Story of the Year
It won’t be (another) national championship.It won’t be (another) Heisman Trophy. It won’t be (another) remarkable string of pulse-pounding Saturday’s. The biggest story of the year in SEC football – and perhaps college sports – has already taken place with the announcement of a 15-year, $2.25 BILLION agreement between the conference and ESPN which allows the network to broadcast all SEC sporting events – football, basketball, baseball, everything – not contractually bound to CBS. For football fans this means CBS gets first dibs on its choice of which football game to air Saturday at 3:30 ET and ESPN gets the rest, starting next season. Expect a full compliment of 12:00 ET, primetime and Thursday night SEC football games to air on ABC, ESPN, ESPN 2, ESPN U and ESPN Regional. For complete details of the blockbuster rights package, check out Tony Barnhardt’s story from the Atlanta Journal Constitution: http://www.ajc.com/sports/content/sports/stories/2008/08/25/espn_sec_football_contract.html. The new home of the SEC is Bristol, CT. So why is this so important? For starters, it dramatically demonstrates the power of the SEC and secures its long-term finances in a period of economic uncertainty. Considering the stock market, the housing market and energy prices, how many businesses in any sector are signing unprecedented deals in terms of length and profitability? The SEC is. That shows the degree to which it is in demand and the power of its product. Perhaps more importantly, it takes the SEC out of its regional sphere of influence and makes it a totally national brand. As great as SEC football has been for the last five, 10, 25 years, it has been a decidedly Southern product with limited appeal beyond its geographic footprint. It’s been sweet tea, grits, NASCAR, Shoney’s – popular where it’s popular, but largely misunderstood and often mocked nationally. With this 15 year ESPN deal on top of the 15 year CBS deal recently signed, the SEC just became Coca-Cola, pancakes, the NFL and McDonald’s – popular and perfectly understood everywhere. These TV deals mean the SEC is not a regional conference, it has become college sports’ first and only true national conference with games broadcast nationally on network and cable TV every week. No other conference can say that. This deal means Auburn, Georgia, LSU, Florida and the rest will be seen not only in Auburn, Athens, Baton Rouge and Gainesville, but Boston, New York, Chicago, L.A. and everywhere else as well. Do you have any idea what that will mean to the presence and prestige of this league, not to mention recruiting, merchandising, marketing and admissions? The SEC will have multiple football games broadcast nationally every week, often times multiple NETWORK games televised. That’s staggering. Remember, these are mostly small schools in small, poor states. ESPN and CBS didn’t sign these deals to secure viewers in Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama. It signed these deals to secure viewers in Ohio, Texas and California. The Big 10 with its enormous enrollment universities and huge population states has traditionally been the most broadly followed and popular and covered conference in college football. That era ended with the stroke of a pen and the SEC is now the #1 league, not just from a quality of play standpoint, but from every other standpoint as well. Competitively, it means the current Golden Era of SEC football will continue for the foreseeable future. Winning in college sports has more and more become a rich man’s game. Escalating coaching salaries, the facilities arms race, the infrastructure necessary to win big, especially in college football, all demand deep and ever-increasing revenue streams to sustain. The ESPN and CBS deals go a long way toward securing those financial fountains. The combination of these agreements provides the SEC with well over $200 million annually in media rights alone. That’s somewhere around $15 million a year to each member institution – three times more than the current amount! From recruiting budgets to weight rooms to assistant coaches’ salaries to stadium additions, these deals mean that money for those priorities is on hand and will be for the next decade and a half. While teams in other conferences try to figure out where their money will be coming from, try to figure out how rising gas prices will impact their travel schedules, try to project ahead to see if there’s enough money in the budget to build an indoor practice facility and continue to beg fans and alumni for more and more cash, the SEC schools have only to go to the mailbox in anticipation of their next fat check to buy the toys necessary for success. These contracts guarantee the SEC will continue to have the highest paid coaches, the biggest, fanciest stadiums, the best “stuff” of any conference in college sports; it guarantees success. The only drawback as I see it is that with ESPN now in bed with the SEC, the longtime Southern refrain of ESPN’s bias against the SEC is gone. “Game Day” will become a fixture around the South. SEC games will flood ESPN programming. ESPN will focus more resources on covering and promoting the SEC in order to get value back on its investment in the league. Southern sports fans who have carried an ESPN chip on their shoulders for the past 20 years will have to find another boogeyman to assail. Billions of dollars to put SEC football games on TV. As much as the conference owes Roy Kramer and Pat Dye and Vince Dooley and Bear Bryant and Robert Neyland and John Vaught and everyone else who helped established this monster, this may be the final culmination of their efforts, the final realization of what they built and a stunning and tangible gift to today’s fans, players and coaches to secure a future even richer – in every way – than its past.