As a former television programming director, Tim Pernetti has seen it all. Each week brought a new city, a new college football environment. But when the Rutgers athletic director touched down in Arkansas last weekend to watch the Scarlet Knights face the Razorbacks, he received a firsthand reminder that football creates a different way of life in the South.
Pernetti flew home with pockets stuffed with notes about everything from the hospitality to the traditions, wondering what he could learn from the Southeastern Conference.
“It raises the bar, and forces everybody on the outside and inside to think differently,” said Pernetti, a 1993 Rutgers graduate and former executive vice president for the CBS College Sports Network. “The biggest challenge is that college football is a have-have not business. Every program isn’t spending the same on equipment and personnel. If a certain school can generate $80 million, it’ll run its program differently than one that generates $30 million. It widens the gap between certain schools and others.”
Consider the gap widened. College football dominance tends to be cyclical. Think Southern California in the mid-2000s or Nebraska the decade prior. But the tide has shifted to the SEC, whose teams have won six straight Bowl Championship Series titles. Elite recruits flock to the conference, wooed by the promise of top competition and cross-country exposure. Legends like Nick Saban, Les Miles, Steve Spurrier and Mark Richt patrol the sidelines. Defenses dominate and fans turn stadiums into cities.
Alabama, BCS champion two of the past three seasons, received 59 of 60 No. 1 votes in the latest Associated Press top 25 poll. Louisiana State is ranked third. Add No. 5 Georgia and No. 6 South Carolina to the mix, and the upper echelon of college football is housed in the region where, as Vanderbilt’s Athletic Director David Williams says, “it’s not a religion, it’s the religion.”
Tennessee Athletic Director Dave Hart, who spent 13 years at Florida State, was on the advisory group that met to discuss BCS postseason options in the 1990s, and remembers skepticism from the SEC throughout the process.
“Their fear was the conference would never again lay claim to a national title,” Hart said. “Well, six straight championships later, that trepidation has clearly been put to rest.”
The irony, of course, is that the BCS was engineered by Roy Kramer, the former SEC commissioner and firm believer in the cyclical nature of college football. This week, Kramer recognized the SEC’s recent dominance, but conceded that extended success will be difficult to come by.
“You don’t have a monopoly on it, so to speak,” Kramer said. “There are other good teams around the country, and I’m sure from time to time they’ll move forward. Somebody else has to become strong. You have a limitation on scholarships of 85, and over the course of time, there comes two or three years where the cycle doesn’t run as well recruiting-wise, and as a result that cycle changes. Years ago, when you used to have 120 or 130 scholarships, then you could continue that domination for a long period of time.”
When the SEC expanded this year to include Missouri and Texas A&M, it earned the right to renegotiate its $825 million first-tier television contract with CBS and a $2.25 billion second-tier deal with ESPN. Multiple reports indicate that ESPN and the SEC are headed toward a conference-specific channel, similar to the Big Ten Network, which was created in 2006 and has proven to be a financial success, generating $242 million in revenue in 2011.
The SEC averaged 4.45 million television viewers per football game last season, by far the most of any conference, according to Nielsen’s 2011 state of the media report. More than 20 million tuned in twice to see LSU face Alabama on Nov. 5, 2011, during the regular season and on Jan. 9, 2012, for the BCS championship.
“There’s no other league that’s as exposed as we are,” Auburn Athletic Director Jay Jacobs said. “The commitment we have for excellence, the success of the league is self-perpetuating in some respects.”
As for the perception that such localized dominance is somehow bad for college football?
“I’d respond by saying capitalism is a wonderful thing,” Jacobs said. “Everyone plays 12 games, and everyone has the same opportunities with the same number of scholarships. That’s like one hamburger maker getting upset because he’s selling fewer hamburgers than another. You’ve got to improve your product. I don’t really respond to those people. We’re so focused on what we’re trying to accomplish every day by graduating our student-athletes and winning championships.”
Six straight, to be exact.