DESTIN, Florida — Commissioner Greg Sankey is ready to speak up and steer the SEC’s ship in a singular direction if membership cannot decide this week whether to adopt an eight- or nine-game conference schedule for football.
Sankey has kept quiet publicly on which model he prefers, but privately the boss has communicated his preference to administrators and he’s ready to ask coaches, athletic directors and presidents to do what he believes is best for the SEC if they remain at a standstill at the conference’s spring meetings, he revealed Sunday evening. Sankey detailed the plusses and minuses for both models on the eve of the SEC’s meetings during an hour-long discussion with a select group of reporters.
More importantly, Sankey appeared to hint a nine-game model is his preference and provided why that option alleviates concerns surrounding competitive balance, frequency of rivalry games and late-season interest in SEC football.
“The league at the forefront of college athletics does not stand still,” Sankey said. “And this is a league at the forefront of college athletics. Now, whether change happens immediately as part of a careful consideration and a deep consideration, you can make arguments around both.”
Both models at the center of the debate eliminate the SEC’s two divisions and provide more frequent and diverse matchups starting in 2024 with the additions of Oklahoma and Texas from the Big 12. The eight-game format includes one permanent rival and seven rotating opponents, and the nine-game format includes three permanent opponents with six rotating opponents. Despite more than one year of discussions, the SEC’s membership may not conduct a vote this week. The conference is at a near split in opinion. Though Sankey believes they are “poised” for a vote this week, he reminded reporters he uttered the same a year ago before membership kicked the can down the road. The conference enters Round 2 of discussions this week with at least five schools siding with an eight-game model and at least three others on the fence, sources tell 247Sports.
“I would prefer not to continue to circle the airport with the airplane,” Sankey said. “I’d prefer to land it.”
The concerns? Some schools believe a ninth conference game would lead to fewer bowl-eligible teams. Sankey argues more games provide a more equitable schedule and data shows only a “marginal change” in bowl-eligible teams. He offered a comparison to the SEC baseball’s strength of schedule, which results in a healthy representation in the postseason. The membership adopted in March a format for baseball that eliminates divisions and includes eight rotating series and two permanent rivalries each year in baseball.
So, what happens if the SEC exits spring meetings for a second straight year without a decision for football? It’s possible they could adopt an interim model for one or two seasons starting in 2024, but Sankey was mum on the particulars.
“I think it would be disrespectful of me to put that information to you right now when I’m obligated to members who have to make a decision,” he said. “They would rightfully be angry with me.”
Even so, it appears Sankey is ready to ruffle feathers and steer the conversation if membership remains at a standstill. The SEC requires a simple majority with a vote of 8-6 to adopt legislation. Incoming SEC members Oklahoma and Texas do not have a vote, though both have communicated their preference to adopt a nine-game model, sources tell 247Sports.
Money is also a concern. The assumption is the SEC figures to earn more cash from media partner ESPN should the league expand to a nine-game conference schedule but ESPN has not communicated how much more money it is willing to pay for the additional inventory, sources tell 247Sports. In recent months, ESPN has undergone massive layoffs and cutbacks as media companies face financial scrutiny and streamers hemorrhage money. Whether the SEC’s membership can vote without clarity on financial figures is a concern shared among athletic directors and presidents. Meanwhile, Sankey cautioned against hesitance.
“Money follows, it doesn’t lead. That’s the same here,” Sankey said. “… When all you do is chase money, you make really bad decisions. That’s my view and I’m watching that in college sports right now. [Football players] transferring and realizing maybe what they were promised isn’t real. … If all we’re doing is chasing money, then we’re not going to make very good decisions. We have not done that and we won’t do that here.”
ESPN becomes the SEC’s exclusive broadcast partner starting in 2024 after signing a supplemental deal that pays the conference more than $3 billion for a package of its most-watched games. ESPN and the SEC entered a massive, 20-year agreement previously in 2013 with the creation of the SEC Network.
The thinking is that more competitive SEC games and fewer non-conference blowouts equal more eyes and money.
The SEC adopted a temporary 10-game schedule during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and the conference’s television network experienced record ratings, Sankey said. Sankey believes members must also consider the higher ticket revenues an additional SEC game garner compared to mid-season matchups against an FCS team or Group of 5 team. “That doesn’t mean everyone agrees with that perspective but those are elements that will continue to be part of the conversation,” he said.
Also important are the ancillary rivalry games, which would be played every other year in the eight-game model rather than every year under the nine-game model. Yearly rivalry games between Alabama and Tennessee, Georgia and Auburn, and Florida and Tennessee would be lost. The long-awaited renewal of the Texas-Texas A&M rivalry would happen in 2024 or 2025 and then would reoccur every other year.
“They’re huge games. I mean, huge games on the scale of college football games,” Sankey said.
The SEC currently plays an eight-game schedule with two divisions. Schools play six divisional games and two cross-divisional opponents.
Schools also must navigate difficult and time-sensitive scheduling decisions with their non-conference games. Twelve SEC schools will need to reschedule or cancel as many as 38 non-conference games spanning through 2037 if a nine-game format is adopted. Only four of the conference’s 16 members (Auburn, LSU, Oklahoma and Texas) have cleared their schedules for nine conference games beginning in 2024. The remaining 12 schools have scheduled four non-conference games in 2024, and nine schools are booked until 2026.
Three Power Five conferences (Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12) play nine in-conference games. The Big Ten discussed decreasing conference games from nine to eight in 2022 but opted to stay with nine. The ACC opted to stay with an eight-game schedule after mulling in 2022 a nine-game format. Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff expressed a desire in early 2022 to shrink his conference’s slate to eight, but no decision has been made as the conference attempts to finalize a long-awaited media deal this summer.
The SEC’s meetings begin Tuesday and run through Friday. Coaches vote on various proposals Wednesday, athletic directors vote Thursday and presidents have the final say Friday.