If we've learned anything over the last five years, it's that college football is big business. With the advent of a four-team playoff, skyrocketing media rights deals and the creation of conference-specific cable television networks, it's only going to get bigger.
SEC commissioner Mike Slive isn't necessarily leading that charge. After all, he's not the one who started the recent expansion bonanza.
He could be perfecting it though.
So what will the landscape of college football look like in 2020?
Although a formal announcement was postponed this week, we know that ESPN and the SEC are launching a 24-hour cable network in the summer of 2014. Because of that, the SEC's road will likely be paved in gold, diamonds and $100 bills.
But will we have reached the age of the super conference by that point?
After the SEC added Texas A&M and Missouri to become a 14-team league, Slive didn't seem too keen on the idea of expanding to 16 teams when he sat down with USA Today in March.
In some ways 12 is ideal but at least 14 is sort of a cousin of 12. Sixteen is a distant relative. We're actually still in the process of absorbing both of these schools into our scheduling, particularly on the football side. It's hard to absorb one, let alone two.
There's been some movement throughout the country but that doesn't really affect us. Even when we were at 12 we weren't looking. Both Texas A&M and Missouri came to us. If they hadn't come to us, I'm not so sure we wouldn't still be at 12.
But what if teams do come calling?
Maryland and the ACC are in a heated legal battle over the $52 million exit fee that the Terrapins owe the league after they decided to jump ship and join the Big Ten in 2014. That has effectively put major college football realignment into a holding pattern for the time being.
But that could change once the legal issues get worked out, and the realignment frenzy could get kicked into overdrive again.
Will that signal the time has come for the super conference?
The SEC probably won't lead that charge, but probably already has a plan in place if the tides shift in that direction.
Depending on what carriers provide the SEC Network for subscribers, that could mean an expansion east into ACC territory. I've gone on record saying that Virginia Tech and N.C. State should be—and probably are—the SEC's top targets for expansion if the ACC begins to crumble. But I don't see the SEC throwing the first stone. That door will be opened up by other programs and conferences.
Yes, political pressure will be intense—especially in the state of Virginia. But if the ACC crumbles, it will be every program for itself.
Adding N.C. State and Virginia Tech would bring the SEC three of the top 25 local television markets in the 2012-13 Nielsen market estimates (No. 8 Washington, D.C., No. 24 Raleigh-Durham and No. 25 Charlotte). That means more carriers for the SEC Network and better ratings in big markets to sell to advertisers.
Why not add other, perhaps more prolific programs?
It's no secret that Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Kentucky would likely band together and vote against the addition of a team from any of those four states. Clay Travis at OutKickTheCoverage.com speculated last week that Texas A&M likely joined that group now that the Aggies are in the SEC.
Further expansion may become a reality, but it's not something that is ideal.
Aside from expansion, Slive has made no secret about his desire to have schools pay the full cost of attendance through athletic scholarships. He and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany led the modern-day effort to include a $2,000 per year stipend to cover the gap between what's allowed through athletic scholarships and the full cost.
That effort was approved by the NCAA in 2011, but has yet to make it through final approval. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in April that the NCAA is back to the drawing board on how to get the lower-revenue programs on board.
Will it be full cost of attendance, not realignment, that ultimately leads to the age of uniformed 16-team super conferences? Perhaps.
Could it lead to a split of the major college football programs from the NCAA? That may be a little bit trickier due to tax implications, but the Ed O'Bannon case versus the NCAA and its use of players' likenesses could accelerate that process.
What's Slive's ideal college football landscape in 2020?
It's likely the same 14-team SEC with at least a $2,000 stipend to cover the full cost of attendance, with an SEC Network piping the third-best football game of each weekend to nearly the entire country on the primary sports tier of most providers.
In all actuality, that vision may become reality before 2020, even if Slive does step aside after the "couple of more years" that he said was the plan last month.
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