DESTIN, Fla. — SEC commissioner Greg Sankey wouldn’t say for certain whether the league would vote at its spring meetings this week on whether to use an eight- or nine-game conference schedule in football moving forward, but he said he already has “made clear what I think eventually should happen” and that he’d like to have a solution soon.
“I would prefer to not continue to circle the airport with the airplane,” he said on Monday.
But a resolution could be difficult as schools appear split on what scheduling formula is most beneficial. Issues of bowl eligibility, competitive balance and television revenue are expected to be part of the conversation. The upcoming expansion of the College Football Playoff to 12 teams is a factor as well. The two schedules at the center of the debate are an eight-game conference schedule that would feature one permanent opponent and seven rotating opponents, and a nine-game schedule with three permanent opponents and six rotating opponents.
Sankey has said previously that the focus on future scheduling involves no divisions.
Sankey said on Monday that he’s already privately stated his preference of an eight- or nine-game schedule, but he’s intentionally allowing the debate to play out among the 14 member schools.
The outcome of the vote will be determined by a simple majority (eight schools).
“A league at the forefront of college athletics does not stand still,” Sankey said.
The SEC currently plays an eight-game conference schedule, albeit with East and West divisions (six division games plus two rotating cross-divisional games).
“This is a league at the forefront of college athletics,” Sankey continued. “Now, whether change happens immediately is part of a careful consideration and a deep consideration. You can make arguments around both [scheduling models], but I’m watching a different reality — a baseball league that may be more challenging than our football. The content of our games and the opportunities created is not minimized by playing each other with greater frequency. We maximize that because of the strength of schedule. Football is the same.
“Is the bowl-eligibility issue absolute? We’ve done predictive analytics. It’s actually a marginal change. Now, maybe practically on the frontline it feels like a significant change, but when we’ve run the numbers, it’s not as if we have massive bowl and ineligibility appearing from a nine-game schedule.”
Sankey cited the 2020 season, which was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, when the SEC played a 10-game, conference-only schedule.
“The interest is high for our games,” he said. “The viewership on our network that year was at a record level because we weren’t playing the same kind of games that don’t draw the passion that a conference game does. I also know that when you look at economics — the ticket pricing around high-level conference games is very different than an FCS or a Group of 5 games. So those are elements that to me are front and center.
“That doesn’t mean everyone agrees with that perspective, but those are elements that will continue to be part of the conversation.”
Embedded in the issue of scheduling is the ability to preserve rivalry games. An eight-game schedule featuring one permanent opponent would jeopardize certain historic rivalries like Alabama-Tennessee and Auburn-Georgia.
Adding to the scheduling calculus is the additions of Texas and Oklahoma in 2024. Representatives from the two schools, which are currently still a part of the Big 12, will be present at spring meetings for the first time this week.
They’ll be participants but will not have a vote until their membership is fully active July 1, 2024.
“I think it’s an important element for us as we think about our future,” Sankey said. “2024 is an enormous year with the move away from CBS, expansion to 16 [teams], the College Football Playoff [expanding to 12 teams]. Not to mention all that happens around us. So, I think it’s an important relationship-building opportunity, important information sharing.”