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Expounding On Expansion: Unfounded Fears

(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.

(To read Part One of our series, click right here.  To read Part Two of our series, click here.)

 


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  1. [...] (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 DantonAlright, 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’SullivanWhen 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 policyIf 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 TacitusConferences 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.) [...]

  2. [...] read Part One of this series, click here.  For Part Two, click here.  For Part Three, click here.  And for Part Four, click [...]

  3. [...] together to make 2010 the year of change (apparently) in 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 [...]

  4. [...] television revenue have made 2010 a potential “Year of Change” in college sports.3.  Unfounded Fears — Some of the reasons against expansion that are being touted by fans and media simply [...]

  5. [...] divisions, and holding its own type of mini-playoff.  Not new.  We discussed four-team divisions in this May 17th, 2010 piece.  And while I can’t find the piece using our somewhat flaky archive system, we also wrote an [...]



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