John Clay: Nine-game SEC football schedule best but not likely solution

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 30, 2012 

When not working on their tans, the SEC powers-that-be at the Spring Meetings in Destin, Fla., this week are working the Rubik's Cube that is the league's football scheduling format in this new age of expansion.

Reports say Friday is the reveal date when Commissioner Mike Slive will probably announce a balky 6-1-1 scheduling configuration.

Here's what the SEC should do: Play nine conference football games.

That isn't going to happen, of course. One more conference game means one fewer cream puff on the menu and one additional chance of another "L" on the record.

League athletic directors aren't in the business of making it tougher for their overpaid coaches. They are in the business of vetting victories.

To that end, however, the league has seen one important number fall as another important number rises.

SEC attendance is down 1.3 percent since the league set a national record in 2008. That figure is tickets sold, not the head count of those actually in the seats. Just because a game is listed as a sellout doesn't mean every seat or parking space or concession-line spot is filled.

Television is the main reason. There are more televised games and more choices than ever before. The TVs themselves are bigger and better, with superior picture quality and theater-level sound.

Not everyone will actually show up to watch State U. play Directional Tech when fans can sit in the comfort of their living room, eat a hamburger that costs less than $8 and have the option of checking in on better games around the dial.

Moreover, while crowd figures are creeping downward, the price of so-called "guarantee" games continues up. Once upon a time, a couple of hundred thousand dollars enticed an outmanned marshmallow into an expected beating. That figure now bumps up against seven figures.

Non-BCS leagues know they have the BCS schools over a barrel when it comes to non-return games and they are using the leverage to their monetary advantage.

A nine-game SEC football schedule would cut down on those problems. League games are better attended than the normal non-conference bores. Plus, members don't have to pay other members to visit campus. It's in the bylaws.

Naysayers say a nine-game conference schedule would unfairly have some teams playing five league home games while others played four. Who said football was fair? Besides, the inequity would even out the next season when the host sites flip.

Naysayers say a ninth conference game would hurt teams like Kentucky, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, who are usually fighting tooth-and-nail to reach bowl eligibility. Perhaps, but it would also help coffers by adding another watchable foe to the guest list.

A ninth league game would also add much-needed variety.

The expected 6-1-1 scheduling format means schools would play the six foes in their division, plus one "permanent" foe from the other division — UK is expected to keep Mississippi State — plus one opposite-division school on a rotating basis.

That means eight opponents will be locked in to UK's schedule each season. The same six from the East and Mississippi State from the West would be joined by annual rival Louisville.

Only four games would change from year to year. Three of those promise to be the likes of Kent State, Western Kentucky and Samford — teams on the 2012 slate.

No wonder the word is UK's season packages for 2012 are not exactly flying out the ticket office door.

The Pac-12 has played a nine-game league schedule since 2006. The Big 12 played nine league games last year. Talk persists once Pittsburgh and Syracuse enter, the ACC will expand to a nine-game slate. And, starting in 2017, each Big Ten team will play an annual game against a Pac-12 team.

The SEC trumps the football played in any of those conferences. It has the national titles to prove it. The league didn't stand pat when it came to expansion. It should expand its conference schedule, as well.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226.Blog: Twitter: @johnclayiv.

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