The SEC has claimed the last seven BCS National Championships, won last year's NCAA basketball tournament and annually draws the largest television viewership of any athletic conference in the nation. It may come as quite the surprise, then, that the conference ranks a lowly fourth in combined revenue generated from bowl games, NCAA tournaments and television deals this year.
The conference will take home $270 million from those core revenue streams, $38 million less than the Big Ten, the nation's cash king. How is that possible? As things tend to go in sports these days, it's all about live television. In fact, television revenue is essentially the sole driving factor in conference value, while income from bowl games and basketball tournaments has been relegated to a rounding error. Consider that of the three major revenue streams, television revenue accounts for an average 80% of income for the five most valuable conferences.
So it doesn't matter that the SEC generated 20% more revenue from postseason football play than any other conference, because it's still signed to deals with CBS and ESPN worth a combined average $205 million per year. Those contracts might have been groundbreaking when signed in 2008, but they no longer keep up with the rest of the major conferences.
By contrast, the ACC and Big 12 each signed new TV deals within the last year that pay more per member school than the SEC's ($17 million and $20 million, respectively, compared to $15 million). In fact, the Big 12 jumps to the top of the list when measured in terms of per-school income from television, bowls and the NCAA tournament. You might be hard pressed to find someone who thinks that either the ACC or Big 12 is truly more valuable than the SEC, but the two conferences are currently paid as if that's the case.
SEC fans have little reason to worry, however, because the conference is in the process of renegotiating its current television contracts and is reportedly also considering the formation of an SEC-specific network. The new deal should be the richest in college sports, regardless of the specific details, and the conference's patience in negotiating a new contract is further proof of its underlying superiority. The ACC and Big 12 were forced to quickly sign TV deals due to concerns that conference members might otherwise leave for greener pastures.
Our financial data comes from the NCAA, BCS, conferences, news reports and, where necessary, our own estimates. Bowl revenue includes payouts from both BCS and non-BCS bowls. NCAA tournament revenue is distributed according to conference games played (not including the championship game) over a six-year rolling period; tournament revenue here is calculated with units accumulated during the last six tournaments. Television revenue represents the average annual value of current TV contracts.
When it comes to bowl games, it's all about the BCS. The six automatic-qualifying (AQ) conferences each received $23.6 million from the BCS, and the SEC and Pac-12 each received an additional $6.2 million for at-large BCS bids earned by Florida and Oregon, respectively. The five non-AQ conferences, or "Group of Five," share a $14.1 million BCS payout that was doubled to $28.2 million when Northern Illinois claimed an automatic BCS bowl bid, the first in the Mid-American Conference's history.
Non-AQ conferences divide that payout according to a revenue-sharing formula that will pay the MAC a sizable chunk of nearly $9 million, or almost half of its total bowl revenue, for Northern Illinois' BCS bid. The remainder is divided into a portion shared equally among the five, and another portion distributed based on how each conference's teams finished the season in the BCS rankings (the WAC edged out the MAC for the top overall performance spot).
Another example of why television income is so important: the Big East is still the nation's top basketball power, generating $8 million (or 40%) more than any other conference from NCAA tournament distributions. Yet the conference is quickly collapsing as the lack of a new TV deal led the so-called "Catholic Seven" to splinter off in search of its own media rights arrangement. Basketball might offer a nice financial bonus, but it's hardly enough to hold a major conference together.
More than anything else, our ranking highlights the massive gap between the haves and have-nots. The five most valuable conferences are set to collect over $1.4 billion this year from bowls, tournaments and television; the bottom five - which includes the Big East - have racked up a measly $175 million from the same sources. That income disparity will only grow in the coming years, so we may quickly be nearing the reality of a super conference model.
Full List: The Most Valuable Conferences In College Sports