Tyson Helton

Western Kentucky University athletic director Todd Stewart (right) announces Tyson Helton (center) as the Hilltoppers’ head football coach as WKU President Timothy Caboni looks on during a news conference Nov. 27, 2018, at the Jack and Jackie Harbaugh Stadium Club at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

On Black Friday, Western Kentucky and Louisville played a men’s basketball game in one of the premier sports venues in the Southeast. The Cardinals were undefeated and poised for a No. 1 ranking at the time, and the Hilltoppers were 6-1 as the home team Nov. 29 at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.

The broadcast platform for the game was Facebook.

In football, WKU had a two-game swing against Florida Atlantic and Marshall, outcomes that would be critical in determining the race for the Conference USA East Division. Both of those games were available either through Facebook or the subscription-only streaming platform of ESPN+.

The crux of the issue is not necessarily the viewing options Conference USA has for its member schools, but rather where games that matter are placed within those platforms – especially in comparison to strategic approaches by other Group of Five conferences.

WKU athletics director Todd Stewart wants C-USA to be more proactive in deciding how to make the most of the top games by matching them with the best viewing options. Stewart told the Daily News that Conference USA officials and the member school athletic directors took a deep dive into the topic at the winter meetings a few weeks ago.

“There’s some frustration from the schools on some of the TV side of it,” Stewart told the Daily News. “I think the positives of the current TV deal is there are unique exposure opportunities with all the streaming options we have, but certainly as a league, we need to be more proactive and strategic in the placement of games.”

Stewart wants the league to be more attentive to the flow of a season and flex scheduling for the best matchups, rather than sticking to preseason scheduling.

“I don’t think that’s a very good job by the league working to place their best games with our broadcast partners,” Stewart said. “I think we need a little more of a proactive and strategic approach to looking ahead and seeing these are really good games for our league and let’s work harder with our partners to place these games. That (WKU-Louisville game) deserves a better outlet than it got.”

Conference USA’s current television deal is divided through CBS Sports Network, Stadium and ESPN+ through 2023. The league’s 14 member schools brought in around $400,000 in TV revenue in 2018-19, with most of its games being accessible through free streaming serves via Facebook on mobile devices.

The league’s championship games in football and men’s and women’s basketball are nationally broadcast by CBS Sports Network, a channel only available through certain cable packages.

In lieu of C-USA competing for ratings with the other G5 leagues – American Athletic Conference, Mountain West, MidAmerican Conference and the Sun Belt – Stewart believes C-USA could be more proactive in placing the best games on the best platforms.

The Mountain West earlier this year announced a gigantic six-year, $270 million deal with FOX and CBS Sports. The MAC, AAC and Sun Belt are all currently in TV contracts of 10-plus years with ESPN.

The AAC, the most prominent and nationally relevant of the G5 leagues, has a $1 billion deal that pays its member schools about $7 million per year. Schools in the MAC earn close to $670,000 per year and the Sun Belt, the conference WKU left in 2014, pays out between $300,000 and $400,000 per school.

The TV revenue and better bowl placement are two of the main reasons Stewart spearheaded the university’s jump from the SBC to Conference USA in 2014.

For perspective, the Southeastern Conference paid out $44.6 million per school in the 2018-19 fiscal year.

“The last two times we’ve been a free agent, we haven’t gotten a good deal on the revenue standpoint,” Stewart said. “Some of that, again, is on the schools. We have to win more and do a better job. That is part of it. I also think a good agent can get a really good deal for the client in any part of life. Hopefully we can do our part as a client to win games, win nonconference games and bowl games, postseason NCAA tournament games and then hopefully our league as an agent does their part next time we’re a free agent and we get a better deal from a revenue standpoint.

Just last summer, C-USA struck a deal with the NFL Network to broadcast a 10-game schedule in football. But those games were announced in May, attempting to predict the best matchups based on the 2018 football season. WKU went 3-9 that year and was left out of that package, but made a turnaround with an 8-4 regular season record.

“We talked about what the NFL does, flex scheduling,” Stewart said. “They get a better inventory two weeks out instead of trying to pick ahead of time. We wanted to do that with everybody and all schools agreed to that. Hypothetically, if you have two teams in November and first place in the division is on the line, that doesn’t need to be on a streamed game. That needs to be on one of our platforms. Two teams at the bottom of the division that aren’t going to make a bowl game, doesn’t need to be on one of our partners and that’s something we need to work towards.”

Stewart also recognizes the reality of the gap between the league’s top and bottom teams and how C-USA stacks up to the rest of the G5 leagues. He knows the bottom line is viewers will watch good teams, no matter the conference.

When using the six computer formulas formerly used to determine the BCS rankings, C-USA ranked fourth among the G5 conferences with a 91.5 rating in the 2019 season. The AAC had the highest average computer ranking of 59.1 with a sizeable gap to the Mountain West at 73.8 and the 82.4 ranking of the Sun Belt.

Those measurements had WKU tied for second in C-USA with Louisiana Tech with a 55.0 average ranking, trailing league-champion Florida Atlantic at 30.0. For comparison, the bottom half of the league – seven teams – ranked 100 or worse. The other four leagues had five or fewer teams finish with an average ranking of 100 or more.

“The Mountain West just struck a huge deal,” Stewart said. “It’s a good league and it’s better than Conference USA, but it’s not 10 times better. For them to get a TV deal they got from a revenue standpoint is something we feel we need to aspire to do better at. The schools have had a limited ability to talk to broadcast partners. We don’t negotiate those deals. The league office is our agent.”{&end}

– Follow WKU athletics beat writer Elliott Pratt on Twitter @EPrattBGDN or visit bgdailynews.com.

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