The rumored demise of Alabama-Tennessee and Auburn-Georgia as annual events represents the SEC being sucked into a world where maximizing short-term revenue is the name of the game. The product that we have grown to know and love will be diminished as a result.
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Feb 13, 2012 – One of the best classes I took in college was “American History: 1830-60,” taught by Professor J. Mills Thornton. The class could have just been titled “The Causes of the Civil War.” In fact, the final exam consisted of a solitary question: “describe the causes of the American Civil War.” After two hours filling up blue books with the answers, my hand hurt as never before.
Aside from its singular focus, one of the best aspects of the class was the fact that Professor Thornton had such a clear view of the United States during that period that I still remember significant chunks of the class 16 years later. I remember that Professor Thornton was of the opinion that the American political system had always been able to find side issues to distract from the central question of the expansion of slavery, but it ran out of such issues by the late 1850s. I remember that he viewed the railroads as a missed political issue, because they were very unpopular to yeoman farmers for a variety of reasons and so putting railroads at the center of the political debate could have shifted attention away from slavery.
Finally, I remember the Professor’s description of the worldview of the yeoman farmers of the period. Fiercely independent, one of their major goals in life was to avoid being sucked into the vortex of of the market economy. They wanted to grow their own crops, barter for staples that they could not make themselves, and generally remain free to make their own decisions. (For a soundtrack for this mindset, might I suggest Roy Clark’s “I Never Picked Cotton.”) If you want an explanation as to why many non-slaveholding Southerners were willing to fight and die for a Confederacy that was organized to protect slavery, consider the Southern yeoman farmer’s mindset: “with slaves working the plantations, there is no pressure for me to pick for a wealthy landowner, so I can keep to myself on my small farm. Without slaves, I might be sucked into working someone else’s fields.”*
* – I’m paraphrasing here. Also, this should go without saying, but I’m not making any attempt to justify this mindset. I’m just trying to explain it as it has been explained to me.
The rumored demise of the Auburn-Georgia and Alabama-Tennessee rivalries has me thinking about those Southern yeoman farmers and the fear of being sucked into the vortex of a market economy. For those of us who grew up on SEC football, the conference was simple. There were 10 members of the conference, and the team with the best record at the end of the season would go to the Sugar Bowl. Little by little, that basic, traditional structure has given way. First, the conference expanded to 12 teams, split into divisions, and added a championship game. This was a good move for a number of reasons, one of which was that it rationalized scheduling. Conference teams no longer picked and chose their own conference rivals. For example, Georgia rarely played Tennessee before 1992. Now, the Dawgs have a healthy rivalry with their neighbors to the north. (See, changes in the conference can add to rivalries as well as taking them away.)
Second, the conference joined the Bowl Alliance in 1995 and then the BCS in 1998. Thus, the conference champion didn’t always go to New Orleans. In 1995, the first year of the Bowl Alliance, Florida went unbeaten, but instead of going to New Orleans as the Gators had done in three of the past four seasons, they went to Tempe to play Nebraska. That change didn’t work out so well for Steve Spurrier, but his Gators won a national title the next year, the first of nine national titles that SEC teams have won in the Bowl Alliance/BCS. As with going to divisions, the move towards a more rationalized post-season structure worked out for the SEC.
All that said, the evolution of the SEC into a revenue-generating, national championship-winning supernova has entailed a loss of freedom for the members of the league. Sucked into a world where athletic departments are seeing their budgets explode as torrents of incoming cash are spent in a facilities and coaching arms race (not to mention a number of non-revenue sports), SEC schools can no longer accept good enough when it comes to revenue. Rightly or wrongly, Mike Slive concluded that the league could not sit on the sidelines during a round of conference expansion. Thus, Texas AM and Missouri are now members. The rational response to a move to 14 teams would be to proceed with a nine-game conference schedule, but with the imperative of revenue maximization, the league is eschewing that move. Instead, the concept of protected rivals is going out the window, sacrificed at the altar of making as much money as humanly possible. My sentiments echo those expressed at Get the Picture:
I’ve been a passionate college football fan for most of my life. I’ve blogged about my passion for more than five years now. But it’s gradually dawning on me that the people running the show are bound and determined to suck every drop of joy I get out of it. Step by step it’s happening before our eyes. College football is turning itself into NFL-lite. History and tradition aren’t money makers and thus are to be cast aside when they become nothing more than an inconvenience for those who see 90,000 people in the stands on a Saturday as little more than a bunch of wallets.
That said, there are at least two arguments for the case that this move will backfire on the SEC, financially speaking. It will be very difficult to tell 10 years from now whether the end of Auburn-Georgia and Alabama-Tennessee materially affected the SEC in a bad way because there will be so many other factors at play, as well. However, there are two potential downsides. First, unlike just about any other American sport, college football follows a seasonal rhythm. We get the same games at the same times, every year. Part of that rhythm has always been Alabama-Tennessee in late October and then Auburn-Georgia in early- to mid-November. On some basic level, fans of these four programs are going to look at schedules that do not include some of their oldest rivals and feel disoriented.
Second, part of the SEC’s success as a TV property is its ability to sell a tribal, feral atmosphere. There is so little that feels authentic or intense about American pro sports, especially in the regular season, so the SEC fills a market niche in that ESPN and CBS can show packed, loud stadia on a weekly basis. One necessary element for that brand is the element that the teams and their fans do not like one another. It is not that hard to convince someone in Seattle or Milwaukee to watch some of Auburn-Georgia when the teams have been playing since 1892 and that history comes through on the screen based on the way that the fans react. When a good number of fans know that they will be sitting at the same Thanksgiving table in a couple weeks with fans of the other program, they tend to care a little more and that comes across on the tube.
In sum, the SEC has been so thoroughly sucked into the vortex of being a quasi-pro sport that short-term revenue maximization is now the name of the game. The changes to the conference in the 90s – splitting into divisions and joining a two-team playoff – proved to be beneficial in getting the league where it is today, but the decision in the works to jettison two of the SEC’s best rivalries is unlikely to have any such upsides. Aside from the facts that the decision has angered the league’s core consumers and could turn them against the new arrivals (“thanks, Mizzou, you cost us the Deep South’s oldest rivalry and the Third Saturday in October“), the change will upset the rhythm of the season and ever so slightly diminish the quality of the TV product. The SEC is losing a little of its soul with this decision, and its soul is part of what makes the conference so profitable.
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