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The SEC At A Crossroads: Don't Make NASCAR's Mistake

The SEC sets the pace in all of college athletics.  The question is what will it do for an encore?

Last week's meetings in Destin, FL ended up largely becoming a time to reflect on how prosperous (both in wins and revenues) the conference has become.

This past year the SEC shattered its previous revenue record by hauling in $127 mil.  With new television contracts in the works for 2009, this number will only go up.

Additionally, the SEC has, by far, the deepest roster of football coaches in the country containing a bevy of national champs (Spurrier, Saban, Fulmer, and Miles) as well as former pro coaches like Bobby Petrino.  More significantly, the SEC has outbid the NFL for its past two coaching hires - Saban and Petrino - which shows the dominance of SEC over the NFL in the South.

The two issues that lie ahead are big ones for the SEC - its new TV contract and tweaks to the BCS.  How the conference handles these issues will shape its future.

Let's go back and take a quick look at NASCAR.  NASCAR, like SEC sports, is part of the culture of The Footprint.  Similarly, both NASCAR and SEC football surprised people with their respective ability to dominate the national sports scene as more media outlets showing each sport confirmed the strength of their significant and passionate audience.

However, many believe that NASCAR squandered a portion of its gains by trying too hard to appeal to big market media in recent years.  Swampland Sports is part of that group of critics.  Everything that makes the sport appealing to NYC undermines its appeal in The Footprint.

NASCAR has taken races out of the South and moved them West and North.  NASCAR "cleaned up" its drivers to the point that they lack personality.  What did this get them?  Not a whole lot.

When NASCAR tried to expand into NYC and Seattle, both cities stiff armed them by not allowing the tracks to be built.  Ratings outside The Footprint and some select midwestern markets just aren't there which gives NASCAR officials little bargaining power against local forces in those markets. 

The question becomes - who cares?  NASCAR remains huge drawing hundreds of thousands of spectators and millions of viewers each weekend. 

Those viewers have dropped in recent years, and NASCAR is and should be troubled.  Cause and effect are basic principles.  NASCAR ignored its base to expand to a potentially bigger audience and lost both.  NASCAR isn't mortally wounded, but they aren't growing at the same pace as they have in the past.

NASCAR's lesson is why the SEC needs to tread carefully moving forward. 

They have a TV contract that shows games at noon, mid afternoon, and night keeping SEC fans awash in football every Saturday.  Whatever choice it makes moving forward, the ubiquitous nature of SEC football cannot be sacrificed in the name of easy money.  Allowing SEC fans easy access to your games is the life blood of the sport.

The other issue is the BCS/playoff discussions that keep coming from the SEC.  Swampland has laid this issue our support of the BCS despite its flaws.  The BCS was designed by a former SEC commissioner, and his vision proved prescient because the BCS showed how good the SEC is.

A college football playoff is desired mostly by TV execs in NYC who want a big ratings bonanza at a certain point of the year.  They want to duplicate what the NCAA basketball tournament gives them in March.

So what?  We'll tell you "what".

NYC won't want teams from Tennessee or Louisiana because those teams don't bring in big market ratings.  NYC wants to see Pac 10, Big Ten because of sheer eyes on the TV.  They would also like to see college football programs like Rutgers, UConn, Notre Dame, etc in the mix because they also bring in NYC viewers.

Right now, the SEC has numerous bowl tie ins to go along with one guaranteed BCS bid which usually ends up being two bids.

Simply put, the bowl system and the BCS shows the SEC's dominance and a playoff system would likely try to reign it in so that the entire country would be represented.

Heck, we know that SEC fans are competitors at heart.  Everyone likes the idea of deciding it on the field.  However, a playoff system would still have the issue of who makes the field of teams.  Seedings would also determine who makes the finals.  (Look at the NCAA college baseball bracket to see how things can be engineered to create a distribution of regional teams.)

It's time to listen to cooler heads.  Start with Tony Barnhart, who explains that there are forces more important than the fans to consider.   Also, realize that the ACC is pushing for a playoff to level the playing field between itself and its big brother in football, the SEC.  Mike Slive recently had to distinguish his support of a playoff from the ACC voices.  Slive should go further by abadoning the "plus one" suggestion which is largely just for show since it has little support.

The TV deals could become the trojan horse that allows bigger media to corral the SEC into a larger playoff push.  The networks want the playoff, and they would love to get in the door with a new SEC deal that sets a playoff system in motion.

Be smart, SEC!  You are at the top right now.  Don't get too greedy like NASCAR did.  NASCAR isn't the NFL, but it tried to compete with it and lost a bit in the process.

Remember the old adage:  pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered.



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