Which college football programs are the most valuable in conference realignment?
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.
- Ohio State
- Penn State
- Notre Dame
- Texas A&M
- South Carolina
- Michigan State
- Florida State
- Virginia Tech
- Southern Cal
- Mississippi State
- Oklahoma State
- Texas Tech
- Georgia Tech
- Arizona State
- West Virginia
- North Carolina
- Iowa State
- NC State
- Kansas State
- Boise State
- Oregon State
- Boston College
- Washington State
- Wake Forest
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.