Shane Lyons Speaks: West Virginia In Its Eighth Season In The Big 12 Conference
MORGANTOWN, W.Va.–West Virginia has been a member of the Big 12 Conference since 2012, and WVU director of athletics Shane Lyons has held his job since 2015.
So it’s not like the Mountaineers or Lyons are new to the rodeo. But still each year is a different year, and there is always something to learn.
For Lyons that continued this summer by attending the Big 12’s football media days in mid-July at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
“Last year I went because there were a lot of expectations, and this year with a new coach I just wanted to be around,” Lyons explained. “Also, in addition to my work on the NCAA Oversight Committee, I wanted to be around in case there were any issues or questions.
“From my perspective, I think to be around our coach and our student-athletes is always a good thing. Then it also gives me a chance to talk to some of our local media who attend, as well as the national media, which is always a good opportunity.”
The Big 12 media day changed location, though it was still in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.
“Last year it was at The Star, and this year it was at AT&T Stadium,” noted Lyons of the move. “That’s just a massive building, and it was interesting to observe how all that was set up. It’s a great venue, and a great event that the Big 12 puts on. It’s important to us as a conference and us as an institution to be able to showcase West Virginia football and get people excited.”
The Big 12 has had plenty of tense moments since it first formed in 1996, combining the Big Eight members with part of the Southwest Conference. From the original 12 schools, Colorado and Nebraska departed the Big 12 in 2011, and Texas A&M and Missouri followed them out the door a year later. At that point many thought the league was headed for extinction, but after West Virginia and TCU joined in 2012, things began to stabilize. Now financially – with an annual payout of nearly $40 per member – and mentally, the Big 12 seems to be on very solid ground.
“As an outsider, I watched some of the issues the Big 12 faced in the past,” noted Lyons. “When I came in, most of those things had already been settled. I couldn’t be more proud of how the members of the conference have locked arms and joined forces and said we all feel good about where we’re at and 10 is the right number. I think it was a good exercise a couple years ago to explore what we’d look like if we did decide to expand and what those institutions would be. We felt at that time that 10 was the right number, and we all stood behind that and vowed to make our programs competitive nationally in all sports – football, basketball, baseball, all of them. And we’ve done that.
“Obviously football and men’s basketball get the most attention. In terms of football, we have to get over that last little hump in terms of getting a team to win the national championship. We’re right there. We’ve had a team in the College Football Playoff the past two years. Oklahoma lost in overtime (in the 2017-18 semifinals to Georgia), so we’ve been close, but now we have to take that last step. I think everyone feels good as a conference.
“I think the narrative that we were disadvantaged at 10 when everyone else was at 14 or 16, I think that ship has sailed,” continued Lyons, who prior to returning to WVU, his alma mater, had served as the deputy director of athletics at the University of Alabama from 2011-15. “I think when people look at us now, they think maybe we got it right. Ten or 12 is a lot easier to navigate than 14 or 16 or whatever the number may be. I like where we’re at for many reasons, including conference scheduling. We play all nine league opponents in football, and we have a true round-robin with home-and-away games in basketball. Across the board it’s a very good setup, and our revenues continue to increase.”
The Big 12 members previously held their own Tier 3 television rights, but eight of them (all but Texas and Oklahoma) have pooled those individual contracts.
“We decided to go with a different format to become part of ESPN+ with Big 12 Now, which will give us a digital platform and the ability for consumers to get different content,” explained Lyons, as WVU will be a full-time member of the Big 12 Now package starting in the summer of 2020. “I think that’s the way things are heading. I don’t think you’re going to have 100 percent cable cutting, but I do think streaming is becoming much more viable for the younger generations, and now even the older people like myself. It’s not just on your phone, but you can throw it from your phone to your large-screen TV if you want. There is going to be a lot of available content out there. With all that coming together, I think the conference has a very bright future.”
The Big 12’s Tier 1 and Tier 2 TV package will remain unchanged through the life of the current contract with games appearing on the FOX or ABC/ESPN networks. But now those Mountaineer events that were televised through WVU’s Learfield IMG contract, be it through AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh or streamed at WVUsports.com, will instead be part of the ESPN+ streaming service at Big 12 Now. Some of West Virginia events will be broadcast by Big 12 Now this year, like the Kansas-WVU football game was in September, but the complete change will come with the 2020-21 athletic year.
“We had the contract with Learfield IMG, so the rights weren’t really controlled by us anyway,” noted Lyons. “The proven record of ESPN, as well as our hope for the ESPN+ model, will provide our fans with excellent coverage. It will feature one football game and then six to eight (men’s) basketball games will be part of the ESPN+ package. Then we can put up anything else we want to, so I think there is a lot of value to it. I’m sure there will be some hiccups, like there are whenever you start something new, but it’s a partnership agreement that I don’t see any problem with.
“We did a lot of those events in-house, but this does continue to give us those opportunities, just on a different platform. The thing it does is it gives us a chance, for those conference championships that haven’t been picked up by our TV partners, to have a home. Gymnastics, golf, swimming, track, those championships that hadn’t been televised in the past now will have a platform on a digital platform.
“The production will be a high quality, the cameras will be a high quality with the announcers that we will control from our campus. I think the fans will really like it.”
With so much change coming to the broadcast industry, schools hope the Big 12 Now service is part of the wave of the future.
“I think we’re trying to make a short-term decision based on a long-term revenue impact,” noted Lyons. “Our TV contracts expire in ’24-’25, so this gives a chance to see over the next few years how the digital platform actually works. So eight of us agreed to put move our third-tier rights to ESPN+. We’ve had a great relationship with ESPN over the years, and this gives us a chance to go to that digital platform. Hopefully when we do the next TV deal in ’24-’25, we can show them we have a lot of value in this. If you look at last year, ESPN+ had a few hundred thousand subscribers and now there are a million something. So this continues to be an uptick in this platform. It’s not that much different from when they launched ESPN2 and ESPNU and those. Obviously that was cable, but when it started it wasn’t all that powerful, but it continued to grow. We think the digital piece will experience similar growth.
“We’re trying to adapt to change. If we all had a crystal ball, we would know the perfect plan,” stated Lyons. “To think even five years ago that we’d be getting so much content over your phone that you can splash up to your TV, it’s just amazing how far technology has come, and who knows how far it will go in the next five years. The day after new technology is introduced, it is old technology. It is changing a lot. What we’re trying to do as a conference is look into that crystal ball and try to determine where things are heading. What does cable look like in five or 10 years? I don’t think cable is going away, but it is going to look different. The younger generation, that we call cable cutters, how are they getting their content? There still are TVs being made and things being watched. The one thing we have that is invaluable is live content. People love live content. That’s why the revenues from our broadcast partners have been so lucrative, because live content has a lot of value. That’s not just in college sports but professional sports as well.”
The broadcast rights bring major college athletic departments huge money, and Lyons hopes that continues for decades to come. But decreases in attendance have become an industry-wide concern.
“It’s great to have the TV contracts and the revenues that come from that, but we’re all struggling with the decline in attendance,” said Lyons, who is a native of Parkersburg, West Virginia. “The fans may not want to go to six or seven (football) games per year. Maybe they only want to go to two or three and stay home and watch the others on TV. It’s the same with basketball when maybe it’s a weeknight game and I won’t be getting home until late. As a consumer, I have a 70-inch big screen TV, and that HD broadcast is a lot better than the one I used to get on my 21- or 25-inch screen. The picture, sound and clarity for broadcasts have gotten a lot better, so as athletic departments, we’re sitting here trying to figure out how to get people to continue coming to the games. The TV picture may be great, but you can’t replicate the experience of being inside the stadium. But to get there from the time they leave their driveway to the time they get home, the traffic, the food at the concession stands, that’s what we’re all trying to make better.
“We’ve made enhancements in the stadium – better restrooms, better concessions, better videoboards, improving the ingress and egress,” WVU’s A.D. continued. “Everything we can do to make it better we’re trying to do. Once you’re inside the stadium, you can’t replicate that experience at home. That’s what we want people to come experience. I think of it kind of like the Disney World experience – ‘Hey, that was fun. I want to come back.’ That’s what we want here. But we understand that people invest a lot of time and money to get to our events, so we try to give them the best experience possible once they’re here in terms of parking and traffic and concessions and everything else. I realize you’re never going to make everyone happy. You’re always going to have your critics. If we can get the masses to say, ‘That was a great experience. I want to come back,’ that’s what I hope. It’s also a matter of putting a great product on the fields and courts, having opponents people want to come and watch in person. And not that it’s the end all, be all, but winning cures a lot of problems.”