call “bullshit” on that statement. The FloSports paywall wasn’t nearly enough of a concern for the Association during this process. And it stems from a mistake the CAA has made time and time again over the last decade: not investing in themselves.
There has been a view throughout recent history in the CAA, with regards to both attendance and viewership, that the numbers are so small that they don’t significantly matter. From north and south, coaches and front office, schools to league office, some variation of that has been spoken in words like “doesn’t move the needle” or “no one is watching either way” or even “ticket sales don’t bring in enough revenue for XYZ”. Those statements, and statements like them, have led to a belief in inelastic demand. In short, the conference schools and office believe that diehards will come out as long as the cost isn’t prohibitive so there is no difference between $10 or $20 tickets. And the conference tourney will be watched by the same number of people regardless of paywall or no paywall. And now that has filtered down to conference games. This is a misstep.
For one, attendance is down across the league over the last decade, at a rate that exceeds the general national decline in sports attendance. It’s been implied that viewership is also down to a very low point, although those numbers are not public. Thus, the first misstep is to believe that the current fans, the “diehards” that are left, will remain no matter what – it’s been proven false already, and there is no reason to believe that trend won’t continue.
The much more important point is at the opposite end of the inelasticity argument. This is an Association that has taken significant steps backwards, in almost all sports, since the defections of George Mason, Old Dominion, and Virginia Commonwealth. This is an Association whose brand needs to grow. In going behind a paywall where no other conferences are, the brand gets hidden.
The athletic departments in the CAA are well funded. They pay coaches at a high mid major level. New facilities are being built. Coaches are recruiting athletes internationally. That kind of spend demands a return on investment. The problem with this deal is much less about punishing the diehard fans with a paywall then it is about inhibiting growth. So much money is being spent to make these athletic programs a beacon and representation of their schools, and yet when a media deal is signed, the league hides the product. This media deal is a cutting-edge way of tripping over ones own shoelaces.
Put this another way: James Madison’s athletics budget was over forty-eight million dollars in 2017. While $100,000 is real money, and league coaches want national TV, when the choice was to invest another $100,000 or to go to Flo and inhibit the growth of James Madison’s nine figure brand, how on earth did they choose the second option? UNCW’s athletics budget was 13.4 million in 2017, and if it cost them some additional funds to assist with the growth of the brand, then that is what needs to be spent. It’s the cost of doing business. Because when it isn’t spent, and no eyeballs are on the Seahawks, then why spend the original 13.4 million in the first place?
That mentality filters to competition as well. An easy example: There are not enough votes around the league to impose a limit on basketball games against lower division opponents. Some schools don’t want to put themselves in a position where that rule may be actually imposed on them, now or in the future. As a result, scheduling standards don’t exist, in much the way TV production standards don’t exist. This year, the CAA is unlikely to feature a top 100 basketball program for the first time in five years. Just like the TV deal, the Association members are looking out for short term concerns over long term growth. In line with attendance and viewership, on the court performance is sinking. Per Kenpom, the CAA has ranked, in chronological order, 10th, 12th, 15th, 22nd and 17th since the 2015-16 season.
Matt Roberts exalted the virtues of this FloSports deal being a short-term deal and the flexibility that it entails. I join Mr. Roberts in that belief but would remind him that continued focus on the short term is exactly why the CAA is in a position where they feel compelled to enter into agreements just like this one.
“It’s going to lead to more opportunities to be on TV and, hopefully, more opportunities to be on TV in New York. We’re getting in on ground level with NBC to help it grow.”
~Former Hofstra AD Jack Hayes, 2012
“We are certainly excited to be with a great partner in FloSports and to be on the front end of this.”
~ CAA commissioner Joe D’Antonio, 2019
“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
~Sir Winston Churchill