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In uncertain times for conferences, SEC in a position of power

As major college football conferences continue to search for ways to make themselves better, the model everyone seems to be trying to emulate is the Southeastern Conference, with its $3 billion in TV contracts and four consecutive BCS football titles.

Beginning today, the SEC coaches, presidents and athletic directors will gather in Destin for spring meetings with expansion at least an informal part of the discussions. Conventional wisdom says that if the Big Ten expands to 14 or 16 schools, it would force the SEC to expand as well, but sports administrators and business analysts say that's not necessarily the case.

With a national television contract that helped generate more than $12 million for each of its 12 member schools last season, the SEC is in an enviable situation. There's no need to panic because others are making a move.

"It could come down to just wanting to be in the expansion game," said Dr. James Riordan, director of the MBA in Sport Management program at Florida Atlantic University. "If they can live with the Big Ten getting all of the media attention for the rest of the summer, and through the season. If they can handle that, and I'm sure they can, I would say stand pat. You're very valid, you're a very strong conference. Go with your past, go with your history. … You're still the SEC, you've been there, so you don't have to go running and go into a panic mode. I don't think it's a necessity to expand, given where the SEC is now and given where they've come from."

Former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer, who helped engineer today's BCS format, is well aware of the difficulties involved with conference expansion; he was at the helm when the SEC expanded to 12 teams and decided on divisional league play and a conference championship game. This time around, he said, things are different.

"The SEC does not have the same urgency, so to speak, because they have a great television arrangement right now," Kramer said. "It's a national one with ESPN dominating it. The Big Ten is in a little bit different situation because they have their own network and they're obviously interested in more TV sets, which makes that network a stronger entity, and it produces a greater source of revenue for them. The SEC doesn't need that for a national type exposure because you've already got CBS and ESPN driving that force and producing a significant amount of revenue for you."

And make no mistake, revenue is the driving force behind expansion. It's a business deal, plain and simple. In a climate of ever-increasing coaching salaries and the need to have the best facilities to impress recruits, money talks.

Part of the reasoning for a Big Ten expansion is the potential for divisional play and a conference title game — which could add big dollars to the revenue pot. Adding 14 or 16 teams could help the Big Ten Network — the first league-owned channel — add to its market share.

But expansion for the SEC might make less sense because it might dilute the share of TV revenue each school gets. The SEC now divides its revenue among 12 schools. Expansion only makes sense if new members bring in enough revenue to justify their share of the pie.

For instance, many speculate the SEC might respond to Big Ten expansion by adding Florida State, Clemson, Miami or Georgia Tech. But it's debatable whether those schools, all located in television markets where the SEC already is strong, would expand the league's revenue enough to offset having more league members.

Texas and Texas A&M are a different story for the Big Ten and the SEC.

"In terms of business, you would have Dallas and Houston, two of the top 10 TV markets (in the nation)," Riordan said. "I think it really is business, and I think it is money. The SEC has a tremendous network that is owned by ESPN. … Ultimately it's about how do you get more exposure? Texas is a big draw. But Texas can't go anywhere unless they take Texas A&M with them."

Even Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany doesn't buy the notion that his conference's expansion would automatically lead to expansion by others, thereby creating a nation of super conferences.

"It's like saying everybody is going to go to a 12-team conference," Delany said. "We didn't. We stayed at 11. I don't necessarily see why if one group does something it thinks is in its best interests, somebody else would imitate it. Unless there were good reasons to imitate it. … I would be shocked if we would get larger, that other people would automatically get larger."

Delany said last month that he will stick to the original timetable of 12-18 months that he set in December to decide on whether the Big Ten will expand. Even if expansion is not automatically a consideration for the SEC any time soon, what the Big Ten does over the next several months will be carefully monitored by every conference.

"Every conference is taking a look, what if this were to occur, how would it impact us down the road?" Kramer said. "If you did find the Big Ten going to 16, you're going to have a domino effect that will be very significant. If that expansion only amounts to one team or just three teams, it probably doesn't have an earth-shaking impact. If it goes to 16, then I think it has an enormous impact."

Times staff writer Brian Landman contributed to this report. Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes.com.

In uncertain times for conferences, SEC in a position of power 05/31/10 [Last modified: Monday, May 31, 2010 8:48pm]

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