More than anything, there are questions. They come via Facebook (lots of discussions on my page, here) and via Twitter (@ericcrawford), through email and in line at the grocery store. The following is a sampling of the most-asked questions about the University of Louisville and where it stands after the most recent round of conference realignment, with Rutgers bolting the Big East and Maryland leaving the ACC for the Big Ten.
There are so many questions in fact, that I'm just going to take them in no particular order.
Q: Does Louisville being the No. 1-rated market in college basketball for 10 years running, and the top ESPN market for college basketball, mean nothing?
A: I wouldn't say nothing, but it doesn't appear to mean much in this discussion. For the purposes of expansion, the Big Ten wanted two large markets. Think of it this way. The Big Ten Conference is not a conference. It is a television network. And these markets are winner-take-all. That is, if you get Rutgers, you get its entire TV market, even though only a fraction of it may care about Rutgers. Why is that? The Big Ten Network is co-owned by Fox. And by having Rutgers, Fox believes it can get the Big Ten Network into those huge markets in New York City and New Jersey. (A plan to buy YES -- Yankees Entertainment and Sports Network, won't hurt, by the way.)
So this is an exercise in adding households. Ratings are nice, but they don't figure into it as much. They're looking for sheer volume and market size.
An example of how high ratings in one market don't make them preferable to another. The third-most watched college football game in Louisville this past weekend was Rutgers-Cincinnati, which did a 3.2 rating, or about 22,340 households in this market. Let's say, in the New York City market, the same game did half of a ratings point, a 0.5, which is pretty dismal. (I don't know what it did, it may have done less than that, but this is just for the sake of making a point.) Even though Louisville did the higher rating, that small rating in NYC still represents almost 37,000 households. (By the way, for those who may want to know, the top-rated college game in Louisville last weekend was Stanford-Oregon, followed by Ohio State-Wisconsin.)
So while ratings show how rabidly this community follows college hoops, this is still a numbers game for the conferences.
Q: How much do TV markets and market size factor into these decisions, and how much will it factor into the ACC's decision when it moves to add a team?
A: I have put it this way. The size of your market is 90 percent of your grade. It's not everything -- but it's almost everything.
So when the ACC looks to add, I have to assume that market size will be a huge determining factor. But I can't say it will weigh as heavily as it did with, say, the Big Ten. The ACC may have other factors to consider. But when you hear Connecticut spoken of as the leader, that's the main reason why.
Q: Is Connecticut really a bigger market than Louisville? What about population? And wouldn't Cincinnati be a larger market than both?
A: Let me just give you the rankings straight from Nielsen for each Designated Market Area, the area which Nielsen deems to be demographically representative of each market. Louisville's market, then will include the surrounding area of Southern Indiana and a few other counties, Cincinnati has Northern Kentucky, etc.
The Hartford-New Haven market is rated No. 30 by Nielsen, with 996,550 households. Cincinnati is No. 35 with 897,890 households, and Louisville is No. 48 with 670,880.
You can argue with any of these market and TV numbers, but all I can say is this -- there are people who devote their entire professional lives to determining these numbers, and in the industry, they are the standard. They are the numbers that matter. Not census numbers, not other demographic indexes. For the purpose of TV decisions, these are the deal. Like them or not.
Q: What about academics? Do they play a role?
A: Academics can give a conference a reason to keep you out. I don't believe they're really a determining factor in getting you in. In the largely cosmetic US News & World Report rankings, UConn ranks No. 63 among national universities, and U of L ranks No. 160. That's a significant gap.
There are other measures that can be examined. One of the best (and if you ask those in academic fields, far more important than any magazine ranking) is the amount a university devotes to research and development. These numbers lag behind a bit. The numbers released this year by the National Science Foundation, for instance, are from 2010. In those, Connecticut ranks No. 83 in R&D spending. U of L ranks No. 104. A year earlier, UConn ranked No. 80 and U of L ranked No. 111.
I'd like to take some time here and list a whole bunch of schools and where they rank, to give you a perspective. I'd also like for more than about a dozen of you to read on, so I won't do that. Only to say that in the ACC, Duke is No. 5 on this list, Pittsburgh No. 11, North Carolina No. 15, Georgia Tech No. 25, Virginia Tech No. 47, N.C. State No. 57, and on down the line. (Among schools on the carousel this time around, Maryland is No. 37, Rutgers No. 42, Cincinnati No. 40, USF No. 50.) Because people will ask, UK is No. 58.
That ranking isn't everything, but it is important, as are certain associations and other academic measures. I only go into it at this length to give a perspective on where U of L stands. I should also say, it ranks ahead of some schools already in the ACC. It's only three spots behind Wake Forest, and ranks ahead of Clemson (108), Notre Dame (137), Syracuse (140) and Boston College (189), though all of those are very highly ranked and regarded schools.
Q: So what can U of L do? What would you sell if you were Tom Jurich, or what do you think U of L can sell?
A: When it comes to concerns about its geography and market size, there's nothing to be done, unless they can figure out a way to relocate the campus to St. Louis. If that concern trumps all else, then U of L is operating at a tremendous handicap, and is an underdog. And that's why I've painted it as such.
But that shouldn't and won't stop Jurich from selling, and he has plenty to sell. First, the ACC needs football programs that are ready to make a mark immediately to keep the league viable amid criticism. The ACC is getting to a point where it needs credibility as much as it needs TV households. Maybe even more. Louisville offers more of that than anyone else on its list, though probably not as much as the ACC needs. U of L is in the Top 25 right now in football with a quarterback who could be a Heisman candidate next season. Given ACC membership, it could make further inroads in the Miami recruiting area (something that likely will make Miami oppose its membership). It took better than 30,000 to its BCS appearance in the Orange Bowl, and sold its entire 17,000-plus ticket allotment. UConn sold fewer than 5,000 of its Fiesta Bowl allotment and was the butt of national jokes. If the ACC is serious about football, U of L needs to sell its football.
Attendance is a selling point for U of L. Let's face it, if the ACC adds UConn, it will add a program that right now, in attendance, is ahead of exactly two ACC programs -- Duke and Wake Forest. Nice work. U of L at the moment would rank fifth in the ACC, behind Clemson, Florida State, Virginia Tech and North Carolina. (That last one is on you, Cards fans. If even just 5,000 of the 11,000 no-shows for the last home game -- for an unbeaten team -- had bothered to show up, U of L would have an average attendance just above North Carolina's.) As it stands, U of L's average attendance is at 50,720. Given the U of L fan base's habit of dwindling in November, the average might not be above 50,000 after its final home game on Saturday, but for the sake of selling every little point, Cards' fans might be well-advised to show up as a show of commitment -- against UConn, no less.
Though they aren't probably high on the list of important factors, U of L can go out of its way to sell facilities, and its usual place among the top 35 all-sports programs. It also, and this could be important, can sell a record of NCAA compliance that UConn currently cannot. This also could play into its favor.
I think all of these things you'll read about, not just here, but from national voices as the schools are examined in the coming days. I expect U of L will get its share of support nationally. The question is whether any of it is enough to offset some disadvantages the school faces.
And finally this. On the academic side. U of L has to sell its trajectory. It is not a large land-grant institution that has been living off state support for its entire existence. It only became a part of Kentucky's state system in 1970. What athletics facilities it has, it has largely funded by itself. Academically, the mission and performance of the school has changed a great deal over the past 15 years. Most people around this state believe it still has open admissions. On the contrary, U of L admitted about 73 percent of its applicants in 2011 (UK admitted about 68 percent). Fifteen years ago, there were about 1,800 students living on U of L's downtown campus. Today there are about 5,000. In that same time frame, the average ACT score has risen from 21.4 to 25.0, and the endowment has shot up from $317 million to nearly $725 million.
Those numbers, admittedly, aren't ACC-type numbers. But they have been achieved in a relatively short time. If granted ACC membership, U of L could argue, its growth could be accelerated. And I would add this. U of L should not apologize for the urban mission it followed for much of its history. It's easy to take only the best, brightest and richest students you can accept, students who come to college on third base, then take credit for helping them hit a home run. It's more difficult to serve a diverse city in a poor state, take students who haven't had many of life's advantages, and help them to a better life, some of them even to great success. That has its place in higher education. What doesn't have a place is a country-club mentality that those schools that have worked on those front lines of education are somehow less worthy. There are some even in this community, in the service of one cause or another, who take shots at or look down on U of L for this mission. But rather than run from that aspect of its history, I think U of L ought to own it, and it pair it unapologetically with its evolution of recent years.
Q: Is there ANY good news for Louisville in any of this conference stuff?
A: Sure, there's always hope. One hope for U of L is this -- conferences today are making decisions for short-term financial windfalls. But to base a long future on the stability of the media market in the United States is to build on a pretty flimsy foundation. Sports on TV have stood the test of time and will always be popular. But the way they are delivered to the public and the way cable companies do business is a fluctuating model, and one that figures to be as different seven years from now as it was seven years ago. The bundling of cable networks as it is done today surely won't last another decade with consumers who are growing more specialized in what they want to watch and less willing to pay for channels they don't watch.
As long as the Big Ten Network can get into cable markets and charge subscription fees from cable companies no matter how low its ratings are, it can make money in its current business model. But the day that it only makes money for the people who actually watch its programming -- as opposed to the number who have to purchase it through bundling -- is the day that the model goes out the window.
Likewise, one has to wonder how long schools like Ohio State and Michigan will be content to share revenue with schools who bring much less to the table.
There are more seismic shifts ahead for college sports. If the desire for money is running the show, it also will run the show off a cliff, if not kept in check.
That means more changes are ahead, and U of L is fairly well positioned to take advantage when opportunity comes along. It shouldn't be forgotten that, at least for now, U of L is generating major-conference revenue without being in a major conference. If it can figure out a way to keep building its fan base -- and to keep winning -- it should be fine.
Q: What about the ACC? Isn't it little more than the old Big East plus a few other schools?
A: It is exactly the old Big East plus a few other schools. One major concern -- and Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams both Monday expressed it openly -- is that the league is now susceptible to poaching, and that other members could be in jeopardy. That kind of sentiment could leave UNC open to listening to the SEC, which would be a back-breaker. Already, some have suggested that Florida State would listen to the Big 12.
For U of L fans, stability is likely a long way off. But they shouldn't forget, they have some highly ranked teams to follow, and at the very least, they ought to enjoy the ride.
Q: Would the ACC consider U of L, Cincy and UConn?
A: It's an interesting question. I think the ACC is going to sit down and put its heads together and think about this for a little bit. Its next move is a big one in keeping its own league together.
Q: What is going to happen with the Big East?
A: It can only take so many shots. It only announced its divisions last week, and now must completely redraw its alignment. Boise State and San Diego State clearly will consider their options given more uncertainty in the Big East. And Rick Pitino said Monday that he fears the private Catholic schools in the Big East at some point are going to grow weary of the football drama and break away.
"Unless somebody develops a plan of attack, these Catholic schools are going to say, ‘I've had enough,'" Pitino said. "Because nobody has more money than the Vatican."
Hey, wait a minute. Do you think the Vatican would have any interest in forming an all-sports cable network?
Q: What's next for U of L if the worst-case scenario happens, UConn goes to the ACC, and the realignment stops?
A: Realignment never stops! But for the sake of the question, with or without those western schools in the Big East, U of L would be, in the words of Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell when he sat down with Rick Bozich and me earlier this year, "a big-league team in a Triple-A league." All that could be done would be to continue to improve, hope that basketball remains nationally successful, manage football as well as possible and take advantage of any access that is given to the playoff system, which likely will evolve into a larger tournament over time. Again, the landscape isn't stable yet. As much as it frustrates U of L administration and fans, all any school or organization can do is its best. It wouldn't be easy. But what in U of L's history has been?