This time last year, the Southeastern Conference was further distancing itself from all other collegiate sports leagues in the United States.
You might have heard about it.
Nearly three billion dollars in television contracts. CBS. ESPN.
Hard to miss, really.
Those tv deals — plus multiple national championships in football and basketball this decade — have earned the SEC top billing when it comes to college sports.
But now comes the tough part: staying there.
Don’t laugh. It’s a lot easier to reach #1 than to stay #1, or so the old saying goes.
Now that the SEC is perched atop the sporting world, all the other major conferences will be looking for ways to copy them, pass them and unseat them.
The ACC recently expanded to 12 teams. Joe Paterno is pushing for expansion in the Big Ten, as well. And the ACC is already angling for a new TV contract of its own. Remember — each new TV deal usually sets the bar for future contracts. Don’t expect the SEC to stay on top of the money heap forever, especially if the Big Ten Network goes from bust to boom.
So what should the SEC be doing to fend off competitors?
I talked to sports marketing expert Bill Schmidt about that very thing. Schmidt was the Vice President of Worldwide Sports Marketing for Gatorade in the heady days of Michael Jordan and the Gatorade post-game shower. You know, back before Gatorade rebranded itself as “G” and lost market share by the gallon.
Schmidt was also the VP of Sports at the 1984 Olympics and the CEO for Oakley. In other words, this is a man who understands sports marketing from a billion dollar business perspective.
In his view, if Mike Slive and the SEC’s top decision-makers are smart (and they usually are), they already have a team of forward-thinking people locked in a room right now.
“I’m not talking about a ‘think tank,’” Schmidt said, “but something in that direction.”
The folks at Disney used to call their long-range planners “imagineers.” Some groups refer to these people as futurists. Whatever you want to call them, the SEC should be making use of them now.
In order to protect the dominant position they’ve already built. In order to maintain their competitive (read: monetary) advantage. And in order to be “first” as usual.
Which league was the first to expand to 12 teams? The SEC.
Which league was the first to hold a multi-million dollar championship game? The SEC.
Which league was the first to lock up a multi-billion dollar pair of tv contracts? Again, it was the SEC.
“Now that the economy has turned downward, keeping that money coming in is more important than ever,” Schmidt said. “Whether it’s TV revenue, schools’ contracts with their own sponsors, whatever, the key is bringing in more money than the next guy.”
The television contracts with CBS and ESPN couldn’t have come at a better time for the SEC. The league locked in huge dollars for a 15-year period right as the economy began to slow.
Competitor leagues like the ACC, in the current environment, most likely won’t be able to find television dance partners willing to match the SEC’s enormous payday. Even if they do try to play the “we’ll start our own network” card.
In the current economy, ESPN, NBC and Fox would likely tell the ACC, “good luck selling it” and leave the negotiating table.
So what’s next? Here are just a few of the ideas that Schmidt and I kicked around over coffee. Some may seem far-fetched. But 30 years ago, who would have believed that something called the internet would kill off newspapers?
“Far-fetched things do happen,” Schmidt said. “Look at the BCS. Who would have thought the Rose Bowl, Pac-10 and Big Ten would ever get involved? But they are.”
Oh, and as Schmidt pointed out, “Which league’s commissioner dreamed up the BCS?”
Again, the SEC is always the forward-thinking one.
1. More Policing
This isn’t so much forward thinking as it is necessity. “With the amount of money now coming into the league, don’t be surprised to see Mike Slive take an even more active role in policing league schools,” said Schmidt.
Slive is the most powerful commissioner in league history. As the league’s schools stopped hiring ex-coaches as athletic directors and started hiring marketers, bookkeepers and accountants, a leadership void was created.
Slive has filled it. Marvelously. In doing so, he’s shown that he’s not afraid to hold SEC schools to higher standards than those of other conferences (this May’s change to the SEC’s oversigning rules are a good example).
“With the money that the league has coming in right now, the SEC can’t afford to have a school on major probation,” Schmidt said. “Don’t be surprised to see Slive start handing down his own penalties and scholarship reductions for league schools that repeatedly commit secondary violations.”
Indeed, as I’ve written on this site previously, repeated secondary violations create a renegade image for the league’s coaches and the conference in general. That might invite the NCAA to start snooping around… to see if there a bigger issues hidden beneath the surface.
“Slive doesn’t want that to happen,” Schmidt said.
2. Conference vs. Conference Series
It would take some work from a scheduling perspective, but according to Schmidt, “the idea of the best of the Big 12 or Pac-10 facing the best of the SEC would be appealing to the television networks.”
What if the 2009 season opened with last year’s Pac-10 titlist facing off against the SEC’s best? Yeah. I think Southern Cal-Florida might be a pretty good a TV draw, don’t you?
Schedules are made so far in advance that this might not be a three- or four-team deep type of scenario (like the SEC/Big East Challenge in basketball), but the idea is exactly the type of thing the SEC should be considering.
3. Creating New Revenue Streams from Existing In-Game Inventory
In terms of the league’s individual schools, how can more money be made off of existing real estate? “Game programs are always a money loser,” says Schmidt. “How long before someone creates an interactive program?”
Indeed, there’s already the technology to put moving LED signs onto t-shirts, caps and jackets. Are we that far from the day when someone opens up a newspaper-sized, flexible LED sheet that allows fans to log into in-stadium information feeds? An interactive program?
While we’re on the subject, could the SEC soon start marketing “smart” headsets that work only in league’s stadiums? Fans who pay a one-time fee for the headsets could experience multi-channel choices during a football or basketball game. One channel could feature the home team’s radio broadcast. Another could be the road team’s broadcast. Still another could be a constant update of in-game statistics and scores from other games. And the SEC headset could be made to work at Commonwealth Stadium or Jordan-Hare Stadium. So the traveling fan can take advantage of the headset, too.
Most importantly to the schools, new and different advertising could be sold on each channel.
Here’s another one for you: “What about the LED boards that surround soccer fields,” Schmidt asked. “There’s not as much of an open sight-line in football as there is in soccer (due to people standing on football sidelines), but this is yet another way to create in-game advertising revenue.”
4. Neutral Site Games Made for Television
Parts of this model are already coming to fruition. Alabama is about to play in their second straight “Chick-fil-A Kickoff” game in Atlanta. Arkansas has signed a 10-year deal with Texas A&M and Jerry Jones’ new stadium in Arlington, Texas that will make the school millions of dollars per year.
But that’s just the beginning.
“Sponsors’ logos are already allowed on teams’ jerseys during bowl games,” Schmidt said. “So what if Toyota or Tostitos decides to sponsor a big neutral site game? The door is already open because of the bowl games.” As always, the NCAA talks a good game about commercialism, but all that hand-wringing stops when school presidents see big green dollar signs.
Sponsors have already bought into major rivalry games. Texas and Oklahoma’s yearly “Red River Shootout” has been sponsored by AT&T, for example.
So what’s to keep Coca-Cola from buying the rights to the Georgia-Florida showdown in Jacksonville each year?
Both schools could wear a Coke patch for that one game. Coke would get an incredible amount of exposure in the media coverage of the game and during every single play of game action.
“It’s about creating premium events with premium advertising and premium ticket prices,” Schmidt said. A match-up between LSU and Southern Cal in Tempe, Arizona, sponsored by Tostitos would fit the bill. So would a Tennessee-Notre Dame matchup at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis… sponsored by Lucas Oil, of course.
Would hometown fans like losing a home game to a neutral site? On the surface, no. But if Florida fans had their choice between watching the Gators play Charleston Southern at The Swamp or seeing them play Ohio State in a made-for-TV monster at FedEx Field in DC, I’m guessing they’d choose the bowl game atmosphere of the neutral site game.
And the money is the draw for the schools. Arkansas and Texas A&M are projected to make $4 million per game during each of their 10 upcoming matchups.
If those schools played a home-and-home series, each school would bring in about $2 million per home game… every other year. Which looks better to you? $40 million or $10 million?
The schools of the Southeastern Conference are in tremendous shape now and look to be in great shape for the future as well. But the key for the SEC will be its ability to stay on the forefront of college athletics.
The SEC has shown time and again that it is willing to be a leader (even pitching a plus-one playoff system to the BCS bosses last year). The league needs to maintain that mindset.
The conference’s “imagineers” should be huddled in a room right now trying to figure out where the revenue of tomorrow can be found.
Whether it’s using some of the ideas that we’ve discussed above or breaking new ground elsewhere, Slive and his cohorts need to be eyeballing the future, not simply enjoying their recent string of major successes.