Published June 4, 2012 - 12:49pm
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Last week’s SEC Spring Meetings produced one major football announcement, the first 14-team conference schedule. The approved 6-1-1 model is hardly exciting, but fans should take comfort that it’s likely a temporary fix. SEC leaders didn’t add Missouri and Texas A&M just to water down their regular season product to the point where most cross-division games will occur once every six years. While the timing of expansion was political—mostly tied to the Texas-Texas A&M feud—going forward the problem is principally one of economics.
Realistically, the 6-1-1 schedule is a precursor to one of two things. Either the SEC expands to 16 schools and adopts some type of four-division or “pod” structure to ensure more frequent cross-division matches, or the conference moves to a nine-game schedule. The latter could have been adopted last week, of course, but that’s where economics comes into play. Setting aside the political objections of the coaches to nine games, the SEC won’t go that route unless and until there’s need for the extra inventory—such as to program the long-rumored SEC Network.
Expansion was always predicated on the belief that adding television markets like Missouri and Texas would help the SEC attain “critical mass” in establishing a cable network to rival the Big Ten Network and the forthcoming Pac-12 Network. This belief may prove to be short-sighted. The cable sports bubble is closer to bursting than ever. As last week’s SEC meetings transpired, the largest player in college sports broadcasting—and the likely benefactor of an SEC Network—was playing defense:
Disney CEO Bob Iger had to know that he’d face the ESPN question this morning at the Sanford C. Bernstein Strategic Decisions Conference. The Wall Street firm has led the pack in warning that sports programming contributes to rising pay TV prices — and that could become a big turn-off for consumers in a stagnant economy. ESPN is seen as a culprit because the network and its offshoot channels account for more than 26% of pay TV programming fees, but just 5% of the ratings.
During the next decade, cable television may be forced to adopt an “a la carte” model where niche sports channels can no longer rely on bundling to artificially inflate consumer demand. This means an end to the automatic exponential increases in television rights fees for the SEC and other premium sports brands. Consequently, the SEC will need to prioritize digital distribution of games, something that won’t depend on adding regional markets.
This means that if there’s another round of expansion, SEC members should focus on schools that will improve the football product, not cling to the antiquated “gentleman’s agreement” to not add schools in existing SEC states. Based on that agreement, the logical candidates in the push to 16 would be Virginia Tech and North Carolina. Virginia Tech is a defensible choice. North Carolina is not. Florida State, Clemson and Georgia Tech (in that order) are far superior candidates.
But while there was no public discussion last week of future membership expansion, SEC members did vote to officially sponsor another sport, equestrian. With Texas A&M’s admission, there are now four SEC schools that have an equestrian team. SEC leaders amended the conference bylaws to add the sport, which otherwise would have required five schools.
What does this have to do with football? Nothing directly. Indirectly, however, it’s a useful reminder that the non-profit structure of college sports is quite gaseous—it expands to fill the available space. As SEC revenues grow, the number of uses for that money grows even faster. Without the discipline of shareholders or ownership, college sports consumes for its own sake. Football revenues drive all other athletics spending in the SEC, and the spenders don’t want to hear about limits or discipline.
This is why South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier’s renewed call at last week’s meetings to pay football players an additional $3,500-$4,000 stipend was a non-starter. Spurrier understands the value of re-investing in the football product. The SEC leaders would rather take the profits from football and put it into money-consuming projects like equestrian. Never forget we’re dealing with (mostly) government-run institutions.
Finally, the SEC leaders last week announced the formation of a new “working group…to research and evaluate sports-related concussions.” The group, led by Ole Miss Chancellor Dan Jones, includes team doctors and concussion specialists. Florida President Bernie Machen said the group’s mission is research-based:
What we’re going to start with is looking at what schools are now doing, both within the league and elsewhere. We will look at professional sports as well to find out what the standards of care are out there. For example, some SEC institutions are now requiring brain scans for all entering students so they would then have a baseline for further evaluation. There are a whole host of things happening all over the country and we’re just going to try to take advantage of that and put it together. This is about sharing information so we can all do what is best for our student-athletes.
This sounds like a prelude to an eventual SEC-wide policy on concussions. It’s also a signal that the SEC is taking greater initiative as a regulator of college football separate-and-apart from the NCAA. As discussions with the other major conferences continue over a revised postseason structure, the concussion issue may be another area where the conferences continue to assert greater authority, leading one day to a formal separation of the NCAA from college football.