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I’ve been arguing for several years now that Texas A&M’s decision to join the SEC represented a seismic change in the landscape of Texas college football. In particular, A&M recognized something important — in today’s college football universe, who you ally yourself with in a conference is as important as your program’s history. You’re only as good as the teams you play against.
In the laboratory of college football several years ago Texas and Texas A&M made different decisions. While Texas decided to follow the Notre Dame path and essentially go it alone with their own Longhorn Network and a conference of inferior Big 12 opponents, A&M decided to join the SEC and wed itself to the nation’s most popular football conference. A&M’s thesis was simple — we can’t beat the Texas Longhorn brand head-to-head, but the SEC alongside A&M can beat Texas in conjunction with the Big 12. Texas thought the opposite — nothing matters but our Longhorn brand, so we’re going to start our own network and take it national. There was only one problem: The games on the Longhorn Network were crap, and in deciding to start its own network Texas killed the chances for a Big 12 Network and forced out Nebraska, Colorado, Missouri and Texas A&M, four of the six most valuable teams in the then-existing Big 12.
So was Texas’s plan to effectively go independent a better decision than A&M’s decision to wed itself to the SEC? Well, after four years we’re starting to get some reliable indications of which school made the better decision. A&M is embarking on a renovation of all its facilities, including a massive expansion of Kyle Field, and the SEC Network — launched in large part because of A&M’s entry into the league — is a tremendous success, tossing off hundreds of millions of dollars a year and ensuring that every SEC school will make more money off the SEC Network than Texas will make off the Longhorn Network. Meanwhile, Texas has floundered in the Big 12, fired its long-time coach and is hoping that Charlie Strong can return the Longhorns to perennial top-10 status. But that’s no certainty. Particularly not with the rise of Baylor in the Big 12 and Texas A&M making the state of Texas more competitive for recruits than it ever has been before. Texas with A&M in the SEC is a entirely new world.
More than any school that joined any conference in realignment, A&M’s goal was simple — make the state of Texas SEC country. When you traveled to College Station, the goal of A&M administrators was to make certain the Aggie logo was paired with the SEC logo as often as possible. In 2012, when I traveled to College Station for the LSU game, it was impossible to miss. The most popular T-shirts in the campus bookstore weren’t just Aggie shirts — they were Aggie shirts with the SEC logo. Everywhere you looked in Kyle Field, there was an SEC logo. I’m not sure any school had ever bathed itself more in a conference’s logo.
Many denigrated the Aggie embrace of the SEC, including Texas’s then-athletic director DeLoss Dodds, who sarcastically attacked the idea that A&M was making Texas SEC country. Dodds memorably said the Aggies had a “small sliver of east Texas.” Texas fans ridiculed Outkick’s assertion that A&M’s move had changed the perpetual underdog status of A&M football. They didn’t believe that A&M’s decision to wed itself to the SEC would ever be able to change rooting interests in the state.
Well, less than four years after the Aggies announced they were joining the SEC, it’s clear Texas administrators and fans were wrong. A recent fan survey, published in Nielsen’s The Year in Sports Media Report: 2014, provided strong evidence that A&M’s decision to brand itself alongside the SEC is paying off in a big way. A&M’s brand has never been stronger, and the Aggies — in conjunction with the SEC — are rolling up huge amounts of Lone Star fan support.
According to Nielsen, in the past five years Texas A&M’s fan base has increased by 26 percent in Houston, while Texas’s fan base has dropped 30 percent. Texas A&M fans now make up 24 percent of Houston while Texas fans represent 18 percent. A small sliver of east Texas? That’s a major metropolitan area that has turned maroon. And it’s not just Houston either. According to the same Nielsen study, a similar trend has also played itself out in Dallas-Fort Worth, where the Texas A&M fan base has grown by 24 percent while the Texas fan base has dropped by 31 percent.
Now maybe you can attribute this swing to the relative success of the programs in the past three or four years or to Johnny Manziel, but I think that’s only a small part of it. Especially since A&M hasn’t exactly been on fire the past two years in the SEC. No, I think what this represents is the Aggies are playing more interesting and challenging games and fans care more about watching them play. While Texas is playing nine Big 12 games against a bevy of lesser lights, the Aggies are playing SEC football powerhouses in the nation’s most competitive conference.
Don’t underrate the benefit that comes with the Aggies playing on CBS and ESPN in primetime games against top opponents while the Longhorns take on Iowa State and two teams from Kansas every year. Texas A&M’s brand isn’t necessarily cooler than Texas’s, but A&M in conjunction with the SEC is a better brand than Texas and the Big 12.
For those out there who would say, “It doesn’t matter who is more popular in a city like Houston,” I’d respond, are you crazy? Houston is the nation’s fifth-largest metro area, and Dallas is the nation’s fourth-largest metro area. Between the two of them, these two cities and their metropolitan populations have 13.5 million people. Those two cities alone are in the ballpark of the other four SEC West states — Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas — combined (15.4 million). You think there might be some pretty good football players in Houston and Dallas who are more likely to consider attending A&M because their moms and dads, sister and uncles, brothers and sisters are watching the Aggies play SEC competition on TV?
I’m going to cast a vote for yes.
Moreover — and here’s what should scare Texas the most — all of those top players can’t go to Texas A&M. But lots of them are going to be interested in the SEC. They watch the NFL Draft, and they know the SEC has sent more players to the pros than any other conference for nine straight seasons. It won’t be long before other SEC schools — whose brands are being more and more exposed to Texas high school kids — are poaching top players from inside the Lone Star State and bringing them to other SEC campuses either. (A&M benefits as well, particularly in Louisiana).
Five years ago Texas and Texas A&M both had big decisions to make for the future of their programs — A&M picked the SEC while the Longhorns went solo.
The rise of A&M isn’t a momentary blip. This is just the beginning of a long-range trend — the state of Texas is becoming SEC country. From Houston to Dallas to San Antonio and — wait for it — Austin, the maroon is spreading across the Lone Star State.
That’s one heck of a sliver.