COLLEGE STATION, TX - SEPTEMBER 26: Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive speaks prior to a press conference for the Texas A&M Aggies accepting an invitation to join the Southeastern Conference on September 26, 2011 in College Station, Texas. (Photo by Aaron M. Sprecher/Getty Images)
How did the Pac-10 parlay lukewarm fan interest into a massive TV deal? They offered a better TV product. Mike Slive ought to consider that example.
Just like it was probably hard for your average French, British, or German solider fighting in a trench in 1917 to remember how the hell their countries got there in the first place, it is hard as a college football fan to remember how the current round of conference realignment kicked off. The first blow was probably the Big Ten looking at the fact that twelve teams make more sense than eleven and taking advantage of Nebraska's discontent with Texas's financial and political domination of the Big XII to add one of college football's historically elite programs. The Pac-10 followed suit, picking off Colorado and then adding Utah so that they too would have twelve teams, two divisions, and a championship game. Larry Scott and Jim Delany both figured out what had occurred to Roy Kramer in 1992: a conference structure with divisions and a title game is both financially advantageous and competitively appropriate.
Conference realignment then got very interesting in 2011 when the SEC got involved. Why did the SEC elect to expand beyond the twelve-team format that had been so effective for two decades? One reason is opportunity. Longhorn Network-inspired discontent was not limited to Nebraska and Colorado. The SEC peeled away Texas A&M and then Missouri, thus becoming the first conference to get to 14 teams. In so doing, the SEC added a presence in two new media markets and recruiting areas.
A second reason was the Pac-12's new media deal. Larry Scott, demonstrating that he was as big an upgrade over his predecessor as Urban Meyer after Ron Zook or Nick Saban after Lou Tepper, inked a $3B media deal, dramatically increasing the revenue pouring into the coffers of the Pac-12's member schools. Mike Slive almost certainly looked at that deal and said to himself "I want that." The SEC is the most successful conference in college football. It has the most intense fan interest. Because of the quality on the field and the excitement of the fans off of it, the SEC presents a TV experience that is second to none, an antidote to the bland sameness that characterizes most American professional sports on the boob tube.
With all of those qualities, Slive had be asking himself "how is the Pac-12 making more money than we are?" How is a conference where most teams (including the flagship program, USC) struggle to sell out their smaller stadia bringing in more money? How is a conference whose fans famously defend their lukewarm interest by pointing out all of the fun outdoorsy things to do out West as a reason why they don't go to football games making more coin than the SEC? How is a conference whose games get half the audience as compared to SEC games (see slide nine) making more coin? After asking these questions, Slive went out and added two new teams so the SEC could renegotiate its media deals, using the Pac-12 deal as a benchmark and saying "if the Pac-12 is worth $3B, then what is a conference with fans who actually care worth?"
Mike Slive is a smart guy, but he appears to be missing one of the lessons as to why the Pac-12 did so well when negotiating with networks: scheduling. Possibly because of the league's level of fan interest, the Pac-10 went to a nine-game conference schedule in 2006. Knowing that their fans will not fill seats to see New Mexico or North Texas, the members of the Pac-10 decided that a ninth game against their established conference rivals was a necessity. For the same reason, Pac-12 teams generally play tougher non-conference schedules. For instance, USC has played three games in the past five years against teams from non-AQ conferences. Alabama played three such opponents just last year. The Pac-12's solution to its limitations is to play better schedules and thus offer more watchable games to its TV partners.
Slive cannot control how his members schedule non-conference games. If Arkansas wants to line up Jacksonville State, Louisiana-Monroe, Rutgers, and Tulsa, then there is not much that the conference commissioner can do to stop them. Hog fans gets punished for the fact that they are passionate and loyal, but that is beyond the purview of the league. What Slive can control, however, is the number of conference games that his teams play. Last year, the Pac-12 provided 54 league games to its TV partners; the SEC, with the same number of members, offered 48. That is 18 hours of programming that the SEC could have provided, but chose to leave as an untapped resource.
Moreover, the six unplayed games would have been interesting, cross-divisional games entailing teams from different markets. For instance, Georgia would have played either Alabama, Arkansas, or LSU. Do you think that that game would have been a 3:30 CBS game (or at least a 7:45 ESPN game)? Another game probably would have been either South Carolina-Alabama or South Carolina-LSU. Again, a good pairing for TV that the SEC would have offered if they took the Pac-12's approach
Despite the obvious value of going to a nine-game conference schedule in that networks and fans would get a more appealing menu of games, the SEC appears likely to stick with a eight-game slate. The SEC expanded in order to improve its TV deals, but it refuses to take a easy step that the Pac-12 showed will have the same effect. One reason might be that teams wants to ensure a maximum number of home games, but as Get the Picture quoting a Columbus Ledger-Enquirer article) argued yesterday, that math doesn't really work anymore:
And the trends aren't positive - just ask Georgia's ticket office, which is still offering single game tickets to three games and season tickets to the weakest home schedule in a very long time. A ninth SEC game addresses a lot of that.
A nine-game SEC football schedule would cut down on those problems. League games are better attended than the normal non-conference bores. Plus, members don't have to pay other members to visit campus. It's in the bylaws.
Two more benefits: one, by reducing demand, the addition of a ninth conference game also reduces the cost of inviting a cupcake opponent, and, two, it's more inventory for the TV networks to pay for. At some point, the Greg McGaritys of the conference are going to realize that the cost benefit analysis of a seven-game home schedule like this year's show that it's not worth it. As to when that occurs, that depends on how stubborn these guys are about defending their position.
If the financial factors do not push the SEC away from a nine-game schedule, then all that is left is the opposition of coaches to playing an additional challenging game. The current crop of coaches are mimicking their predecessors, who opposed a conference championship game in 1992 - a game that has been an unabashed success for the SEC as evidenced by the numerous imitators in peer leagues - for the same reason. SEC coaches do not get paid their seven-figure salaries to beat the members of the Sun Belt into a bloody pulp; they get paid to beat one another. However, if you gave them control, then they would play as many games against FCS opponents as they would foes from the SEC.
The endless dithering regarding the format for a college football playoff is an illustration of the downside of the sport's structure, namely that it does not have one commissioner acting in the best interests of the sport in general. As a result, you have a battle between equals who have divergent interests. Chaos ensues. The SEC does not have the same issue. It has a commissioner who has the power to chart the right course for the league over the objections of parochial interests. In the case of a nine-game conference schedules, the parochial interests are coaches who believe that "tough is bad." (Think about all of the slogans that head coaches spew at their players during two-a-days about sacrifice and the value of struggle, then try to square those statements with the fear of a nine-game schedule,) It is in the interest of the SEC to offer more conference games. It is in the interest of the SEC's TV partners. It is in the interest of SEC fans. It's time for Mike Slive to take a lesson from Larry Scott and act in in the interests of the conference.