Is the Future of Small College Athletics Best in a Bundle?

Disseminating content is easier than ever before. Virtually gone are the days when TV networks, newspapers, and radio decided what content got produced and to whom it was made available. And while the big college athletics conferences have big money TV deals still, for the smaller guys, at the D2 and D3 and NAIA levels, the opportunity to allow their fans to watch their games is wide open.

With Facebook Live and Periscope, with tri-casters and live streaming, small but adept and talented college athletics programs can now produce their own broadcasts for their fans and alumni to watch. While they may not generate six or seven figures in terms of viewership and website/social media traffic, the consistency and the compelling reach they DO command is worth considering.

But big brands often don’t have time for small buys. And the Learfields, IMG Colleges, Fox Colleges, and even their smaller counterparts like JMI Sports and Van Wagner aren’t yey vying to manage the digital media rights of the hundreds of small schools with viable athletics programs all around the country.

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The best solution, in the informed opinion of CSU Monterey Bay Director of Athletics Kirby Garry (who spoke with me for a recent interview) is to unite…and then those numbers will command some considerable attention.

“(Small Colleges like us) are probably not in the Learfield world, even though a lot of us are on SIDEARM, which is a Learfield company and some of our licensing stuff is now with Learfield,” said Garry. “…At our level, collaboration at the conference level – 13 California institutions…I think we have leverage. But we haven’t done that as a conference…to get together, to see if we have some shared inventory…That’s on us, as athletics directors at universities to start driving that…”

While taken together, the audience size and breadth is indeed impactful, the content coming from the smaller institutions is not being produced by ESPN or Fox or a wealthy network like the Big Ten or Pac 12 Networks, among others. If agencies and brand are going to buy in on the content and properties these schools own and produce, they need to achieve a certain, consistent-enough across the conference, standard of quality. It’s all easier said than done, but, for Garry, it can be done. The eggs will come before the chicken, but with the promise of chicken (money), the eggs (vendor and the institutions themselves [yeah, I love analogies]), are [or should be] willing to invest, knowing there is revenue as the new paradigm comes to life.

“I think it’ll take some investment from a conference-wide positioning, in terms of what we want. I think we need to go through that, the CCAA, as a group. Who is our target audience? What are we about? What is our story?…Where do we sit?” said Garry.
“…We have to spend some money to get us up to par…Our campuses are small and humble and don’t have a lot of infrastructure…so how do we get (consistently quality production)? But I think technology and the level of expectation people have, and some of the platforms that are out there and the vendors that are out there supporting schools like us.

“It’s little by little, but I’m a big proponent of (going at it) at the conference level…”

So what will the future of the business of small college athletics look like? There’s likely no single answer because every school, every category of schools, and every conference is so different with their infrastructure, fan base, sports, and objectives. But where there are fans, there is opportunity. And with a wide open ecosystem of content accessibility and production, an inflection point is near. The good news is that it’ll be a win for all. However it comes out.

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