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Expounding On Expansion: If The SEC is Going To Act, It Should Act Boldly

(This is the fourth part in an on-going series examining the possibility of SEC expansion from a business perspective.)

Two summers ago, the Southeastern Conference signed a $150 million per year contract with ESPN.  Talking heads across the nation praised the league for “making ESPN its network.”

At the time, they (we) were correct.  The Big Ten was struggling to gain clearance for its own regional network.  The SEC had just signed one of the richest deals imaginable.  The ESPN deal would provide coast-to-coast coverage, too, not just regional coverage.

But not quite two years later, the ACC has now cut an even richer per-year agreement with ESPN.  Yes, the ACC.  The league that has for so long been the butt of so many SEC fans’ football jokes.

A bigger contract than the SEC’s?  Whoda thunk it?

“Whoda thunk it” is precisely why Mike Slive and the SEC’s presidents should be looking long and hard at the possibility of expanding the Southeastern Conference.

The common refrain amongst many in the south has been, “We’re the most powerful league in the country, why should we expand?”  Quite simply, that’s presumptuous.  It’s also bad business.

Top executives don’t run their companies by looking at how things stand now.  They succeed by trying to figure out how things will stand 10, 15 or even 50 years from now.

The SEC stands head-to-head with the Big Ten on sports’ Mount Olympus… for now.

But by 2024 — when the league’s twin contracts with CBS and ESPN run out — that might not be the case.  Slive and the SEC presidents should not assume that the league’s current run of on-field dominance will continue in perpetuity.  In fact, the league’s current strength is a product of forward-thinking, landscape-changing decisions made by previous league commissioners Harvey Schiller and Roy Kramer 20 years ago.

As I’ve stated in just about each piece of this series, none of this means that the SEC must expand.  It simply means that the SEC should seriously consider expanding.  If its studies and research shows that expansion is a positive move, then it should act boldly.  Perhaps even swiftly.

And if the SEC does decide to grow, history tells us what the league’s goals should be.

“Il nous faut de l’audace, encore de l’audace, toujours de l’audace.”
– French revolutionary Georges Danton

Alright, you might recognize a version of that quote from the movie “Patton.”  Forcing his men to fight without rest, George C. Scott warns his subordinate, “L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace.”

“We must dare, dare again, always dare!”

So why do I use a quote from the French Revolution in a column regarding possible SEC expansion?  Because if the SEC is going to expand, it needs to dang well do just that.  Expand.  All the way.

There has been talk for a quarter-century that eventually the American sports nation would be ruled by four 16-team superconferences.  If the SEC is going to expand now, then it should do so with the goal of controlling the sports landscape for decades to come.

In college basketball, the NCAA tournament will eventually be expanded to 96 teams.  It almost happened this spring.

With each tournament win being worth roughly $1 million, the more bids (and wins) a conference can muster, the more cash to divvy up amongst its teams each spring.

Ditto the college football bowl season.  More teams, more bowl bids.  More bowl bids, more money.

Dare, dare again, always dare.  If a four-team expansion makes monetary sense, the SEC needs to go in that direction and worry about rivalries and traditions later.  In fact, if the SEC sees value in growing into some sort of 20-team megaconference, then that too should be considered.

“Our manifest destiny is to overspread the continent allotted by providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”
– John L. O’Sullivan

When the great writer O’Sullivan opined of westward expansion in the mid-1800s, the millions he was referring to were people.  Today, that quote could just as easily be used to reference dollars.

As discussed in Part One of our series, the SEC is at risk of becoming the most regional of the major BCS leagues.  I don’t mean that in a good way.

Simple mathematics shows the perilous ground on which the SEC currently stands.  The Big Ten states include four of the biggest states in the union.  If this were an election, the Big Ten would win the electoral college pretty easily.

If the Big Ten states are home to 67,379,505 people, it’s safe to assume that the majority of these folks are Big Ten fans.  By comparison, the SEC is home to 58,581,019 people.  That means there are 10 million more Big Ten fans out there for television networks to chase.

If the Big Ten expands — as rumored — by adding Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse, Missouri and Nebraska, it’s population base balloons to more than 103 million people.  You don’t have to be a math whiz to conclude that major networks will be more likely to fork over cash to a Big Ten that’s supported nearly 2-to-1 more than the SEC.

The Big Ten is churning out more graduates per year than the SEC, too.  Big Ten schools have a collective student population of more than 450,000.  The SEC — with one more school — stands at little more than 300,000 students on campus each year.

Forget the SEC’s superior football of today.  Look to the future.  If other leagues start expanding, the SEC will need to grow as well.  That means truly expanding, growing the footprint of the league, turning new areas into SEC hotbeds.

In a recent chat with The Atlanta Journal-Consitution’s Tony Barnhart, former commissioner Kramer said, “The tricky part is that we would have to broaden our (geographical) footprint to increase the revenue enough to justify the move.”

Clemson, Georgia Tech, Florida State and Miami — the schools most often mentioned as possible SEC targets — don’t have much impact when it comes to stretching the SEC’s boundaries.

League fans like the idea of adding more nearby schools that seem to “fit” the SEC.  But if league presidents do come to the conclusion that expansion is a necessity, its not the conference’s manifest destiny to simply spread deeper into areas that are already considered “SEC Country.”

“Make the world England.”
– English Colonial policy

If the SEC needs to expand outwardly, the powers that be should not limit themselves when considering new dance partners.  Notre Dame currently plays in the Big East in all sports but football (it also schedules three Big East schools per year in football).  In previous years, the ACC and Pac-10 have courted the Irish as well.

Texas has had discussions over the years with the Pac-10, the SEC and the Big Ten.

The southern-based ACC recently expanded into Massachusetts by landing Boston College.

Bottom line?  Put down your atlas.

If the SEC believes that Texas or even Notre Dame would add the most dollars to the league’s bank account, then those schools should be the league’s targets.

If a private school seems to have the most to offer, then a private school should be considered for an invitation, even though the SEC is made up mostly of state schools and land grant institutions.

In other words, if the dollars are there — dollars that can help secure the long-term strength of the length — SEC presidents should consider even those schools that do not appear to be a “normal” fit for the SEC.

“The gods are on the side of the stronger.”
– The Roman historian Tacitus

Conferences with more schools will naturally hold more power and sway when it comes to NCAA and BCS decision-making.  To allow another league to out superpower the SEC would be a major setback.  And honestly, I don’t see the Slive or the league’s presidents allowing that to happen.

If the Big Ten and SEC were to expand to 16 teams, those leagues might set off a chain reaction that would cause the Big East and Big 12 to eventually disappear.  With more schools, the Big Ten and SEC would most certainly push for the current two-teams-in-the-BCS limit to be upped to a three-teams-in-the-BCS rule.

Additional BCS bids would mean millions more for the leagues that land them.

If the SEC sees that expansion is its best move, then it should expand with the goal of collecting more power and influence.

In other words, if you want to make sure that the deck is always stacked in your favor, own the casino.

More than just a land or money grab, expansion should also be a power grab for the SEC.  The bigger the stronger and the stronger the better.

If the decision-makers in the SEC decide that expansion is a positive proposition for the league, then they should not limit themselves in their discussions of who should be targeted for membership.

The conference should be daring enough to expand to a whopping 16 teams (or more) if that appears to be the right move.  It should look to expand its geographic footprint and its population base — spreading the gospel of the SEC to new converts, if you will.  The league should also be willing to eye teams from coast-to-coast if those teams appear to be the most valuable assets available.  Finally, size equals power and SEC brass should make the seizing of more power a top priority in this process.

The ACC and ESPN have reminded us this week that things can change quickly.  History tells us that to keep up with those changes, the SEC must be ready to shatter the ideas that have come before.

Allow me to use yet another famous historical quote to sum that up:  Fortune favors the bold.

(To read Part One of this series, click here.  For Part Two, click here.  And for Part Three, click here.)




  1. [...] John Pennington of Mr. SEC says if SEC is going to act in expansion, it should act boldly. [...]

  2. [...] Part IV of Mr. SEC's series on conference expansion: The SEC stands head-to-head with the Big Ten on sports' Mount Olympus… for now. But by 2024 — when the league's twin contracts with CBS and ESPN run out — that might not be the case.  Slive and the SEC presidents should not assume that the league's current run of on-field dominance will continue in perpetuity.  In fact, the league's current strength is a product of forward-thinking, landscape-changing decisions made by previous league commissioners Harvey Schiller and Roy Kramer 20 years ago. As I've stated in just about each piece of this series, none of this means that the SEC must expand.  It simply means that the SEC should seriously consider expanding.  If its studies and research shows that expansion is a positive move, then it should act boldly.  Perhaps even swiftly. [...]

  3. [...] by trying to figure out how things will stand 10, 15 or even 50 years from now.” — Part Four, May 17th“If the Big Ten states are home to 67,379,505 people, it’s safe to assume that the [...]

  4. [...] (This is the fifth part in an on-going series examining the possibility of SEC expansion from a business perspective.)Mention the words “conference expansion” and fans start dreaming of ways to create the world’s greatest football league.  “This team is great and its in the Southeast.”  “Well this team would be a natural rival with Georgia and Florida.”  “This team won a national title this decade.”That kind of talk is fun.  But it’s not the kind of chatter you’re likely to hear when a group of university presidents get together.  And ultimately, any decision on SEC expansion will be made by the league’s 12 presidents, not by Mike Slive, the league’s coaches, or its fans.Money will be key.  Securing future funds, future fanbases (ie: population bases) and future power will all be goals.And football?  Well, it’s part of the equation, too, but it’s not the 95% of the deal that some in the media would have you believe.  Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said this week that academics shouldn’t be overlooked in the current expansion frenzy.“You’re hitting on the most important part of this deal that people are actually missing.  Our presidents are in it not because of football.  Let’s be clear.  And I agree with them.”  Adding more schools from the AAU — more on that group in a minute — “would take us to a whole other level” as a conference.That’s not just a Big Ten view.  Former ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan recently discussed just how much of a role academics played in his league’s expansion back in the early 90s.“I think if you would have asked the people at Florida State about joining, there were some who probably thought, well, (the ACC is) not good enough in football.  But if you ask some people in the faculty, they’d say, ‘We get to be in the same league as Duke and Virginia and Carolina and Georgia Tech!”Even football coaches understand the importance of finding good academic “fits” for a league.  “At Wake Forest, we want to be a great football team, we want to win as many games every year as we possibly can, but we can’t sacrifice academics,” Jim Grobe said.  “And it’s good to compete against other schools that have the same goals and aspirations.”In other words, while you and your buddies are debating the merits of Florida State or Texas A&M as potential SEC dance partners, you’d best not be forgetting about academics.The AAU and The CICWhen you read the letters AAU, you probably think of a mid-summer basketball league.  But in the Big Ten, those three letters mean something completely different.Each of the Big Ten’s 11 schools are members of the Association of American Universities.  That’s a collection of 63 of the biggest research-oriented schools in North America.According to the AAU, the 110-year-old organization “focuses on national and institutional issues that are important to research-intensive universities, including funding for research, research and education policy, and graduate and undergraduate education.”Compared to the research spending of top-flight major universities, even the biggest athletic budgets pale in comparison.  In 2008, the University of Florida was one of only three schools to top $100 million in athletic spending. Think $100 million is a lot of cash to spend?  Multiply it by five and you have what UF spent in 2008 on research projects.  In fact, Florida receives more than $550 million annually in sponsored research funding.Think presidents don’t pay attention to those kinds of dollars?  While eyeing AAU membership, the Big Ten has also created the Committee on Institutional Cooperation.  The CIC, according to its director, was designed to “save money, solve problems, share assets and build opportunity for faculty and researchers.”  All eleven Big Ten schools — as well as original member the University of Chicago — benefit from this consortium.  Imagine the ability to buy in bulk.  The CIC has also digitized millions of books that can be shared across the conference via fiber optic network.“By almost any metric — investment in research, number of top ten academic programs, national rankings and enrollment — the CIC universities are very similar,” said Barbara McFadden Allen, the group’s director.  “This helps us move together on projects and initiatives in ways that would be difficult for a more disparate group.”If and when the Big Ten expands, Allen said the league will “be bringing in a university and not a team.”Michael Hogan, the incoming president at the University of Illinois, has thought about possible Big Ten membership while serving at his last school, the University of Connecticut.“Part of what appealed to me about it was, there’s an academic counterpart to the Big Ten, the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, which is based there in Urbana (Illinois).  It brings together presidents and provosts to share ideas on the academic side, including sharing programs that make them widely available to all students in the Big Ten.  It’s a nice match of the academic and sports part of the institution all across the board in the Big Ten.”Starting to get the picture?  The presidents of the SEC do.  They’re surely aware that their own league lags behind the Big Ten in terms of academic reputation.According to the latest rankings provided by “US News & World Report,” the average Big Ten university is ranks at #50.  The average SEC school comes in at #91.  On average, Big Ten schools receive and spend more than $500 million in research funding each year.  In the SEC research funding is only about $227 million per school.And then there’s the whole 11 to two lead the Big Ten holds in AAU memberships.  Only Florida and Vanderbilt are in that club.In short, the Big Ten is a league of massive, big budgeted schools that focus on graduate degrees and academic research.  The schools of the SEC are solid, spend well in research, but focus more on the undergraduate side of things.  That’s something for fans to think about when trying to hash out which schools are most likely to receive SEC invitations (if any).The SEC’s presidents are trying to take steps to close the gap on the Big Ten academically.Part of ESPN’s television deal with the SEC forced the network to partner with the league in the creation of the SEC Academic Network.  Launched last August, the online network features “content from every (SEC) institution ranging from research, innovation and economic development to community partnerships, civic engagement and service.”“The commitment to highlight the accomplishments of SEC member institution academic programs was a key component of our new television agreements,” Slive said.  “This network will provide our 12 institutions with the ability to create and distribute academic and other non-athletic programming through the world on a regular and full-time basis.”In other words, it’s a PR wing designed to push and improve the SEC’s academic brand.  But good advertising isn’t the only step the league’s presidents are taking.In 2005 the SEC created the Southeastern Conference Academic Consortium.  Consider it a very young version of the Big Ten’s CIC.According to a 2006 press release, the consortium was created to “bolster teaching, research, public service and other educational activities” at SEC schools.  It’s goal is to “provide opportunities for schools to work together to enhance and share academic resources.  All 12 SEC member schools will work together, outside of the athletic realm, to create a cooperative environment for all students.”If you’re bored to tears, you shouldn’t be.  This is how conferences expand.  This is how schools decide which league they will join.  Take Texas, for example.Targeting TexasMake no mistake, Texas is the prize that the SEC has its eye on.  The Big Ten is looking toward the Lone Star State, too.  And Washington’s athletic director Scott Howard recently said, “I’d be surprised if our office is not in contact with them.  I’m sure those conversations have happened and are taking place.”Texas is big.  It’s got the television markets, alumni base, name brand, huge facilities and A-1 athletic programs that conference commissioners lust after.The school also fancies itself to be a Harvard on the Colorado River, which is something university presidents like.To hear former SEC commissioner Harvey Schiller tell it, Texas was ticketed to join the league back in the late 1980s.  “I spent some time with (Texas athletic director) DeLoss Dodds and he really wanted to join the conference.”  Unfortunately politicians got involved and the deal fell through.  That’s how Schiller recalls it anyway.Folks in Texas remember things a bit differently.  Former University of Texas president Robert Berdahl told in 2007 that at the time he was unimpressed with the SEC’s academic reputation.“We were quite interested in raising academic standards and the Southeastern Conference had absolutely no interest in that.”If the former Texas prez is to be believed, we might not be talking about the SEC possibly wooing the Longhorns now had the league agreed to boost its academic standards some 20 years ago.Academics play a role, folks.  A big role.Politics Play A Big Role, TooGo back to the early ’90s and everyone seems to have a different take on how that wave of expansion took place.According to Schiller, the SEC didn’t want Texas A&M and balked at a “take ‘em both or you get none” message from the Texas state legislature.  Meanwhile, Vince Dooley was pushing for Georgia Tech to earn an SEC bid.  Florida supposedly wanted both Florida State and Miami to join.As you know, in the end, Arkansas and South Carolina were the only schools to come on board.But in Texas, the powerbrokers say that Texas A&M and LSU officials had been angling to bring the Aggies into the league as early as the late-1980s.  As the story goes, after talks with Miami fell apart, LSU athletic director Joe Dean called A&M AD John David Crow and told him that LSU would sponsor an entry bid from A&M.Dean said at the time that he believed Texas was “headed north” to the Big Ten or Big Eight (now the Big 12) and that A&M was the “most logical addition to the SEC.”Unfortunately Texas legislators weren’t going to let the state’s two biggest schools split.  So that meant Texas and Texas A&M package deal to the Big Eight.  But the politicians weren’t done yet.Baylor and Texas Tech had powerful allies throughout the state legislature and, according to some, threats were made to Texas and A&M officials.  If they tried to jump from the old Southwest Conference without the Bears and Red Raiders riding shotgun, both schools would see their state funding cut.Presto Chango, the Big Eight grew not to 10 teams but to 12.  The lesson here is that in many cases, targeting just one of a state’s schools can lead to political headaches.  There’s been much talk that Texas and Texas A&M would still be bound together by politicos today (though officials from both schools seem to be fine with the idea of going in different directions).  History would tell us that any deal for Texas might not just be a combo package with A&M but a super-sized meal that includes Baylor and Texas Tech, too.Want Oklahoma?  You’ll likely hear a howl from Oklahoma State grads in that state’s legislature.  Ditto Kansas and Kansas State.  Double ditto in the case of Virginia Tech and Virginia.The above information isn’t sexy.  It’s not fun.  And it doesn’t make for good sports bar conversation.  But it will play a role in any expansion decision the SEC makes.Academics and politics will be involved.  Just take note of what Missouri Governor Jay Nixon told the Associated Press this spring:  “I’m not going to say anything bad about the Big 12, but when you compare Oklahoma State to Northwestern, when you compare Texas Tech to Wisconsin, I mean you begin looking at educational possibilities that are worth looking at.”A governor ripping one conference while talking up another.  Academics and politics, folks.  Academics and politics.(To read Part One of this series, click here.  For Part Two, click here.  For Part Three, click here.  And for Part Four, click here.) [...]

  5. [...] Be Working Right NowPart Two — How We Got To This PointPart Three — Unfounded FearsPart Four — If The SEC Is Going To Act, It Should Act BoldlyAnd Part Five — Don’t Forget [...]

  6. [...] college sports.  We’ve shot down some unfounded fears about SEC growth.  We’ve shown why the league must act boldly, if it’s forced to expand.  And we’ve taken a look at history to show how important [...]

  7. [...] for the leagues that land them.”That’s from right here at  On May 17th.  May 17th of 2010. It was in Part 4 of our exhaustive “Expounding on Expansion” piece from 18 months [...]

  8. [...] cap being removed from the BCS bowls we shrugged our shoulders and pointed — again — to what we wrote last May.Are we always right?  No.  But our logic — according to the television, rights agency, [...]

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