(This is the third part in an on-going series examining the possibility of SEC expansion from a business perspective.)
This week the Big Ten conference will be holding its yearly meetings in Chicago. Expansion will certainly be a topic as officials from the 11 member schools meet, but commissioner Jim Delany has said that no final decisions (or formal offers) will be made.
That won’t stop a new wave of “here’s what’s going to happen stories” from appearing across the internet this week. Your local talk radio station will once again be dominated by expansion talk, too.
When it comes to the Southeastern Conference’s future plans, I’ve been surprised to hear so many fears tossed about by fans from the Ozarks to the Atlantic. And many of fans’ worries and warnings shouldn’t be major concerns at all.
Below are five of the most common concerns that we here at MrSEC have heard over the past few weeks. Let’s examine these fears to see if they’re legit… or just hot air.
1. ESPN and CBS won’t renegotiate their contracts with the SEC, so the league will lose money by expanding.
In most cases, contracts written between networks and conferences include language that make it clear that the current deal will remain in place as long as there are no major changes to the conference. If six teams left the SEC, you can trust that ESPN would be screaming for a new deal. The alternate holds true as well.
But a renegotiation of contracts might not be necessary in the first place.
Let’s say that the SEC expands to 16 teams and lassos Texas, Texas A&M, Clemson and Georgia Tech. (Those are just four teams chosen at random, not a suggestion.)
Now let’s say that the SEC — trying to make sure its schools play against each other more often — goes to a nine-game conference schedule for football (like the Pac-10 and Big Ten) and an 18-game schedule for basketball (like the Pac-10, Big Ten and Big East).
Currently SEC squads play a grand total of of 48 non-conference football games (12 teams, four a piece) each year. They also play 48 conference games head-to-head.
In basketball, the SEC teams currently play 96 games per season against one another.
The vast majority of those games (96 football, 96 conference games in basketball) are the property of ESPN and CBS.
But if the league grows to 16 teams and expands its in-conference football and basketball schedules, it is creating more inventory to sell.
Do the math: 16 teams playing three non-conference football games a year still equals 48 games. But 16 teams playing a nine-game conference slate adds 24 more games to the league’s schedule. Instead of having 96 football games to sell per year, the SEC would have 120 games to sell.
In basketball, the league would jump from 96 games per year to 144 in-conference contests per season.
Now let’s say that CBS and ESPN continue to broadcast the same number of SEC games (for the same price) even after expansion. That gives the league more inventory — two games per week during football season – that could be sold off to other networks.
The result would be more television money coming into the league, without a renegotiation of the CBS and ESPN deals.
Would that new revenue be enough to make expansion worthwhile? That would depend on how much a network (or networks) would be willing to pay for the final picks of SEC football and basketball games each week.
Tooling around the dial on a fall Saturday or winter Wednesday should tell you that someone would be willing to pay. Even the dregs of the SEC barrel would outdraw mid-level games from other conferences.
2. The league would be too tough and national titles would become impossible to win.
Last week, Nick Saban suggested that SEC coaches feel they have to win the national championship twice each season just to claim the BCS crystal football… once by winning the SEC and once by beating the best BCS foe in the country.
Many fans seem to agree. Adding a Texas or a Florida State would make the SEC too difficult and would prevent the league from winning future titles.
Of course, that’s exactly what coaches and fans said when the SEC added its conference championship game in 1992. Since then, the league has catapulted to the unquestioned, unrivaled ruler of college football.
Until 2007, no two-loss team had ever been given a shot in the national championship game. But that year voters (and computers) rewarded LSU for playing in the toughest conference in America and placed the Tigers in the title game. The Bayou Bengals’ easy victory further proved the league’s dominance.
An SEC team has been voted into the title game for four consecutive seasons, winning each time. Three of those squads had a loss on their schedule when they were selected.
Obviously, a strong argument can be made that the addition of more powers to the SEC would actually enhance the conference’s odds of winning future titles.
The same holds true in basketball. The 16-team Big East — whether it deserves the praise or not — is considered the top hoops league in America. Its teams whip up on each other throughout the regular season, yet every postseason the NCAA tournament selection committee rewards the league with a plethora of tourney bids. The league captured eight bids this past March.
3. Rivalries would be lost.
This one, sadly, is true. But it’s also a common occurrence in college sports. When the SEC expanded and broke into two divisions in 1992, several great rivalries were lost.
New rivalries took their place.
If the yearly Oklahoma-Nebraska tussle can be lost from the college football schedule, any rivalry can be replaced. Currently the oldest rivalry west of the Mississippi (Kansas versus Missouri) is being threatened by the Big Ten’s possible expansion.
The loss of tradition is frustrating, but it’s never been a roadblock for previous expansions in college athletics. Not even in the tradition-rich SEC.
4. The SEC can’t expand too wide or fans can’t drive from one school to another.
In the Pac-10, the University of Washington is located in Seattle. The University of Arizona is located in Tucson. That’s a distance of 1,608 miles and a driving time of 24 hours and 11 minutes (if you go by Yahoo! maps).
In the ACC, Boston College is located in Chesnutt Hill, Massachusetts and the University of Miami is located in Coral Gables, Florida. That’s a distance of 1,477 miles and a driving time of 23 hours and 17 minutes.
If you want to drive from Colorado to Texas A&M in the Big 12, it’s a 1,070-mile trek that will take you 16 hours by car.
The Big Ten is looking at a possible expansion that would stretch it from Nebraska to New York City. That’s 1,300 miles and 20 hours.
In other words, in this day and age, travel is less of a concern than it’s ever been. Will softball and golf teams have further to travel? Yes. But increased revenue — if expansion does increase revenue — should cover the costs.
As for the fans, the leagues don’t care. Presidents, athletic directors and commissioners know that if a product is good enough, someone will fill the seats in a stadium or arena. It might not be folks from the visiting school, but someone will be there to pay for a ticket.
The size of other leagues already proves that.
And for the record, a drive from Gainesville to Fayetteville is 1,034 miles and a 16-hour trip. It’s not like the SEC hasn’t stretched its boundaries already.
5. Traditionally bad teams will have even less hope of improving in an expanded league.
The SEC’s traditional cellar dwellers in football are Vanderbilt and Mississippi State. Add a Miami to the East and a Texas to the West and you would expect their hopes of improvement to only grow slimmer.
But what if the Southeastern Conference decided against two eight-team divisions and instead found a way to work with a four-division alignment? That idea is already being floated in Big Ten circles regarding that league’s possible expansion.
In such a case, the chances for a Vandy or a Mississippi State to claim a division title would actually increase, not decrease with expansion.
Currently, the Commodores would have to jump five teams to earn an East Division crown. In a four-team division, Bobby Johnson’s club would need only to best three other teams.
How would a four-division set-up work? We’ll discuss that in a future installment of this series.
As you can see, the five most common worries tossed out by the anti-expansion crowd aren’t necessarily worries at all. And you can be certain that SEC presidents and athletic directors — if they see a way to 1) secure their long-term strength and 2) secure their long-term financial future — will ignore any and all warnings and press forward with expansion anyway. IF they see a way to make money.
As we explained in Part Two of this series, cash is king. Any worry a fan might have will take a backseat to dollars and cents… and in most cases, the worries aren’t really much to worry about in the first place.