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Broadcast rights, social media and the soul of college athletics

As recent as last fall, the Southeastern Conference announced it would ban social media from it’s stadiums. The conference reversed course after a backlash, but the thought process remains aimed at viewing social media as an adversary rather than a benefit to their bottom line.

The reason is simple. College sports leagues are making massive amounts of money selling broadcasting rights. The NCAA’s decision to expand the Division I Men’s Basketball tournament to 68 teams was driven solely by the potential of television dollars. So is all of this talk about expansion in the Big Ten and PAC-10 Conferences. 

So why have college sports been so slow to adopt social media in a big way? Look no further than the web site of your favorite college or universities. Legions of institutions funnel millions into competing on the sports field, but when it comes to developing a web presence, schools largely outsource their sites to third-party vendors who provide easy cookie cutter solutions.

College web sites are not produced by third parties, so why should their athletic presence be any different? It’s a confusing situation that owes largely to a lack of coordination between institutional marketing efforts and how they diverge from athletic marketing. Better collaboration and understanding between the two audiences would be a good starting point, but it’s only the beginning.

Institutions will employ people to sell tickets and provide marketing support, but much of that marketing support still lacks a connection to follow trends on the web. Pro sports teams and leagues are figuring it out quickly. The Detroit Red Wings of the National Hockey League employ a social media coordinator, even the fledgling Women’s Pro Soccer League (WPS) have embraced the medium by creating a social media guide for it’s teams and streams games via iPhone. Going abroad, the Indian Premier League, the world’s largest cricket league broadcasts all of its games on YouTube, while still raking in major dollars on television revenues.

Major League Baseball is considered a fuddy duddy when it comes to sports innovation, as the league has taken ages to adapt in ways other leagues have. But when it came to social media, MLB was the first one to truly leverage the digital space in a way that generate massive revenues for its member clubs through MLB Advanced Media. As of 2007, this editorially independent arm of the league’s 30 clubs was generating over $400 million in revenues. While a drop in the bucket relative to the other revenue streams the teams generate, it proves it’s worth in ways beyond just the intangibles.

The only way college teams and their leagues will truly begin to appreciate the power of social media will be when they discover the money to be made. While smaller leagues and institutions might feel their strategies are confined only to their markets, broader thinking might compel them to start pooling their resources to create revenue opportunities where they don’t currently exist.

Very little is stopping smaller, regional and non-scholarship institutions from broadcasting their games online. Some conferences already do. The problem? Production quality is usually poor, it can be difficult to find someone experienced enough to shoot these games and the quality of competition indicates that only the most die-hard fans and parents are going to be interested in the content. So while there might not be a market for say, Division 3 regular season basketball games; the possibility exists to partner with an existing resource to reach the fans who’ve already assembled and create a repository for highlights and other content that might be of interest rather than being burdened with the task of creating and maintaining the content and then finding an audience for it.

Where the future takes us will be driven by something more than just good ideas or technology. It’s going to come down to money and the opportunities to generate it.