This is ain’t your SEC anymore, Bear Bryant

Cashing in on new TV deal changes the SEC landscape

I love college football. As a Son of the South, I have feasted my eyes on the magnificent game they play in the Southeastern Conference for more than a half century. The Holy Land — places like Denny Stadium, Tiger Stadium and Neyland Stadium were our Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and Wrigley Field.

Before there was the NFL or NBA or MLB, there were Paul Dietzel’s Chinese Bandits, Bear Bryant’s Runts at Alabama, Weepin’ Wally Butts’ Hairy Dawgs and Bowden Wyatt’s Tennessee Single Wing.

Where have you gone Billy Cannon and Lee Roy Jordan? Bo Jackson and Herschel Walker?

Sorry, this is not your SEC anymore, Bear. They don’t play for manhood or Southern Pride. It’s mainly about the cash. In a way it kinda always was, legal or otherwise. The stakes are just higher. And everybody wants a piece of the action now. We just wink and fake it better. And this Power Conference conglomerate makes it feel like college football is about to issue a new IPO. More like Wall Street instead of Main Street.

All this new brings new meaning to the Woodward-Bernstein Watergate mantra “follow the money.”

We should have seen it coming several years ago when the new SEC-ESPN deal guaranteed Vanderbilt more money than Notre Dame, which has its own network (NBC). SEC schools divided $300 million in TV dough this year. Compared to what’s on the table now, that could be chump change.

You can pretty much mark it down as a done deal: The SEC is leading the charge to form the Super Sixty-Five.

Never mind this Division IV stuff — it sounds like the bottom of the food chain. Let’s call it what it is truly morphing into: the National College Football League, or junior NFL. What’s next, annexing the University of London?

The economic model is genius. There are “franchises” mostly underwritten by state governments and funded by TV revenue. The workers (players) don’t get a salary and there is no free agency; players can’t change venues without a penalty.

And please don’t insult us by insisting on calling them “student athletes.” Yes they are students and yes they are athletes, but basically they are unpaid interns with free room and board. Actors on an HDTV stage, if you will, which is getting bigger and more lucrative everyday. Their day is coming because the Super Sixty-Five can no longer claim there’s not enough money to pay athletes a stipend.

As for you, the fan, thanks for coming and please drive carefully. Your loyalty is appreciated but will now be measured in contributions. Even though you’re not buying tickets with the same fervor, you do count in the Neilsen ratings, and I suppose the good news is that you get to binge-watch football.

Your passion is muted. Going to the stadium is not as compelling anymore and staying through all four quarters is a challenge. Besides, if there’s a better game on TV at home you can beat the crowd early.

Maybe you don’t go to the game at all. Break out the pom-poms in the family room. Sit back and watch, from College Game Day in the morning to the 11 p.m. West Coast game, crack a cold one or two, flip around the channels, snooze if you would like, tweet, text and Facebook your friends and enjoy selections from the menu that are about to get only better.

We’re not just talking about the new SEC network here. The new Super Sixty-Five will be bringing us more cross-sectional games, like baseball’s intra-league play. By the way, they’ll be moving more big games off campus in the future anyway. The good news is that the scheduling police now prohibit an all-cream puff home slate of sacrificial lambs needing paydays.

Notre Dame and Georgia are talking about a home-and-home series. Tennessee plays Oklahoma this year. Games like Florida-Michigan in 2015, played at a neutral site such as Jerry Jones World in Texas, offer bigger payoffs than the ever-shrinking box office of bowl games because revenue isn’t shared with conference members.

The college presidents are tapping into their kids’ piggy bank. Once athletic departments found several million in “tip money” to support academia, it became a required line item in the president’s budget. So since the foxes are guarding the henhouse, how can they not enjoy their own chicken dinner?

Let’s take the high road here and not completely rain on the new SEC season or disparage our version of The National Pasttime #DownHere.

On the flip side, the SEC will be showcased like Bono on the U2 360 Tour. What we have long held as true and sacred — that the SEC plays the strongest and best football — will be further evident to outsiders not from ’round here. Tickets will be easier to find.

Not that there’s anything un-American about capitalism. Many will say this bodes for a better SEC, stretched now into the TV markets of Texas and Missouri. Better facilities. More aligned academically. And most if all, nationally dominant in football like never before.

Others will always cling to the pastoral datelines of quaint destinations like Auburn and Athens and Oxford and Gainesville, where claiming territorial imperatives against fierce rivals has been as sweet as it ever needed to be.

Old or new however, the No. 1 goal of all die hard fans in 2014: To make Florida State’s one-year break in service of SEC national champions become a one-hit wonder.


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