You are SEC Commissioner Mike Slive. You run a conference that is known for being proactive and not reactive to a potentially changing landscape of college athletics. For example:
**–It was former SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer who decided that the future would include divisional play and conference championship games. The SEC went to 12 teams in 1992 and created the first championship game. Now the ACC and the Big 12 have followed suit. The Big Ten and Pac-10 are interested in making the same step.
**–In the summer of 2008 the SEC stepped out and put together the biggest contract in college football history when it signed a 15-year, $3 billion deal with CBS and ESPN.
**–The SEC has now won four straight BCS national championships in football and there is a pretty good chance Alabama will be the preseason No. 1 in 2010. This is a conference that got ahead by looking ahead, by blazing its own path and not waiting to see what the crowd was going do.
There are reports that the Big Ten, the SEC’s biggest rival when it comes to the economics of the sport, is contemplating expansion. If the Big Ten adds only one team, even it is Notre Dame, the landscape does not change dramatically. But among the options the Big Ten is weighing, media reports say, is going to 16 teams and creating college football’s first super conference.
“That,” said Kramer, now retired and living in Maryville, Tenn., “Would be a game changer.”
The commissioners of the 11 Division I-A conferences are all gathered in Scottsdale, Ariz., this week for the annual BCS meetings. It is possible that Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany will inform his counterparts about his plans or at least the options that he is considering. Delany will speak to the media this afternoon. We don’t expect Delany to tip his hand to the media. I spoke to some people in Scottsdale last night who weren’t quite sure if the Big Ten’s plans are as advanced as some of the media reports suggest.
In any event, we do know this: If the Big Ten wants to add more than one team, and if some of those teams will come from the Big East, Delany must act soon. After the Big East got tapped by the ACC the league changed its rules. If a school wants to leave it will cost $5 million and the school must wait 27 months to join its new conference. So if the Big Ten wanted a new structure in place by the 2012 season and Big East teams are involved, it has to act this summer.
I tried to reach commissioner Slive to discuss this but was unsuccessful. But I did have a good visit with former commissioner Kramer (1990-2002) who put the SEC on its current path because of his ability to see way down the road.
“Of course it depends on what the Big Ten does, but as a commissioner of any conference you have to look at the horizon if the landscape is going to change significantly,” said Kramer. “You have to honestly assess what is happening and bring some real options to your presidents. If one conference is at 16, can you stay at 12? You have to take a hard look at it.”
This issue has so many tentacles but here is just one. Various media reports say each Big Ten member now gets about $22 million a year in shared revenue. Thanks to the new TV contract that went into effect last season, each SEC school will get about $17 million when the checks are handed out in Destin in early June. That’s about a $5 million gap.
What if the Big Ten expands to 16 teams and one of them is Notre Dame? The subscriptions to its conference television network grow exponentially. It adds a conference championship game which would be very valuable. It will have incredible leverage in its next round of TV negotiations. What if the financial gap between the SEC and the Big Ten grows to $10 million per school? The SEC has a good thing going at 12, but does it stand pat?
“The tricky part is that we (the SEC) would have to broaden our (geographical) footprint to increase the revenue enough to justify the move,” said Kramer. “And that is not an easy thing to do.”
Here is some more simple math: If SEC schools now make $17 million each year, to add four teams there would have to be a minimum increase of $68 million (4 times 17) in revenue. Are there four schools out there that could bring in that much revenue?
And here is the really delicate part: Obviously if the SEC wanted to expand, the first phone call would be to Texas. Texas brings that kind of value and more. But if Texas says no, what are the SEC’s real options?
Do they go to the ACC and take teams from a conference that just expanded? The ACC is currently in negotiations for its new television deals and the proposed numbers from the TV boys are not great. To be perfectly candid, the ACC as a football conference is a little vulnerable right now.
The ACC got hammered in the court of public opinion when it took three teams from the Big East a few years ago. Does the SEC want that kind of PR headache? Of course not. But it may have no choice. Hurting another conference would be bad. Doing nothing could be worse.
“It’s a tough deal. We got blamed for breaking up the Southwest Conference when we took Arkansas,” said Kramer. “But at the end of the day you have to represent your conference and its best interests. There can be some hard feelings.”
If the Big Ten stops after adding just one team, then this will be a relatively quiet process. If I’m in the SEC that is what I hope will happen. But if the Big Ten goes to 16 teams then, as Kramer said, it is the mother of all game changers.
And the SEC, led by Mike Slive, will have some very important and very difficult decisions to make.
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