Posted: 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, May 8, 2013
At the conference meetings in May, the SEC will discuss the nine-game schedule again. Mike Slive is sticking to his guns that the SEC Network will in no way factor into the decision, but rather it largely will hinge on the expected value of strength of schedule in the upcoming playoff.
If that's all there is to it, I fully expect the league's leaders to leave Destin with the eight-game schedule intact. I really don't think strength of schedule is going to be as big a factor in playoff selection as a lot of people are making it out to be. If the playoff is all there is to the deliberations, then there's no reason for the SEC to expand the conference slate preemptively.
There is another factor that no one is really talking about that might lead us towards a nine-game schedule after all. Washington AD Scott Woodward, who has previously worked at LSU, told Bruce Feldman last week that there could be something else that drives the SEC to add another league game:
"I think what's probably going to drive them to nine is the better question. I think it's gate [attendance]," he said. "Their fan bases are not going to want to see lesser games. They're going to want to see more competitive games."
We already know that ADs are getting very concerned about attendance. Anecdotally, it seems like crowds at cupcake games are getting progressively smaller even at the largest schools. Implementing a ninth conference game would be one way to get another high attendance game on the slate.
Even with the pressure for keeping ticket sales up, I still wouldn't be surprised to see the eight-game schedule stand. Running the SEC sometimes seems like an exercise of herding cats, and every school has its own projections and priorities. Some schools won't want to lose a home game every other year, and they'll argue that anyone who is afraid of losing money at the gate on cupcakes should just go out and find a major non-conference opponent to play.
Besides, we're still at a point where falling attendance could still plausibly be a result of the down economy and weak recovery. The US remains mired in the worst economic environment since the Great Depression. Slive's SEC usually takes a wait-and-see approach about most things (see: conference networks), so I suspect a nine-game schedule born for financial and attendance reasons will remain off in the future. If attendance doesn't rebound across the board once the economy finally perks up a bit more, then discussions along these lines will heat up. It will always be easier to add a game than to take it away, after all.
It's still worth noting that flagging attendance in games against I-AA and Sun Belt opponents could lead to a larger conference schedule in the future. There are all kinds of reasons why the SEC might go to nine games for football, and if it ever happens, it'll probably be a combination of them driving the decision.