Greg Sankey began the week of SEC meetings by declaring that his league doesn’t need to chase money while making decisions. To prove his point, the league’s commissioner produced a “decision-making” card from his wallet and tossed it on the table for assembled reporters. It read: “Money follows. It doesn’t lead.”
I wish I was there for that scene. It sounds like good theatre, specifically in the comedy genre.
The SEC obviously chases money when making decisions. The entire college-sports industrial complex chases money when making decisions. Money is the reason the SEC decided to keep its eight-game football schedule for 2024, when Oklahoma and Texas join the league because they are chasing money.
Sankey wanted the nine-game schedule for 2024. So much for his proclamation that America’s leading conference never stands still.
“We’re going to have an eight-game schedule during a year of transition,” Sankey told reporters Thursday in Florida. “We’re going to maintain our ninth game against nonconference opponents, essentially the (Power 5). I think that’s another step forward. It’s incremental.”
It’s not a step forward. It’s pretty much the schedule status quo for at least one more year, with the exception of the divisions going away. Sankey’s grandiose pronouncement aside, standing still is good for the SEC in this case because it makes financial sense.
The league negotiated its media-rights contract with ESPN in 2020 with the league’s current structure of 14 teams and eight interconference games. That deal begins in 2025. No way is ESPN getting more games without paying the SEC more money. If the SEC had decided to expand to nine games now, it would have done so without the assurances that more revenue would be coming from ESPN.
The network isn’t in a good position to pay more for media rights. The Walt Disney Company recently announced that revenue for its networks, including ESPN, decreased 7% in the past quarter. Disney said revenue from domestic cable dropped 4%. ESPN announced dozens of layoffs in April as part of Disney’s mandate to eliminate 7,000 jobs companywide.
The SEC can better renegotiate a deal for a nine-league schedule when ESPN isn’t downsizing. Right now, there’s more money for the SEC in an eight-game league schedule.
One fewer difficult game for the league’s teams means a better collective chance of making the expanded, 12-team College Football Playoff field. Considering the history of SEC teams in the CFP, that’s pretty much guaranteed money as opposed to the hypothetical ESPN cash from a nine-game schedule. ESPN paid $450 million per year for CFP rights in 2014 and 2015 and the CFP adopted a new revenue distribution model that benefits SEC programs.
Previously, each Power 5 conference got the same amount of money that was split among league members regardless of league size. Now, each team in the Power 5 conferences will get roughly the same payout. Gone are the days that a powerhouse like Georgia ends up with less than CFP money than, say, Colorado.
There is one SEC constituency that is concerned about something other than league revenue. The league’s coaches primarily care about keeping their jobs. There are some overlapping interests — more revenue means more money for coaching salaries — but SEC coaches will get paid whether there’s an eight- or nine-game schedule. They just are more likely to get fired with the latter.
Another league game means another loss for half of the league’s coaches. I looked at the Power 5 or major independent opponents that SEC programs will play in 2024. For most of them, it’s an easier game than adding a top-tier SEC opponent to the schedule. Eight SEC games is better for coaches’ job security.
The SEC eventually will go to a nine-league schedule. It will happen as soon as ESPN agrees to the league’s price. Any fretting about more losses leading to fewer CFP bids for SEC teams will be smoothed over by the money.
Not that the SEC has anything to worry about with that. The league has dominated the playoff era and will continue to do so. There have been 26 champions during college football’s Bowl Championship Series/CFP eras (co-champions were declared in 2003). SEC programs won 16 of those titles, including the past four.
Three championship games have featured one SEC team beating another. The SEC won seven consecutive national championships from 2006-12 and three in a row from 2015-17. Georgia (2-1) and Alabama (6-1) are getting the shortest odds to win next season’s national title.
The six highest-ranked conference champions will earn an automatic bid to the 12-team playoff. The SEC champion obviously always will be on that list. The six highest-ranked teams remaining will get at-large bids. The SEC would have made out nicely if the 12-team format were in place from the start of the CFP in 2014.
In that scenario, at least one SEC team would have earned an at-large bid in seven of eight years. Two SEC teams would have qualified in five years. SEC teams with three losses would have made a 12-team playoff field in half of the eight seasons.
The SEC needn’t worry about a nine-game schedule negatively affecting its playoff chances. It’s the one conference that can chase the money and still get good results.