CAA Expansion Could Pay Big
October 5, 2007 8:20 AM
As a fan of college football, I’m not sure whether I should be surprised by the slow start in ratings for the sport on the three broadcast networks. NBC, of course, can be explained by Notre Dame’s terrible, winless season, which is the risk when you put all your money on a horse that’s losing. Still, ratings for college football are off a sharp 24 percent compared with last year’s season, even with a two-horse race between LSU and USC. What could be even more alarming is that in the key male 18-34 demographic, the sport is off even more, down 26 percent this season. Ouch.
Nevertheless, with college football well under way, and the beginning of college basketball looming, I took the opportunity to speak with the commissioner of one “mid-major” conference that’s received its due in recent seasons, the Colonial Athletic Association. It’s in the first year of a five-year deal with Comcast for football and basketball.
Simply put, the CAA and the Missouri Valley Conference are on a roll despite media critics touting the larger, traditional powerhouses. Yet the league now spans a slew of top television markets including New York with Hofstra, Philadelphia with Drexel, Boston with Northeastern, Washington, D.C., with George Mason, and Atlanta with Georgia State. Now, following two successful NCAA tournament appearances and with the first year of CAA football under way, Commissioner Tom Yeager discussed the future of the league with me, including plans for expansion, new digital carriage deals and his enjoyment when sportscasters who doubt the conference (yes, including CBS’ Billy Packer) get silenced.
In making some calls around the industry, I heard experts say the conference is entering a crucial period. If it can maintain its momentum, it could score a hefty payday from a national carrier when television negotiations begin again in a time when distributors are hungry for content. If it stumbles and returns to being a one-bid league, the chances are slim.
Here is the interview with Mr. Yeager.
The CAA has made more than a few significant moves in recent years, from adding teams in major markets such as New York, Boston, Philly and Atlanta, to the launch of CAA football this season, taking the sport away from the Atlantic 10. How are all these parts performing for you?
Yeager: To be completely honest, it’s gone tremendously. I think we’ve even been surprised at how well the new teams and markets have assimilated into the CAA footprint. We are now entrenched up and down the eastern seaboard, and our expansion has gone into vitally important metro areas for both students and alumni. These moves have really broadened our reach and exposure more than we even thought about early on.
When were plans for football first brought up?
Yeager: I couldn’t say for sure, but my first day on the job was 22 years ago, and I thought about it later than the second day. Football has been something that we’ve had been in the works for a long time, and there was always great interest playing football under one conference identifier.
That said, we’ve been chasing football significantly for the last eight to 10 years, and when the conference expanded in 2000 and 2001, we started to get closer. Once we added Northeastern up in Boston, that gave us our sixth school and satisfied NCAA conference requirements so we could step up front and start football. So far, it’s been terrific.
Right now in the Football Championship Subdivision, the CAA has six teams ranked in the top 15 of the country. That has to be considered a great start for the conference.
Yeager: I like to tell people that we are the SEC of the championship division. This past weekend, UMass only lost by 10 to Boston College, which is ranked sixth in the country. Granted that’s not as great as Appalachian State’s win over Michigan, but it demonstrates how good our teams really are.
Speaking of which, how did you react to Appalachian State’s upset?
Yeager: That was really a terrific win, almost similar to George Mason’s run in the NCAA tournament. I was rooting for them. All of us pull for each other in situations like that, although I hope they stumble if they meet us in the playoffs.
Now that you have the markets and television deals in place, what is the next step to increase exposure for the league?
Yeager: It may sound simplistic, but our success is what’s going to help exposure more than anything else. When you can create product that has the public interest, then it’s of greater interest to our broadcast partners and fans. I think at the end of the day, that’s what it runs to. Football gives us a strong presence in the fall, and we’ve had two very successful basketball seasons for both men and women. If we put up a third one, it helps the growth of everything. We just have to not give up the ground that we seem to have gained.
Of course, success has its downside as well. I continue to see CAA schools such as Hofstra and Drexel mentioned whenever there is discussion of adding schools to the bigger conferences. How do you plan to keep all the schools happy?
Yeager: We are a very homogenous group of schools from the outset, either being predominantly state schools or very large private schools that are located in major metropolitan areas. All of our schools are very attractive institutions beyond athletics and have positive connections between them.
The success we’ve had continues to build equity in the CAA brand. However, the risk is that if a big 1A conference came along, that’s something the schools would look at.
I really do believe we are in the right spot with our programs, and as commissioner I am committed to make the conference grow. Our schools realize that the grass isn’t always greener in the neighbor’s yard.
Are you now set with the current number of teams, or are there more plans for expansion or even contraction?
Yeager: We have no plans to expand or contract any time in the near future. The one obvious exception is Old Dominion coming on to football in 2011, so we’ll have to figure out a way to get a 13-team schedule out. But, otherwise I think everything else is pretty much status quo as we learn to operate with 12 teams, 13 teams or maybe even 14 teams, or whatever.
Of course, everything could change if the Big 10 ever went from 11 teams to 12. That would start some dominoes moving, but short of that everything is stable.
Every year there are sportscasters who seem to go out of their way to denounce the CAA’s inclusion as a contender for at-large teams in the tournament. I’m sure you were happy to quiet the naysayers when George Mason made its run last year and VCU took down Duke last March.
Yeager: Absolutely. That’s one of those things where people form opinions about your teams without ever seeing them play. When the Valley was criticized for having four teams and we took heat for getting Mason in, those guys cranked out propaganda without ever seeing those teams play.
The big thing about basketball is that the decks are so stacked toward the home team, but there are a lot of good teams out there, and a lot of these upsets that you see are because the margin between teams is now more narrow than some people think.
I think sometimes the media gets swept up with the brand names that they don’t look to some of the other stories out there that can be compelling. That comes at the expense of other teams. But it’s a great feeling to see those teams finally get a chance to step up and show the world what they can do.
With content thriving in a multiplatform digital universe, what are the CAA’s plans to utilize these outlets?
Yeager: A couple years ago, a number of video-streaming guys came around in waves offering programming. But it comes and goes, because one of the hardest things to do is to try to stay ahead of the technology.
But that said, some of the bigger outlets don’t give us that time of day a lot, and some of our most attractive opportunities might be off the mainline stuff and for us to go digital, so that may be where we are going to head.