July 15, 2024

SEC again considering nine-game league schedule weighing revenue, College Football Playoff access

DESTIN, Fla. — The SEC is again contemplating an expanded conference football schedule with an aim of increasing revenue as the entire college athletics enterprise faces new financial challenges. Though the SEC has already decided to run eight-game schedules for the next two seasons, several programs originally against the prospect of increasing schedules are more open than ever before on the concept of playing nine league games starting in 2026, sources tell CBS Sports.

The motivation for adding a a ninth SEC game comes as major college athletics is set to institute a new revenue-sharing program with players as soon as the fall of 2025. Expenses are estimated to approach $30 million annually, and as such, programs are scrambling to find new pockets of revenue.

The SEC nearly pushed for a nine-game vote last year at its annual spring meetings in Destin. Instead, last fall, it opted to dissolve conference divisions and adopt a new eight-game schedule for the 2024 and 2025 seasons as new members Texas and Oklahoma join the conference.

Discussions were reopened earlier this month between SEC leadership and broadcast partner ESPN. The Disney-owned network communicated to SEC leaders that an additional eight games in its media package could fetch nearly $5 million per school annual, but several SEC athletic directors believe they can receive a higher payout, sources told CBS Sports.

Value could fluctuate as ESPN owns broadcast rights of all nonconference home games that might be canceled in favor of an expanded league schedule. Would Arkansas’ home game against Notre Dame in 2025 be less valuable compared to a ninth SEC game? Fewer nonconference games, depending on their strength, could drop the total additional revenue per school to less than $2 million per school, an industry source told CBS Sports.

“There’s always factors. There’s a lot more than money involved,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said. “We don’t always do things, despite what people say, for money.”

Conference scheduling was not on the agenda at this week’s SEC spring meetings, though athletic directors and presidents discussed it extensively in the hallways. Arkansas AD Hunter Yurachek has been the most vocal opponent of an expanded conference schedule, but he told 247Sports on Thursday that he is more willing to listen and potentially side with a nine-game format after recent developments.

Sankey said last year that the SEC was “awfully close” to making a decision. At the time, he hinted a vote would occur quickly. “I would prefer not to continue to circle the airport with the airplane. I’d prefer to land it,” he said last May. A simple majority was needed to pass the measure, but it never went to vote.

Among the factors the SEC is weighing is how the expanded College Football Playoff will treat leagues with nine conference games (Big Ten, Big 12) compared to those with eight (SEC, ACC). Several SEC programs have scheduled multiple nonconference games against Power Four opponents to strengthen their playoff resumes. Among them is Alabama, which will play two power-conference opponents each year for the next 10 seasons.

The expanded 12-team playoff, which beginning in 2024, will be comprised of the five highest-ranked conference champions and the next seven highest-ranked at-large teams. That model is in place through the 2025 season, but leaders are seriously considering expanding the field to 14 teams with 10 automatic qualifiers awarded to the major conferences — Big Ten (3), SEC (3), ACC (2), Big 12 (2) — and one reserved bid for the highest-ranked Group of Five champion. That would leave only three at-large selections.

“We can’t linger,” Sankey said Thursday. “We will have, at most, one data set over how the committee evaluates the 12-team playoff field selection. We’ve got five allocations to conference champions. It’s those next seven spots — in that 10, 11, 12 range — that are top of mind. I think we have the opportunity to learn a bit from that, but it’s only one data point, and it is a topic of the conversation on how we move forward.”

Further complicating matters, the CFP will likely not decide whether to expand to 14 teams and restructure its selection process until January, which means the SEC will likely also wait until the spring of 2025 to make a decision on its own schedule. Sankey joined Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark this week in support of delaying a decision until the conclusion of the first 12-team playoff in January.

“We’ve worked really hard for a good long time to get to 12 teams, and we’re excited,” said CFP board chairman Mark Keenum, who is also the president at Mississippi State. “… I know there’s a lot of talk about 14 or whatever. Well, let’s give it a chance to see how well we do with 12 and assess everything. Obviously, with all the changes going on in college athletics and football, we can assess, see how successful the playoff is over the next couple of years. And then you make some decisions.”

Should the SEC move to a nine-game league schedule, significant restructuring would need to occur with adjustments made to nonconference agreements. At least nine games spread among six SEC teams would need to be canceled to accommodate a nine-game conference schedule beginning in 2026.

Florida has scheduled four nonconference games in 2026 and built arguably the toughest schedule among its peers with three nonconference games against Power Four opponents across four of the next six seasons. Georgia, Missouri and Ole Miss have completely booked their schedules with four nonconference games in multiple years beyond 2026.

“We’ve got some time, but not a lot of time,” Sankey said. “It’s not immediate; we’ve got some more immediate issues.”