(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.