DESTIN, Fla. – A year ago, SEC administrators arrived here for their annual spring meetings prepared to make a decision on the league’s future scheduling format: Eight conference games or nine?
They emerged without a resolution and with two important questions: (1) What is the future of College Football Playoff expansion?; and (2) how much additional revenue will ESPN pay the league to add a ninth game?
Twelve months later, similar questions linger—and then some.
“It is very fair to say that it is not just about the money,” says Kentucky president Eli Capilouto. “As we focus more on student-athlete well-being, one has to understand the implications of this in light of new (CFP) formats and length of the season. What does it all mean in a bigger context is what we should consider. What does it mean for bowl participation and length of season? All those things come first.”
As officials arrive Monday for this week’s meetings, they are (hurray!) closer to a resolution on the scheduling format. But it’s not what many expected.
Under consideration is a one-year, temporary eight-game conference schedule in 2024 that will, at least for one year, preserve both primary and secondary rivalries.
Why eight? Capilouto’s concerns are echoed by many in the league. What’s the impact of a ninth league game on an athlete’s health? And how will the selection process play out in an expanded CFP?
But a third question has lingered and gone mostly unanswered for a year now: the extra money from ESPN, which is not contractually required to provide more money for a ninth game.
Without the incentive of additional revenue from the network, more than half of the league is in support of remaining at eight games in the first year that Texas and Oklahoma begin play in 2024. The expectation is that ESPN, in the midst of layoffs, will not commit to additional revenue for a ninth game—at least not now.
The temporary, one-year eight-game model is a placeholder for a potential nine-game schedule to start in 2025, if ESPN enhances the deal.
“That’s probably what will happen,” says one high-ranking SEC administrator. “I don’t see the desire to go to a ninth game and not have any increase from a revenue standpoint. That’s what I think comes out this week, unless something dramatic happens.”
Both the SEC and ESPN have a flare for dramatics, so you never know. But the network’s current situation is not conducive for it to publicly announce any additional millions of dollars. ESPN is in the midst of rounds of layoffs expected to span through the summer. The network is also involved in bidding for several other deals, including the 12-team CFP, WWE/UFC and the NBA.
Some within the league believe a ninth league game is worth at least $5 million per school in additional revenue each year.
Without the extra cash, those in the eight-game camp will not vote for a move that will result in eight more losses to conference members. That could mean the difference in a team making a bowl game and not. More importantly, it could mean the difference in a team advancing to the expanded CFP, or not advancing.
No one is quite sure how much strength of schedule will matter in the 12-team field. Can an SEC team get into the field with three losses? These are questions being asked.
Some schools have been public about their support for nine games, no matter the unanswered questions about additional revenue, bowl eligibility or CFP chances. Those include Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M, LSU and, oddly enough, Missouri.
What about Alabama? In an interview with SI in March, Nick Saban threw his weight behind an eight-game schedule that, he says, will create more balance. He did this while expressing his dissatisfaction for the three permanent opponents that the Tide would play annually.
“I think (the SEC) has a better chance to get the parity right doing the eight games,” Saban told SI. “I’m talking about the balance of who has who.”
But there is one big negative with a multi-year eight-game format. An eight-game schedule—1 permanent plus 7 rotating opponents—will eliminate the league’s secondary rivalry games. Gone would be Alabama-Tennessee, Auburn-Georgia and the impending annual renewal of Texas-Texas A&M. The schools would play every other year instead of annually.
But for one year in 2024, it is believed those games will be preserved.
The expected permanents in an eight-game model are not difficult to figure out:
- South Carolina-Kentucky
- Mississippi State-Ole Miss
- LSU-Texas A&M
SEC officials have explored a wide range of options in their pursuit of strengthening the league’s penalty structure on fans storming the field, including even banning a team from a bowl game, forfeiting a game or giving up a future home game.
But those seem rather harsh to be taken seriously. Or maybe not?
Last month, commissioner Greg Sankey confirmed a report from SI that the league was considering a penalty that would require teams to forfeit a future home game for storming the field. But he cautioned that several options are being considered.
In light of the recent number of field stormings and the danger of them, the league created a three-man working group consisting of athletic directors from Georgia (Josh Brooks), Alabama (Greg Byrne) and Kentucky (Mitch Barnhart) who are charged with formulating new field-storming proposals.
The conference could vote on new penalties “at any point between now and the start of the season,” Sankey said last month while warning that any new policy will not stop the rushing of the field.
“People have to stop it. Has the fine system changed behavior? Yes,” Sankey said. “Can you stop it? Sure. You can send teams into stands to celebrate with fans. We see that in basketball pretty frequently. You can educate your fans: stay off the floor, we’re going to come to you and let's celebrate that way.
“There are positive ways to engage in postgame celebration that don’t involve rushing the field and tearing down goalposts.”
A sports gambling scandal emerged right in the SEC’s backyard, so to speak.
Alabama fired baseball coach Brad Bohannon after learning that he was involved in a gambling scandal in at least one of his own games. Over the weekend, more was revealed about the situation in a report from SI.
More and more states are legalizing sports gambling, an issue that has filtered through college sports. Iowa and Iowa State players and some staff are under review for a sports gambling scandal.
The SEC, like many other leagues, partners with data-monitoring company U.S. Integrity to help identify potential irregularities in betting. But is there more the league can do? Sports betting is sure to be a hot topic in Destin.