Imagine a college athletics world where brands became free agents and they went to the open market and were able to pick a home for a certain number of years. Think of a scenario where Texas was finishing up it's agreement to play in the Big XII and was headed to free agency after the 2022 athletic year. What would the market be for the Longhorns and what could they command. And Texas was then able to determine the amount of money and years of commitment they wanted. With a pie totaling 100%, would the SEC offer more than an equal share of media money? Would they let Texas sign a short term deal and then hit free agency down the line when other conferences had media deals up for renewal? And in the end, the Longhorns agreed to, let's say, an 8-year contract for $90M a year while Vanderbilt was getting $45M because that's what they were offered.
Crazy? Of course it is. But stop and think about a college football world where such scenarios existed. In professional sports, athletes perform over a period of years and when they attain free agent status can sell their services to the highest bidder and choose where they want to play and often learn their real value by those who bid for their talents. We view college athletics from a regional perspective for reasons like travel expenses, fan bases, media coverage and rivalries. But the reality is all college athletic departments seek the best deal with financial security and the ability to win at the highest level, just like top free agents do in professional sports.
Now that Texas and Oklahoma have made their choice to join the SEC, we have fallen back into the game of what dominos fall next. We have watched the Big Ten, Pac 12 and ACC make a knee-jerk reaction and form a contractless agreement that really has no meaning other than create a voting bloc that they could've done without that odd press conference.
Meanwhile, the Big XII is left figuring out what to do whenever the Sooners and Longhorns leave. Some have suggested the remaining eight schools jump to another P5 league. That would be assuming other leagues are interested and see added value with any additions. Others have had fun guessing what candidates would work for the Big XII if they wanted to add new members. We have seen this exercise before and people throw out the usual names of UCF, Cincinnati, BYU, Houston. Memphis, Boise State and others.
I am always amazed whether it's the famous "unnamed" source or school official from the conference in panic mode who looks down on that list of potential additions. Their arrogance is over the top and their sense of reality is out of space. They always fail to realize that their school has been living off the value of others in their league and they overvalue their own school. But the reality is settling in for the remaining members of the Big XII. Each has their pluses and minuses, just like the list of candidates to join their league. But their true open market value? Well, that's where things get interesting.
Fans, media members and even school officials make the same mistake over and over when it comes to projecting the value of brands in college athletics. They look at the present and draw conclusions and make assumptions without having a vision. You shouldn't look at brand value for 2021. You should look at the future and actually study data and see that some brands and schools that have not been around as long as your school are about to warp speed their way past you.
One of the most common mistakes made is if a school existed for decades before another school then it's bigger and better. If a school has been part of a major conference for decades then it's bigger and better. If a school has a direction or regional reference in its name then it can't be considered a real school. And the list goes on and on.
But let's get back to a world of free agency in college sports for athletic departments. And that brings us to UCF. Yes, he's writing about them again. If you hate UCF, there's nothing I can say or write that will change your opinion so we can agree on that. But the point is if UCF was part of a free agency world it likely would be a sought after brand because of what it is. But the real value of UCF is what it is still growing to be.
We can talk about the football success in the last few seasons and that is fine. But free agency is not always about your current stats. It's often projecting what a player will be and what it can do for your team.
A reporter for the Toledo Blade, Kyle Rowland, recently posted this tweet:
Brandon Helwig, who covers UCF, then posted this response:
Then I posted this:
I don't believe the Big Ten is expanding and if they did plan to, they would likely not target UCF. The point is fans, media and school officials often laugh and give the eye roll when one of "those G5 schools" are brought up as valued candidates for a league. But UCF's value compared to many existing P5 brands is much greater. But their problem is they didn't exist in 1864. They were not around when the founders of these conferences got together and formed their leagues. Their football program didn't play their first game until 1979. So one would say "you would need to earn your stripes over a period of time." But that is not how college athletics and college football works. There is no path to play your way into a league that pays more money. If there was then there would be a path to play your way out of a league and we all know many of those brands that think so highly of themselves don't want a system like that. That would be called free agency in a way. Like when your deal is up your league decides to not bring you back.
As schools from some of these P5 leagues look down on UCF and others like them, they live off the history of others or even their own but fail to look to the future.
UCF sits in the 17th largest television market in the country with more than 1.73M homes(not people, homes). That number is about the size of the population of West Virginia, the entire state. The combined television market of Orlando and Tampa is over 3.7M homes(not people, homes). The population of the entire state of Kansas is 3M.
Orlando is not shrinking in population. It's one of the fastest growing areas in the nation. Many of these markets where schools who turn their nose at UCF and similar schools are not growing in size or economy and they won't in the years ahead.
Anyone can find TV ratings to fit their opinion but the data shows UCF and some of its members in the AAC hold their own against the remaining eight schools in the Big XII. They are also doing that while playing in the AAC.
The Athletic's Stewart Mandel broke down those numbers
UCF graduates over 17,000 per year. Oregon State has 205,000 total alums across the country. That will be called a decade of graduates for UCF in the coming years. Enrollment has soared past 70,000. With a downtown campus and a medical city that houses its medical school, UCF is getting bigger and soon will rocket past every other university in its size and with one of the youngest alumni bases in the country.
What about facilities? Everyone builds facilities and those with more money build bigger facilities. Give UCF, Cincinnati and anyone else the same money as mid-level P5 programs and they will build the same facilities. In addition, UCF is in one of the most fertile recruiting areas in the country and that's not changing any time soon.
I have been to Manhattan, Kansas and Fort Worth, Texas and Morgantown, West Virginia. They are nice towns with passionate fan bases and have every right to think their teams are great and talk about the tradition and successes of the past. But they are no different than UCF, Cincinnati, Memphis, Houston and others. They just happen to be members in a league that has, and I repeat has, been paying its members a lot of money. But the reality is Texas and Oklahoma were the reason those checks every year were so big. Don't believe me? Doesn't matter what I think. The evidence will be what media companies are willing to pay you.
What someone is willing to pay you is exactly what free agency comes down to. Which brings us back to where we started all this. In that world of free agency UCF would be a very attractive player teams would want to sign. They bring an impressive recent resume of success on the field with a huge upside and an unlimited future and they bring fans, lots of them, who are still so young and about to start making real money to donate and support for decades to come.
If tomorrow the following schools were free agents: Oregon State, Texas Tech, Wake Forest, Rutgers, Missouri and Washington State. What would the market be for them? Would they really carry equal value to Texas, Oklahoma, USC, Alabama and Ohio State? Of course not. Would UCF be as valuable as those traditional brands? No. But now assess their value moving forward and take into account where they were, where they are and where they are going.
These are changing times in college athletics and the landscape has changed from what it looked like 40 years ago. What will it look like 40 years from now? I don't know but certain brands have incredible growth ahead. UCF may not be the only one in that category but might it be the one with the biggest growth chart.
UCF may be the free agent waiting for an open market to cash in with a max deal. The question is who has the vision to see the future and wants to lock up the Knights.
Final thought: The oldest collegiate athletic conference is the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association(MIAA). It was founded in 1888. One of the original sports sponsored? Team juggling.