Time for the SEC to fill a large geographic hole
It has been a few years since the NCAA Power Five college conferences have experienced a significant round of alignment.
However, the winds of college sports are forever changing and the business side, which is the primary driver of college football, is always dynamic.
Could the landscape of the major conferences be in for another round of alignment, and if so, how can the Southeastern Conference be proactive while protecting and enhancing its geographic footprint? The SEC is the only major conference that does not have an exit fee. The conference has a long history of stability, with Tulane in 1966 being the last school to leave. The lack of exit fees is certainly a badge of strength for the SEC and with the revenue generated by the conference, there’s no reason to leave. Led by Texas A&M’s $195 million, nine of the nation’s top 15 athletic departments in terms of annual revenue hail from the SEC.
The weak sibling of the NCAA, the Big 12 Conference, although somewhat stable, has been rumored to be imploding for several years, which may create opportunities for other conferences. Big 12 Conference members are still not pleased with the Longhorn Network (and neither is ESPN with the money-losing venture) and their inability to secure a lucrative conference network package. Baylor President Ken Starr has threatened litigation if Oklahoma bolts for greener pastures and the Oklahoma legislature would most likely insist Oklahoma State be extended an invitation by a new conference as well. The inclusion of both schools may be too large of a price to pay by the SEC or PAC-12 for the blue-blooded Sooners.
Oklahoma President David Boren has been on record since 2015 insisting the Big 12 expand to twelve teams. But who is going to join? Houston, SMU and Colorado State are all regional candidates and BYU and Boise State would add nationally-renowned football programs to the mix. However, flying 2,200 miles from Morgantown, West Virginia to Boise, Idaho every couple of years for a $7 million, revenue-generating football game is one thing, but that 42-hour bus ride for the women’s softball team will definitely have the Title IX legal hounds in Washington paying a courtesy visit.
The Big 10 has made recent forays into major metropolitan areas by collecting mediocre athletic programs (Rutgers and Maryland) for one reason….the Big Ten Network and the nation’s numbers one, four and nine television markets (New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., respectively) that each program will theoretically bring along. Lincoln, Nebraska to New Brunswick, New Jersey is 1,300 miles and six lonely states away. The only thing Nebraska has in common with Rutgers is that each has a red color scheme and both are public universities in the United States.
The Atlantic Coast Conference stretches 1,500 miles from sub-tropical Miami, through Tobacco Road, up I-95 and to nearly the Canadian border and Lake Ontario. For the fun of it, the ACC diverts to the Midwest and South Bend, Indiana, but only for basketball season and non-revenue sports. The conference sold its soul for the Northeast television markets and the improbable dream of Notre Dame one day becoming a full member. What was once a compact conference with a frenzied fan base and natural rivalries has become Clemson and the ACC-13 1/2.
The Pac-12 has retained its geographical proximity, even with the additions of Rocky Mountain-based Colorado and Utah, and competitive balance. The major population centers of Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle and Denver, each in the top 17 television markets in the country, and fueled by the recruiting hotbed of southern California, keep the Pac-12 relevant. Keeping the symmetrical balance of the conference’s north and south divisions, would require two newcomers. Texas has long been rumored as a possible new member but the Longhorn Network is non-starter for the conference and the distance would be a major factor. Oklahoma has also extended feelers but the distance also remains a deterrent.
As these conferences chase the network dollars that are generated by football, they have lost sight as to why they have become so popular. It all comes down to rivalries and the intense brand-loyalty of the consumer, the college football-paying and watching public. Diluting the brand over three time zones and several non-contiguous states simply isn’t a successful formula. As a University of Georgia and SEC fan, I have a vested interest in what is happening with Vanderbilt or Florida or Auburn. I can easily drive to William-Brice Stadium, Bryant-Denny Stadium and Neyland Stadium. It is doubtful I will ever have such an interest in Kansas if the SEC looked to expand to the Plains. Along with millions of other fans, I share that regional passion for our respective universities. That passion and familiarity has made the SEC the preeminent college conference in the country.
Herein lies the opportunity for the SEC to retain its institution geographical proximity, strengthen the brand in its historical base and further enhance the brand and its member universities…“The Southern Living Magazine Business Model”. Many have long predicted that Oklahoma would be the next addition to the SEC and indeed, Oklahoma has the tradition, broad-based support, facilities, geographic desirability and in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, the nation’s 45th and 61st largest television markets. In addition, Oklahoma creates another natural rival with nearby SEC schools Texas A&M, Missouri, Arkansas and LSU. Adding Oklahoma also allows Missouri to move to its natural division, the SEC West. We will let politically-connected David Boren fight it out with the Oklahoma legislature and resolve the Oklahoma State issue, because even with all of T. Boone Pickens’ petroleum dollars, the Cowboys just don’t bring value to the conference.
Now for the potential 16th member, the SEC needs to look towards the Atlantic, fill the glaring eastern gap and project its image northward. The most logical state, North Carolina, is the ninth most populous state in the country, is a financial and biotechnology center, borders three current SEC states and between Charlotte and Raleigh, two of the fastest growing metropolitan areas, lays claim to the 24th and 27th largest television markets, respectively.
In addition to being geographically contiguous to the SEC, the state is a major recruiting ground for Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia, among others. The state is a hotbed for college athletics and culturally, North Carolina is a match for the athletics-crazed SEC.
Currently there are seven Football Bowl Series-playing universities in the state. Naturally, the University of North Carolina would be everyone’s favorite, but the SEC has a policy of not raiding competing conferences and it is doubtful that North Carolina, a founding ACC member, will be calling SEC offices and inquiring about initiation fees. Furthermore, the ACC’s East Germany-like exit fee is about $90 million. Duke, Wake Forest and North Carolina State are much the same situation. Former Football Championship Series powerhouse Appalachian State is in its third year in the FBS and can not match the SEC’s facilities or regional reach. That leaves American Athletic member East Carolina University and Conference USA’s UNC-Charlotte.
With the intrinsic brand value the SEC has created, it has long been thought only the elites will be considered for admission. Will reaching into the heart of ACC territory and securing two leading television markets take a visionary statement, or is the North Carolina Tar Heel scenario not so far fetched?
Taking a deeper look at the University of North Carolina, the Tar Heels have much more in common with the SEC than meets the eye. The Tar Heels (along with current ACC members NC State, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Virginia and Virginia Tech) were charter members of the Southern Conference in 1921 with current SEC members, Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky and Mississippi State. Nostalgia is great but the almighty dollar is the force behind college sports today and football is the engine. North Carolina ranks 33rd nationally in terms of athletic revenue. In the SEC, only Mississippi State ranks below the Tar Heels, $275,000 below Carolina’s $95.2 million. Even with Carolina’s premier basketball program (imagine Kentucky and UNC tipping off in hoops each season), the Heels are leaving close to $40 million on the table each year. UNC hasn’t been relevant in football for several years. The state has one the best high school football programs in the country, the fan base is huge, the facilities are excellent and UNC is the leading university in a large, wealthy and growing state. Simply, the Heels are just in the wrong conference to consistently succeed. However, $90 million is an awfully high fee to break from the ACC and battle in the SEC. Rubbish! Forget the $90 million…it’s an investment. Carolina would recoup that payment in two years, and I bet the SEC would throw in a few million to get the deal done. Why, because UNC entering the conference is accretive to each member institution. The overall value of the SEC brand increases with the additional revenues generated by the SEC Network in new television markets and the ESPN and CBS contracts.
In 2017, in response to the ACC banning neutral-site championship games and tournaments in the State of North Carolina because of House Bill 2, the controversial law that was perceived to limit legal protections for the LGBTQ community, North Carolina legislators filed a bill that would require North Carolina and NC State to withdraw from the ACC should the conference decide to boycott the state again. The bill wasn’t brought to the floor for a vote but there are a lot of North Carolina legislators who wouldn’t mind seeing UNC stick it to the ACC. The Tar Heels bolting the ACC is a long-shot, but in reality, it’s the best thing for UNC. Kenan Stadium would never be a quarter empty again.
East Carolina, located in Greenville, a public institution founded in 1907, culturally fits the SEC mold. 23,000 undergraduates and 5,800 graduate students (including the Brody School of Medicine), an alumni base of 158,000, a $208 million endowment and a rabid fan base, all match favorably with SEC schools. The Pirates have been a bit of a step child to its ACC brethren but have competed admirably on the courts and athletic fields. 50,000-seat Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium is undergoing a $55 million renovation, which will expand capacity and add 1,000 premium seats. I can attest, the atmosphere of a Saturday night game at Dowdy-Ficklen is second to none in college football.
Baseball and basketball facilities are first rate, the eastern North Carolina campus is beautiful, the BBQ is incomparable, the community is highly supportive and any university that produces mega star Sandra Bullock and the legendary Kay Yow must be doing something right. Rivalries with Georgia, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Kentucky and South Carolina could only enhance the SEC experience.
UNC-Charlotte is a unique situation and will require a bit of imagination. Founded in 1946, UNC-Charlotte has 24,200 undergrads and 5,000 graduate students. The school has 96,000 alums and supports an endowment of $181 million. The 49ers have bounced around several conferences over the years and in 2018 enter their third year as a Conference USA member. The school began playing football only three years ago and would be at a huge disadvantage on the gridiron for several years. The new on-campus stadium has a current capacity of 15,000 but was designed to expand to 40,000. In addition, Bank of America stadium in downtown Charlotte seats 73,000 and is eight miles down the road.
9,105-seat Halton Arena was voted as the 22nd best basketball arena in the country by Stadium Journal Magazine and the soccer, track, baseball and other athletic facilities are all world-class. The fan base is growing and football has energized the student body.
The campus sits on 1,000 wooded acres adjacent to a major research park and one of the major financial centers in the world. UNC-Charlotte, although a large public institution, doesn’t fit the SEC mold but delivers the 24th largest television market in the country and a wealthy, influential and rapidly growing city. Only 90 miles from Columbia, 195 miles from Athens, 230 miles from Knoxville and 400 miles from Nashville and Lexington, UNC-Charlotte provides an interesting scenario for the SEC.
Culturally, East Carolina is more aligned with the conference and is ready to compete on the SEC gridirons, fields and courts. It would be a welcomed addition and provide first rate competition while opening a new market for the conference. UNC-Charlotte will be competitive in all sports immediately but football will take a few years. The 49ers are a step out of the box for the SEC but offers tremendous potential, proximity to several SEC schools and instant access to a top 25 television market. However, the real gem is North Carolina.
Another round of college conference re-alignment is inevitable and the SEC should be on the forefront of the movement and take the natural step of expanding to Oklahoma and the bold and visionary step into North Carolina.