By Joe Vitale – UGA Football Live
August 11, 2015
If the NCAA Power Five college conference landscape is in for another round of alignment, how can the Southeastern Conference be proactive while protecting and enhancing its geographic footprint? The Ottoman Empire of the NCAA, the Big 12 Conference, 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) 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 tag along. 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.
After the TCU/Baylor co-champion fiasco last football season, which allowed Ohio State to leapfrog into the College Footbaal Playoff, Oklahoma President David Boren has insisted 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, 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 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.
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 want to visit 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. I, and millions of other fans, 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. 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. Bob Stoops will quickly learn why the SEC is so good.
Now for the potential 16th member, the SEC needs to look towards the Atlantic, fill the glaring eastern gap and project its image northward. 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. Duke, Wake Forest and North Carolina State are much the same situation. Former Football Championship Series powerhouse Appalachian State is in its second 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. However, reaching into the heart of ACC territory and securing two leading television markets will take a visionary statement.
East Carolina, located in Greenville, a public institution founded in 1907, culturally fits the SEC mold. 22,000 undergraduates and 4,700 graduate students (including the Brody School of Medicine), an alumni base of 155,000, a $145 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 $40 million renovation, which will expand capacity to 60,000. 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 22,200 undergrads and 5,000 graduate students. The school has 90,000 alums and supports an endowment of $152 million. The 49ers have bounced around several conferences over the years and enter their first year as a FBS school in 2015. 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.
Another round of college conference re-alignment is inevitable and the SEC should take the natural step of expanding to Oklahoma and the bold and visionary step into North Carolina.