SEC Football Expansion

The following is a guest post written by S.M. Oliva – a writer and paralegal living in Charlottesville, Virginia.  You can find his writings at the Mises Economic Blog and other places around the web – he brings a unique perspective on the intersection of economics and sports.  In this multi-part series, Oliva will walk Saturday Down South readers through the economics of college football and how it plays out in the Southeastern Conference specifically.  Enjoy.

One issue that prompted the recent impasse between the National Football League and its players was a proposal to expand the regular season from 16 to 18 games. Obviously, the owners believe adding games will increase revenue (and profits). But there’s also a secret confession hidden in this idea. Since the last schedule expansion, from 14 to 16 games, in the 1970s, the NFL relied primarily on franchise expansion to increase inventory. Now, after gorging themselves on marginal pro football markets like Jacksonville, the owners have run out of viable expansion options. But if every existing team added two games to its schedule, that would increase the NFL’s total inventory by the equivalent of four expansion teams — all without having to build a single new stadium.

The SEC operates in a different competitive environment. The SEC can’t expand its schedule because NCAA rules specify a maximum of 12 regular season games. The SEC could add new members, which we’ll get to in a moment. But the most common method of adding inventory in the SEC is stadium expansion. Since 1999 every SEC stadium, save for South Carolina’s Williams-Brice Stadium, has added capacity. The most recent was Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium (to 101,821), now the second largest in the SEC and fifth largest in all of Division I. Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium, last expanded in 2009, is the largest in the conference and fourth in the nation at 102,037.

Alabama Stadium

Unlike the gargantuan NFL stadiums of recent memory — think “Jerry World” and its unsafe temporary seating just outside Dallas — SEC stadium expansion appears to be a rational response to strong consumer demand. Alabama officials noted in 2009 that they’d already received pledges for 27 of 36 new skyboxes — at $500,000 apiece — and had a waiting list of over 13,000 for new or additional season tickets. As long as SEC schools produce thousands of new alumni annually with fond memories of fall football, the demand for live attendance should remain strong.

In contrast, the NFL is now primarily a television and Internet product with a diminishing live attendance component. Indeed, the present impasse is driven by franchise operators who remain wedded to a bloated, outdated stadium model. While the SEC is no stranger to television — the conference earns over $200 million annually from CBS and ESPN — live attendance will continue to drive the bus for the foreseeable future.

More importantly, there’s no obvious method for expanding the television inventory of SEC games. As noted above, the league cannot add to its existing schedule because NCAA bylaws cap all schools at 12 regular season games. It’s highly unlikely the NCAA — which includes many more smaller schools that would not benefit from additional games — will change that rule anytime soon. There’s also no postseason expansion possibilities: The NCAA limits conferences like the SEC to a single championship game and, of course, the post-season bowls.

That leaves expanding the number of schools in the conference itself. There was talk during the last round of conference-expansion musical chairs that Texas A&M might abandon the sinking ship of the Big 12 for the SEC. One could also see the SEC “raiding” the Big East and the ACC for some of its members within the SEC footprint, such as Miami, Clemson, or Georgia Tech. Or one could get radical — as the Big East did when it added Texas Christian — and make a bold move into a new territory, say by adding West Virginia.

But there’s no logical reason to assume expansion would appreciably help the SEC given the current NCAA regulatory environment. The recent conference expansions are based primarily around another NCAA bylaw that requires a conference to have at least 12 football members in order to hold a conference championship game. That’s why the Pac-10 will soon be the Pac-12 and the Big East is willing to venture all the way into Texas to move closer to that magic number of 12.

The SEC pioneered the conference championship game when it added Arkansas and South Carolina as its 11th and 12th members in 1991. As long as the NCAA’s rules remain as-is, there’s really no reason to go beyond 12 members. More members mean more partners who require a share of common revenues like television contracts. Unless you add a school that will significantly increase those common revenues — and I’m not sure even Texas A&M would fit that bill — expansion is just watering down your core product.

This is especially true given the current postseason structure of college football. In basketball, bigger can be better. The Big East, which has 16 basketball members, secured 11 berths in this year’s men’s basketball tournament — 10 of the 34 available at-large berths in addition to the automatic qualifier. That will produce a nice windfall for the conference regardless of how far any one team advances.

But with college football’s Bowl Championship Series, a bigger conference is more likely to hurt than help.  There are no more than four at-large berths available in any given year for the five major bowls, including the BCS Championship Game. In 2009 the SEC only received one of those berths, Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl. The SEC faces increasingly strong competition from the non-automatic qualifying conferences for these at-large berths, and expanding the SEC would only work to their opponents’ advantage. After all, while a 14- or 16-member SEC beats up on itself even more heavily, an undefeated WAC team can quietly work its way into a BCS bowl.

Most problematic, a larger SEC lessens the chance of any one team going undefeated — or even winning the conference with just one loss — reducing the likelihood of the conference getting a spot in the big-money BCS Championship Game. Given the SEC’s current streak of five consecutive BCS championship victories, it would be foolish to do anything that might jeopardize the status quo.

Any future SEC expansion should only come about in conjunction with a radical shift in college football’s overall regulatory environment. Hypothetically speaking, if the current “Big Six” BCS conferences moved to separate themselves entirely from the NCAA and establish some sort of independent “College Football League,” with a postseason tournament and possibly longer regular-season schedules, then the SEC might want to rethink its current membership. But as long as stadium demand remains strong and the conference is locked-in to its long term television deals — and the NCAA’s established, if ineffective bureaucracy remains in charge — then 12 remains the perfect number of members for the SEC and other major football conferences.

Previous Articles from S.M. Oliva:



You must be logged in to post a comment. Please sign in or register

  • Interesting article. Very interesting case against expanding the SEC. As you mentioned, it really only makes sense if adding that team adds more money to the pie compared to how much it is diluted. Texas A&M i think is the #1 option as it expands the conference into Texas, and A&M is a good fit for the SEC I believe. The only other school that gets me excited at all might be Virginia Tech. Miami, FSU, Clemson, Georgia Tech… leave them to the ACC.

  • Texas A&M makes sense but if I were going to expand the SEC I would go with two teams that would add meaningful rivalry games and create new ones. The two teams would be FSU and GT. I know GT sucks but think about, GT and UGA game could chose who wins the East. Add FSU and the annual game against UF that can change standings within the conference. They both are in the heart of SEC country and both could pull in local recruits better with an SEC tag on the names rather than the A.lmost C.ompetitive C.onference. Yeah over the next couple years GT would compete with Vandy at the bottom but look at FSU, they are in contention for the title next year. Put FSU in the West and GT in the East and they would add great games every year.

    • By the way, I dont support an expansion just for the sake of it. Honestly, I dont think there are any teams deserving of the chance to join the SEC, no team can jump in and win in the SEC, it takes years of recruiting and coaching just to compete against the Bamas, LSUs, Floridas, Georgias, ect. Nebraska can jump in and win the Big 10(because they, the big 10, doesn’t play football) but that would never happen in the SEC!

  • Tideroller, you’re right that FSU and GT would add more rivalries to the craziness we are currently blessed with in the SEC. However, I think if you’re looking at expansion (and this article makes a very powerful argument for the status quo), my guess is Slive and company will look at television markets.

    That’s what makes Texas A&M an interesting fit. It would open up the Houston and DFW markets to the best football in America, while FSU and GT would just be more of the same in terms of viewership.

    CBS and ESPN want more eyeballs. If expansion occurs, the SEC may look at something in North Carolina (Which would mean, given their current quality, whichever of the Big Four schools in NC are added, Vandy gets someone to beat up each season!) or in Virginia. Only Virginia Tech would add to the product on the field.

    By the way, never underestimate Slive’s ability to see the far horizon. As I understand it, the current TV contracts stipulate that the networks’ payments to the conference increase if the conference expands. Thus the current schools don’t have to worry about expansion leaving them with a smaller piece of the TV pie.

  • Good article. It’s one of the most interesting topics and the author here makes a good argument for the status quo. I don’t think it’s a good idea to expand just for the sake of expanding. It’s gotta be a new market and a quality team.

  • Excellent points. This further reinforces my belief that expansion should not be considered for at least a decade. There are no teams out there right now that would be a good SEC fit. It’s possible that down the road a Texas A&M, FSU, etc. might be a good addition, but not right now. And Virginia Tech should never be considered until they can win in a sport other than fishing.

  • Only way the SEC expands and gains in revenue is by expanding into Virginia, North Carolina, or Texas. I think, however, the more likely scenario would be forcing Vanderbilt out and swapping in a decent ACC program. Since Vandy demolished its Athletics Department, with the resulting decline in direction, importance, and quality of performance, there are only two reasons for keeping them in the SEC (despite below par university investment in the program and lackluster attendance by the student body/alumni):
    1) History. Vandy’s been there for ever. And has sucked most of that time.
    2) Vandy has a solid academic side that gives a conference with only 2 AAU-accredited schools (Florida, Vandy) the semblance of academic success, something most fans care little for but something that matters a lot to Presidents. All the other conferences have more schools thus accredited.

    So the way I see it, talk of any change in the SEC should focus on what the conference can do about the perennial sick man of division 1 football: the Commodores. If the university remains unresponsive and unwilling to keep up with the rest of the SEC, all Vandy does is provide a perennial W for 6+ other SEC teams that are performing well that year, and 1-2 upsets.

Continue scrolling for more articles.