Analyzing College Football Television Ratings

I’m obsessed with conference realignment, and the influence that big money television contracts have had on college football. Ever since the NCAA lost the 1984 Supreme Court decision, which stated they violated antitrust law, the influence of television contracts in college athletics has grown dramatically.

I have seen this influence from a couple of different perspectives as I am an alumnus of Missouri who has taught at Kansas State University for nearly eleven years. Fans of those respective schools typically have very different views, which have moved conferences for a perceived better deal. (I highly recommend “The 100 Year Decision” by R Bowen Loftin for a very insightful perspective on Texas A&M’s move to the SEC).

While some folks continue to “cut the cord,” television contracts (which are at least somewhat ratings-driven) are a vast source of revenue for all sixty-six BCS level institutions (I include BYU and Notre Dame). recently put together an infographic showing the averages of the ratings for each of these sixty-six schools. Indeed, the author enjoyed sharing the results, which showed the somewhat predictable SEC dominance on the ratings and The Big 12 lagging in fifth place out of the five BCS Conferences.

The University of Texas tied for 34th in the television ratings while A&M placed 12th, the type of news Aggie fans enjoy greatly. The highest-ranked Big 12 team was Oklahoma at #26, while SEC teams made up twelve Top 25 spots. Also, in the twenty-five most-watched football games this season (not counting bowls), SEC teams participated twenty-three times, Big Ten teams participated eleven times, and ACC teams participated eleven times.

In contrast, Big 12 and Pac 12 teams were only represented one time each, as were Army, Navy, and Notre Dame. The Big 12 did not have any single game that drew huge ratings. The highest-rated Big 12 game (TCU vs. West Virginia with 4.43 million viewers) finished well outside the Top 25 rated broadcasts. My analysis of the data also suggests that the relationship between CBS and the SEC is very beneficial for the conference even as a “loss leader,” as nine of the twenty-five most viewed games were on CBS.

As an economist, when I study data like this at, I immediately want to make sure what is being looked at is an “apples to apples” comparison. The thing that immediately stood out to me was there are some games on stations like ESPNU or FS1, or FS2 that dramatically bring down the average rating for a team.

A complete picture of television ratings should include all twelve (or more) games that a team participates in. Unfortunately, this is not something we can figure out because of a lack of access to all relevant data. I suggest that games on the SEC Network or the Big Ten Network draw considerably more viewers than a game on the Longhorn Network. This, in turn, probably dwarfs the number of fans who are watching a game on K-State HDTV, which is internet-only.

But since games on all of these avenues (along with the Pac 12 Network, regional Fox Sports networks, syndicated ACC games, pay per view games, etc.) are not rated, it seems unfair to cherry-pick the games that warrant a broadcast on CBS, ABC, ESPN, FOX or other major networks and only count those games as an indicator of the popularity of a team. For example, Florida ranks seventh in the ratings compiled, but they were only on a rated television broadcast five times this year in the eleven games. Meanwhile, Oklahoma was on a rated broadcast eleven times in the twelve games. If games against Kansas and Iowa State were on a station that did not report TV ratings, OU’s average television rating would go up fairly dramatically.

To correct this bias, I assumed that there were no viewers for games that were not rated telecasts and then recalculated the average rating per team. I realize that this is an imperfect method. Still, for the most part (with notable exceptions such as the Texas A&M vs. South Carolina game on the SEC Network), the games that do not warrant a broadcast on an established network will draw a small enough viewing audience that assuming a value of zero for these games will only bias these numbers slightly.

I would encourage suggestions on other ways to correct this bias, but I did not want to start guessing television audiences for these non-televised games. I feel that the teams most adversely affected by this correction are SEC and Big Ten teams, as the SEC and Big Ten Networks are probably drawing the most viewers for games where ratings are not available.

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The TexAgs data suggests the following average ratings (I believe I have replicated this correctly).

  1. SEC = 4.52 Mil 2.  B10 =2.69 Mil, 3. ACC=2.64 Mil, 4. P 12 = 2.23 Mil, 5.  B12 = 2.01 Mil

The adjusted data suggests the following ratings:

1.  SEC = 2.58 Mil,  2.  B10 = 1.62 Mil,   3.  B12 = 1.57 Mil,   4.  ACC = 1.41 Mil,  5.  P12 = 1.34 Mil

Finally, there are twelve SEC teams in the Top 25, seven Big Ten teams, three Pac 12 teams, two ACC teams, and one independent team in the original data. There are ten SEC teams, five Big Ten teams, five Big 12 teams, three Pac 12 teams, one ACC team, and one independent in the adjusted ratings. This data will have a slight “pro-Big 12 bias” as over seventy-eight percent of Big 12 games were rated while other conferences are between fifty-three and sixty percent rated. To reference the examples I pointed out above, Oklahoma finished 15th in average TV rating (up from 26th) in these adjusted ratings, while Florida finished 22nd (down from 7th).

Another important note about these adjusted ratings is that BYU looks a little better by comparison when one considers they were on television nine times last year on a rated network. Their adjusted ratings would put them right in the middle of the ACC rankings. I feel (possibly a football-only member) they would be a potential solid addition to the Big 12.

All of my data is available on my webpage (see the bottom of my page for the links ), and any errors in calculating the number of games each team had rated are my own. Here is the revised Top 25.

(Assumes no viewers for non-rated games)

Team                           # of average Viewers  Conference      # of rated games

  1. Alabama                               6.02                 SEC                 11/13 = 84.6%
  2. Florida State                        5.73                 ACC                12/13 = 92.3%
  3. Notre Dame                         4.20                 IND                 12/12 = 100%
  4. Auburn                                  3.89                 SEC                 9/12 = 75%
  5. Ohio State                            3.81                 B10                 10/13 = 76.9%
  6. Mississippi                          3.35                 SEC                 10/12 = 83.3%
  7. Mississippi State                3.04                 SEC                 8/12 = 66.7%
  8. Michigan State                   2.71                 B10                 8/12 = 66.7%
  9. Georgia                                 2.62                 SEC                 7/12 = 58.3%
  10. LSU                                        2.62                 SEC                 8/12 = 66.7%
  11. Texas A&M                          2.56                 SEC                 8/12 = 66.7%
  12. Michigan                              2.52                 B10                 8/12 = 66.7%
  13. Oregon                                  2.31                 P12                  10/13 = 76.9%
  14. Missouri                               2.28                 SEC                 8/13 = 61.5%
  15. Oklahoma                            2.17                 B12                 11/12 = 91.7%
  16. Southern California           2.11                 P12                  10/12 = 83.3%
  17. Wisconsin                            2.08                 B10                 10/13 = 76.9%
  18. UCLA                                     2.07                 P12                  10/12 = 83.3%
  19. Nebraska                               2.01                 B10                 8/12 = 66.7%
  20. Baylor                                     1.97                 B12                 11/12 = 91.7%
  21. Arkansas                               1.94                 SEC                 8/12 = 66.7%
  22. Florida                                    1.93                 SEC                 5/11 = 45.5%
  23. TCU                                         1.80                 B12                 10/12 = 83.3%
  24. West Virginia                       1.73                 B12                 9/12 = 75%
  25. Ks State and Texas (tie)     1.72                 B12                 10/12 = 83.3%

 Avg Ratings according to rated Data                   Avg TV Ratings “adjusted.” 

  1. SEC = 4.52 M                                                       1.  SEC = 2.58 M
  2. B10 =2.69 M                                                         2.  B10 = 1.62 M
  3. ACC = 2.64 M                                                      3.  B12 = 1.57 M
  4. P12 = 2.23 M                                                        4.  ACC = 1.41 M
  5. B12 = 2.01 M                                                        5.  P12 = 1.34 M

Recently, pressure has been mounting on betting operators to limit the amount of betting adverts during sports programs. The American Gambling Association coordinates its efforts with the most significant betting firms to ensure that sports betting activities are marketed solely toward an adult audience.

The article is a guest post by Dr. Dan Kuester, the Director of Undergraduate Studies, and the Roger Trenary Chair for Excellence in Economic Instruction at Kansas State University. Dan and I were graduate students at the University of Missouri back in the 90s.

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Author: Phil Miller

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