SEC Expansion: Taking Stock as the Final Building Blocks Fall Into Place

Aaron M. Sprecher

Now that all the television contracts are signed, we can begin seriously talking about the legacy of the latest round of SEC expansion. Was it a good thing or a bad thing for the conference?

With the CBS deal now closed out following the announcement of the SEC Network, the shockwaves sent through the conference by adding Texas A&M and Missouri have pretty much worked their way through. Sure, it would be nice to have the conference football schedule done more than one year in advance, but baby steps.

A few days ago, on Twitter, I mused that it felt almost normal now to talk about the Aggies and the Tigers as members of the SEC. The reaction from many of you about A&M was decidedly (though not unanimously) positive. When it came to Missouri, not so much. Of course, with the exception of basketball, the other other Tigers haven't made much of a dent in the SEC right now.

In any case, it's time to assess where we've come now that SEC expansion is pretty much over. At least until we add Virginia Tech and N.C. State. So what did conference realignment accomplish for the SEC?

We can has a network

This was the most glaring oversight of the 2008 television contracts, which brought in big money but locked the SEC into a deal without its own network for 15 years. Avoiding a network was understandable at the time; the Big Ten Network had been through a brutal battle to get on the air across its entire coverage area, and even some outside the SEC began to jokingly refer to ESPN as the SEC Network. Plus, the SEC was the only conference (not counting independent Notre Dame) to have a broadcast deal separate from the ESPN/ABC packages that most leagues settled for.

But agreeing to 15-year contracts with the limitations that the SEC's contracts had in a rapidly changing environment was a mistake. Longer-term deals are becoming the norm as sports content providers try to control their costs (the Pac-12's latest deal was for 12 years), but the SEC cut off too many revenue streams and opportunities with the contracts that were signed in 2008 and didn't leave itself with negotiating room once the deals were struck.

Unless it expanded, which is kind of what set us off on this merry-go-round. That's not to say that Texas A&M and Missouri aren't great members for the SEC, or to say that something else wouldn't have triggered SEC expansion later on, but it is to say the conference wouldn't have added two members when it did if it weren't for the need to renegotiate its TV deals. The best news about the SEC Network is that it is constructed with enough flexibility to adopt to new technologies, and the SEC gets half the revenue that comes from those new technologies. That means more money for your school's athletics programs. A win all around.

About those new members

There are always going to be those who like things the way they are, or the way they were. (The two primary authors of this page could generally be included among those in the run-up to realignment.) Heck, I still hear from people who would just as soon go back to the 10-team SEC sans Arkansas and South Carolina.

But when you look at the teams the SEC got, I still think the conference came out ahead. Texas A&M upset the eventual national champions, gave the conference its latest Heisman Trophy winner and looks to be headed for another big season in 2013. The Aggies are also pretty decent at baseball, though they're a bubble team right now when it comes to the NCAA tournament.

Missouri -- well, Missouri kind of picked a bad year to be in the SEC East, and then got the hammer in the interdivision schedule. There were three 11-win teams in the East, Vanderbilt was good enough to end up ranked in both polls(!) (yes, it still warrants a "!"), and the interdivision slate consisted of Alabama and Texas A&M. Welcome to your new conference! We'll find out in 2013 if Pinkel and Co. can compete in the conference if they have a little bit better luck.

At the same time, Missouri did go to the NCAA tournament in basketball, and there aren't that many SEC teams that can say that. So, show some respect.

The scheduling mess

Would you like to know what your team's conference schedule will look like in 2014? So would we! Guess what? So would your team! And no one currently does.

By far the largest failing of the conference has been to come up with a schedule that can satisfy enough people to go into place. Year-to-year calendar shuffling isn't the best way to ensure that things work logistically, that the most important schedule conventions are followed and that things are relatively fair. (You have a tougher schedule one year and I get a tougher schedule the next.) The SEC understandably had to scramble to set up the 2012 schedule, but it had basically a year to get things set for 2013 and beyond ... and we're still waiting on the beyond part.

In short, it's been a debacle.

There are all sorts of solutions to this. Personally, going a bit against what's already been spelled out in earlier posts here on TSK, I prefer a nine-game conference schedule with divisions. But the result itself doesn't really matter. What matters is that the conference gets something done, and that the final result be something that can work for more than a year.

We blew up college football

That's a bit of an exaggeration, of course. One conference realignment feeds into the next in a continuous feedback loop that never really seems to stop. The 2011 SEC expansion was sparked by the 2010 B1G and Pac-12 expansions, which sort of followed the pattern of the 2003 ACC expansion and the 1990 SEC expansion, which was made possible by the slow-motion implosion of the Southwest Conference and South Carolina having left the ACC years ago, which ...

But, the SEC did its part to contribute to the mess. The Big 12 basically responded to the SEC raid by killing the Big East, which is regrettable, but it's also college football in the 21st Century. And the 20th Century.

Diagnosis

Overall, expansion has been good to the SEC. It got two quality new members, a shiny new SEC network and about as few hiccups as could reasonably be expected. Things could have gone more smoothly, and it actually is somewhat disheartening to see the Big East dissolve as a major player in college basketball and a ... well, a player in college football. But that's really not the SEC's main concern.

The huge unanswered question in all of this is: Could it have been avoided? If Mike Slive and his team had pushed for a better deal in 2008, or at least a clause allowing the SEC to set up its own network, might we still be talking about a 12-team SEC? Or would Texas A&M have still been unhappy with the Longhorn Network, a situation that basically forced the SEC to take a look at a tradition-rich program that was on the market?

We don't know the answer to that, and we really can't ever know the answer. But, given the situation that it found itself in when 2011 rolled around, the SEC made out much better than it could have.

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