Can UH boost the Big 12's ratings in the Houston market?

Not six years ago, the Big 12 completely dominated the Houston television market, the second-largest within the conference footprint and 10th-biggest in the country.

In fact, in 2010, according to ratings that Nielsen provided to ESPN.com, Big 12 teams played in nine of the top 10-rated regular-season games in the Houston market.

But in the wake of two devastating rounds of conference realignment to the Big 12, the conference's stranglehold on one of its most vital markets has been lost. And in swiping away Texas A&M, the SEC has since staged its own H-Town takeover.

"The SEC right now owns the city of Houston from a TV ratings standpoint," said University of Houston board chair Tilman Fertitta. "Those eyeballs in Houston are extremely important to the Big 12."

As it seeks an invitation to join the Big 12 in the event the league expands at some point this year, Fertitta and UH officials have been making a twofold pitch to Big 12 leaders.

One, that the Big 12 has lost the Houston market to the SEC.

And two, that UH can help bring it back.

"The Big 12 needs to own Houston," Fertitta said. "Not the SEC."

Back in 2010, there was no doubt which conference owned Houston.

According to Nielsen, seven in-conference Big 12 matchups were among the 10 most-watched games in the Houston market that year. In fact, the only non-Big 12-related game that cracked the top 10 in Houston was the Iron Bowl, in which eventual Heisman winner Cam Newton led undefeated Auburn to a furious come-from-behind victory at Alabama. That game came in ninth in Houston, just behind Nebraska-Texas A&M and just ahead of the Big 12 championship, which pitted the Huskers against Oklahoma in their final meeting as conference rivals.

But last season, it was the SEC that owned Houston.

The Big 12 had only two regular-season games finish in the top 10 in the market: the Red River Showdown and Baylor-TCU, which was played in a monsoon on the Friday evening after Thanksgiving.

The SEC, meanwhile, netted six of the top 10 games in Houston, including each of the top three, only one of which included Texas A&M (vs. Alabama). Alabama-Florida placed second and Alabama-LSU was third; even Alabama-Tennessee outperformed the rest of the Big 12's slate.

"The SEC clearly has made tremendous inroads into the Houston market," said an industry source who has worked in TV programming.

Another industry insider who too has worked in college sports programming pointed to Texas' struggles since the turn of the decade as a possible factor for the Big 12's decline in Houston. After all, in 2010, half of the Longhorns' games ranked in the top 10 in Houston, including tilts against Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Nebraska, which were also the top four-rated games in Houston for the year.

"What's unknown is how the University of Texas not having the success it once had has impacted the ratings in that market," the insider said. "If they had been achieving at a high level, maybe things are a bit different."

Still, there's no debating that the SEC has made significant headway into Houston.

The question is, can UH do anything to reverse it?

"It's a close call how much a fifth Texas institution or local Texas institution helps in that market," another insider said. "The Big 12 already has a significant presence in the state of Texas, with a strong alumni base represented in the Houston market.

"I don't know if [UH] would create a market spike. But with the SEC ratings having increased, you could make the argument that having another member that is based there could be helpful."

During a breakout campaign in Tom Herman's first season, the Cougars registered well in their home market. On the way to going 13-1, UH alone produced as many top 10 games in Houston as the entire Big 12, according to Nielsen figures the university has submitted to the Big 12.

The American Athletic Conference championship featuring UH and Temple on ABC ranked fifth in the Houston market for the year, sandwiched between the Red River Showdown and the Iron Bowl. UH-Navy, also an ABC game, placed ninth.

Besides that, the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, in which the Cougars rolled past Florida State by two touchdowns, proved to be the highest rated non-playoff New Year's Six Bowl in the Houston market.

"We've proven over the course of this past year that we can bring the [Houston] college football market," said UH athletic director Hunter Yurachek. "I think we bring great value."

UH may have resonated in Houston last year. But the Big 12 will be weighing whether the Cougars can significantly and consistently bolster the Big 12's presence in the Houston market long term.

One of the insiders who spoke with ESPN said he believes that boost will hinge on how consistently the Cougars can produce on the field.

In 2010, when it went 5-7, UH barely registered in its own market, even though the Cougars went to the Conference USA championship game under Kevin Sumlin in the season before and in the season after.

Only with a high-powered offense, exciting quarterback in Greg Ward Jr. and the pre-eminent up-and-coming coach in the game in Herman did the Cougars penetrate the Houston market.

"It'll have a lot to do with the success of the University of Houston," the insider said. "If you have teams playing at a high level and playing for championships, then it could absolutely help."

The other industry source, however, was far more dubious that the Big 12 can do anything at this point to repel the SEC's penetration into Houston -- including adding UH.

"Is Houston going to really bring that market back to the Big 12?" the source said. "I don't think so. They just don't move the needle. That is an SEC town now, and that's probably not changing."

But Fertitta sees a different outcome with UH in the Big 12.

"A&M has a huge alumni presence here, and of course so does Texas," he said. "But this is Houston. And people who live in Houston, regardless of where they went to school, are going to be interested in Houston."