Football: Is a lack of national TV coverage hurting Northwestern’s recruiting?


Graphic by Jacob Swan/Daily Senior Staffer

Ben Pope, Reporter


Northwestern stars in one of college football’s biggest matchups this weekend.

Due to an inexplicable quirk in TV programming, however, almost half of the country — including potentially interested recruits — won’t be able to watch it.

And that hurts the program far more than one might expect.

The Big Ten has a “first tier” contract with the ESPN family of networks (which includes ABC, ESPN2, ESPNU and ESPNews) through the end of next season, giving ESPN the right to televise any Big Ten football games it wishes. That contract is followed by a “second tier” deal with Big Ten Network, a joint venture between FOX and the conference itself, which televises essentially all in-conference and home non-conference games not picked up by ESPN.

This weekend, college football fans nationwide will be able to take in marquee Big Ten matchups No. 12 Michigan at Penn State and No. 9 Michigan State at No. 3 Ohio State on ABC, as well as Purdue at No. 5 Iowa on ESPN2 and Illinois at Minnesota on ESPNews. But some of them won’t be able to see No. 20 Northwestern (8-2, 4-2) at No. 25 Wisconsin (8-2, 5-1) — despite it being one of just six games all day pitting two ranked teams against each other — which dropped down to a BTN-only broadcast.

ABC reaches roughly 113 million households around the country. ESPN and ESPN2 both reach roughly 94 million. ESPNU reaches 73 million while ESPNews reaches 71 million. But BTN only reaches about 60 million (and that was number was significantly lower just a few years ago), primarily in the 11 states which house Big Ten universities.

Saturday’s game will be NU’s sixth regional broadcast in 11 games this year, with their five national broadcasts exceeding that of only two of the conference’s other 13 teams. Meanwhile, 2-8 Maryland has been nationally televised six times, and 2-8 Purdue and 4-6 Minnesota will have graced televisions from coast to coast seven times each after this weekend.

The trend isn’t new, either. From the start of 2010 until now, NU ranks 10th in the Big Ten in average national broadcasts (5.5 per year) despite ranking 8th with a .571 winning percentage over that time period. Illinois, for comparison, is 8th in national TV coverage (6.0 per year) but 11th in winning percentage. Assuming that success should directly equate to more national broadcasts and based on the data for the rest of the conference, the Cats should be on national TV almost seven times per season.

But besides being a bummer for an enthusiastic alumnus living in Atlanta, the disproportion may have a legitimately detrimental effect on NU’s entire football program. Indeed, based on a multiple regression analysis using 247Sports’ recruiting class evaluations over the same time period (excluding the incomplete coming-in-2016 class), national television exposure is a statistically significant predictor of recruiting class ranking while six-year winning percentage is not. Just one additional game on national television per year predicts an increase in average recruiting ranking of more than one standard deviation from the Big Ten mean. In the Big Ten, frequent national television exposure correlates more strongly to good recruiting classes than does winning.

In other words, being on national television matters.

NU’s recruiting classes have averaged a 170.77 rating, 10th-best in the conference.Theoretically, if the team had received the amount of national broadcasts that their on-field success equated to, their recruiting classes should have averaged a 195.0 rating — sixth-best in the conference.

Interestingly, NU has actually performed very well — at least from a ratings perspective — when fortunate enough to be televised nationally.

On the 17 occasions that has happened over the past three seasons, NU’s game has been the most-watched game on that channel all day seven times and drawn more viewers than at least one channel with a broader household reach at the same time slot six times (a should-be anomaly that networks prioritize games to try to avoid). In this season alone, the win over Stanford was the most-watched game on cable in all of college football’s opening weekend. The win over Nebraska on ESPN2, moreover, drew more viewers than the simultaneous ESPN game. And the win over Penn State on ESPNU drew more viewers than the simultaneous ESPN2 game.

With the Big Ten’s contract with ESPN expiring after just one more season, FOX is expected to enter the fray as a potential bidder for the conference’s future football rights. FOX’s flagship sports channel, FS1, reaches about nine million fewer households nationwide than do ESPN and ESPN2.

NU might be willing to accept that downside, however, if it equates to national camera crews visiting Evanston a couple more times per year.

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Twitter: @benpope111