Which college football programs are the most valuable in conference realignment?

Ohio State has won four straight Big Ten titles.

EDITOR’S NOTE: New, updated rankings, which include more schools and factor in TV viewership, were published July 2, 2022. You can view them here.

In the last round of conference realignment, TV markets ruled the day.

People weren’t cutting the cord 10 years ago, and conferences wanted to get their networks into as many cable homes as possible. That’s why the Big Ten added Rutgers (NYC) and Maryland (Baltimore/DC), the SEC added Missouri (St. Louis/Kansas City) and the Big 12 added TCU (Dallas).

In this round of conference realignment, the size of a program’s fan base is the most important factor. TV networks are building out their streaming platforms, and the more people invested in the teams they carry, the more subscriptions they can sell.

So just how much is each college football program worth? Only the suits at the TV networks can truly put a number on each program’s value. But there are a few different ways to measure each program’s value relative to each other.

No single metric tells the whole story. But I averaged out each program’s ranking in four different categories to calculate a sensible ranking of the most valuable programs. Here are the categories:

Home attendance: The number of people attending each home game is one way to measure the size and passion of a fan base. College Football News calculated the five-year attendance average for every FBS school after the 2019 season.

Market size/share: In 2011, Nate Silver calculated the number of fans of each college football team using market population and survey data. The data might look a little different if redone in 2021, but it’s as strong a methodology for determining the number of fans that I’ve seen.

Valuation: After the 2019 season, the Wall Street Journal calculated how much each college football program would be worth on the open market if it could be bought and sold like a professional sports franchise. The valuations take into account revenues and expenses, along with cash-flow adjustments, risk assessments and growth projections.

Social media following: It’s not perfect, but one easy way to measure the size of each fan base is to look at how many people follow each team on social media. As TV moves over to digital, it’s valuable to look at which teams have the largest followings in the digital space.

Ranking the most valuable college football programs

After averaging each program’s ranking in those four categories, here’s how 73 college football programs ranked from best to worst.

I included all 64 Power 5 conference teams, plus Notre Dame and the eight programs most popularly discussed as Big 12 expansion candidates: Boise State, BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, Memphis, SMU, UCF and USF.

  1. Ohio State
  2. Michigan
  3. Alabama
  4. Texas
  5. Penn State
  6. Notre Dame
  7. LSU
  8. Georgia
  9. Auburn
  10. Texas A&M
  11. Florida
  12. Oklahoma
  13. Tennessee
  14. Clemson
  15. Wisconsin
  16. Nebraska
  17. South Carolina
  18. Iowa
  19. Michigan State
  20. Arkansas
  21. Florida State
  22. Virginia Tech
  23. Southern Cal
  24. Miami
  25. Washington
  26. Oregon
  27. UCLA
  28. Mississippi
  29. Kentucky
  30. Mississippi State
  31. Oklahoma State
  32. Texas Tech
  33. Missouri
  34. Georgia Tech
  35. Arizona State
  36. Minnesota
  37. West Virginia
  38. North Carolina
  39. BYU
  40. Iowa State
  41. Utah
  42. NC State
  43. Kansas State
  44. California
  45. Louisville
  46. Illinois
  47. TCU
  48. Stanford
  49. Pittsburgh
  50. Arizona
  51. Rutgers
  52. Indiana
  53. Colorado
  54. Purdue
  55. Kansas
  56. UCF
  57. Virginia
  58. Maryland
  59. Baylor
  60. Syracuse
  61. Northwestern
  62. Boise State
  63. Oregon State
  64. Boston College
  65. USF
  66. Washington State
  67. Duke
  68. Vanderbilt
  69. Memphis
  70. Houston
  71. Cincinnati
  72. Wake Forest
  73. SMU

You can see why the SEC jumped at the chance to add Texas (4) and Oklahoma (12) to a conference already full of valuable programs.

And you can see why the eight Big 12 teams left behind are in trouble. The schools remaining range from Oklahoma State (31) to Baylor (59).

(Kansas ranks 55th, but the Jayhawks actually probably have more to offer than their ranking shows because their men’s basketball program is one of very few that has a national following. Kentucky (29), UNC (38), Louisville (45), Indiana (52) and Duke (66) could say the same.)

But none of the remaining Big 12 teams would really help grow the overall value of another Power 5 conference enough for that conference to justify splitting the revenue pot more ways.

The Big 12 also doesn’t have any good options to add. Of all the available programs, BYU (39) is the only one that ranks in the top 50. UCF (56) is next, followed by Boise State (62).

BYU would rank fourth in the Big 12 if it joined today — ahead of five current Big 12 programs — and the Cougars might decide they’d rather just say independent at that point.

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