Wednesday, June 30, 2010

of supernovas and college football

I suppose it's long overdue that this blog offer some thoughts regarding the recent tectonic shifting of the conferences, which looked like a major overhaul in the landscape and wound up being sort of a hiccup ... though we're almost certainly not through just yet.

And this is part of the problem — as described aptly in this post by Braves and Birds. Quite simply, no one can truly offer definitive thoughts on the conference shifting — I've seen multiple columns touting "winners" and "losers" — because the situation is a fluid one. It's a dance college football has been doing, to some extent, since the early 1990s, when the old Southwest Conference fell apart and other "power" conferences started scrambling like mad to snatch them up (which ultimately led to the formation of the Big XII and Arkansas in the SEC, an unbelievable circumstance in, say, 1980).

The biggest issue throughout the entire firestorm is, of course, money. I got a huge kick out of the righteous indignation that spewed from multiple columnists and bloggers in the last two months, most of it centering around this argument:
It's like it's not even about tradition anymore, man. It's, like, all about money!!

Ummmm ... well, yeah. Of course it is. It always has been. Why else does my grandmother — an Auburn season ticket holder since before the stadium even bore Ralph Jordan's name — have to pay a ridiculous sum of money every year ... not for game tickets, mind you, but the right to buy the tickets. I doubt seriously Auburn would care very much if we, "But, like, you gotta let us buy tickets, man! It's tradition!" They'd just assume we didn't want them and sell them to the next person on the waiting list.
Conference expansion is no different. Is there anyone out there who believes Alabama or Florida or Georgia wouldn't bail on the SEC immediately if there were a few extra bucks involved? Please. These universities are in business to turn a profit, and their greatest source of profit, for better or worse, is their football programs. It's in their best interest to make those programs as profitable as possible.

Besides, it's not as though the Big XII was a conference built on great tradition anyway, unless "sucking up to Texas" counts as a tradition. Read this post-mortem from Joe Posnanski for a better understanding: these schools never did anything more than co-exist uneasily for money's sake. And, if you believe Tommy Tuberville, that's still all they're doing.
I just don't think this conference will last long because there's just too much disparity between all the teams here. I've just noticed that – in the SEC, for instance, Vanderbilt makes as much money in the TV contract as Florida. Everyone is good with it, everybody's on the same page, gets the same amount of votes.
That doesn't happen in the Big 12. You've got some teams that get a little bit more money, have a little more stroke than other teams. And when that happens, you're going to have teams looking for better avenues to leave and reasons to leave. And so we have a 10-team league now, but I just don't know how long that's going to last, to be honest with you.
Being here for six months, I've just kind of noticed there's just not a lot of camaraderie in this league like you have in the SEC. ... It starts with the commissioner. And I think (SEC commissioner) Mike Slive has done a good job. (Former SEC commissioner) Roy Kramer did a good job of building a base where everybody was on the same page. And that just has not happened here in the Big 12. It's just a matter of time, to be honest with you, unless they get everybody on the same page.

"Get everybody on the same page," for those who might not have figured it out, is code for "everybody gets paid the same amount of money." If you believe Tuberville, as soon as Texas Tech can find a better path, it's taking it.

Of course, the question then becomes, what's to prevent this from happening in the SEC? And the answer (for now) appears to be that, for whatever warts it has as a conference, the SEC appears to be the best deal for all its members.
To be honest, sports are (is?) a strange business model. In most businesses, the goal — however indirect — is to be so much better than your competition that either a) your competition goes out of business entirely or b) your competition does such little business that it becomes meaningless. My newspaper, the St. Clair Times, currently shares a relatively small county (just over 81,000 people) with two other newspapers: the St. Clair News-Aegis (the paper of record) and the St. Clair County News (a new paper that appears to have been started for purposes of political up-sucking). That's three papers dividing up a relatively small amount of advertising revenue. It's tempting to think what our paper could accomplish if it were the lone competitor in the market. So it's not our explicit goal to run the other guys out of business ... but if we do our jobs well, we would effectively render them meaningless, right? That's capitalism.
The sports business isn't like that. Maybe Alabama fans hate Auburn and Tennessee — and, in fact, it is the goal of our program to be better than them every single season — but it would benefit us in no way if they were to go out of business or become marginal programs. In fact the opposite is true: it's in Alabama's best interest for Auburn and Tennessee to excel at the highest level of competition, both to increase the revenue (because a game between two good teams is more likely to draw better than if one or both of us is terrible) and to increase our credibility.
It's true. Why was Auburn denied a shot at the BCS championship in 2004, robbing the program of national exposure and the potential revenue of a national championship? There were a number of reasons, of course, but the biggest reason was a perceived lack of credibility on Auburn's schedule: yes, Auburn dismantled Tennessee, Alabama and the rest of the SEC ... but the SEC wasn't perceived as being all that good. Conversely, in 2007, an LSU team with TWO losses qualified for a shot at a title, primarily because of the perceived credibility of its conference schedule. It's better for everybody when your opponents are good. And right now, the SEC has raised itself to a level where its champion has to be taken seriously on a national level.
(Note: Thinking about this post actually made me think about 2000-2001, when sanctions were swirling over Tuscaloosa and a good chunk of the Alabama fan base was convinced that a) our conference rivals were conspiring against us — and they kinda were — and b) the SEC front office wasn't lending too much of a hand. Some of the more radical among the message board posters — seriously, these people wear tin foil hats and are the reason I don't go to message boards anymore — attempted to start a movement for Alabama to leave the SEC and either go independent or join a smaller conference like C-USA or the Sun Belt. It never made any sense, but it was out there.)

Obviously, nothing is certain on the landscape at this point. OTS' fantastic post about the possibility of Arkansas leaving hammers that point home well. Everyone — everyone — is a free agent, pretty much all the time. And it's fun to dream about an SEC that included Miami, Florida State, Louisville, Georgia Tech, Clemson and Memphis (who's apparently willing to pay handsomely).
For now, I guess we should just be happy with things the way they are. If we've learned anything, we've learned they probably won't stay that way very long.

No comments: