With the current professional football lockout creating confusion for everyone involved, the Southeastern Conference position remains very clear – don’t look our way.
If the National Football League can’t resolve its labor issues, all signs point to the highly-acclaimed league, which markets itself as the most dominant conference in all of Division 1 college football, not being interested at all in filing potential television time slots left open on Sundays.
“I’ve been around this conference for a long time and I would be shocked if that ever happened,” Larry Templeton, SEC consultant for television matters, said.
Templeton, who was the director of athletics at Mississippi State from 1987-2007, said the feeling he gets inside the conference office in Birmingham, Ala., is despite the perceived increase in exposure and obvious financial benefits to making such a similar move for other conferences, there’s still two days in the weekly calendar that considered sacred: Fridays and Sundays.
“I just don’t believe the Southeastern Conference would consider a proposal that touches playing college football on either of those two days,” Templeton said. “This conference has always maintained that in this part of the country Friday nights belongs to high school football and what Sunday represents for people goes without saying.”
In the summer of 2008, the SEC has signed a 15-year deal with ESPN reportedly worth more than $2 billion to televise sporting events, including football and men's and women's basketball.
SEC officials confirmed to the Starkville Daily News that any network, whether it’s ESPN or the past contract the league has with CBS for its spotlight game of the week, asking conference football games to be played on a Sunday would be a violation of the agreed upon contract and would have to be approved by a majority of school presidents and athletic directors.
“It’s important people understand the contract only specifies the league must play two Thursday night games per year and the rest of the games are specifically to be played at some time of the day on Saturday,” Templeton said.
SEC commissioner Mike Slive has publicly said the league would not actively look for prime television spots for college football on any days other than Saturday and the recently successful Thursday evening time slot.
“No, we haven’t talked about it,” Slive told the Mobile (Ala.) Press-Register in April. “We’ve got a lot of tradition. It’s the hallmark of this league. We play on Saturday for the most part. Whether or not we would adjust, no one has said a word to me about that and certainly we’re not going to take the initiative.”
When asked about the issue, Mississippi State athletics director Scott Stricklin agreed with Slive in not seeing a benefit for the league and specifically his school diverting from tradition and also attempting to play a televised noon conference game on Sunday in such a religiously-based part of the country.
“There would be a real compelling reason with some benefit that I’m certainly not aware of right now to do something like that,” Stricklin said. “I don’t know if just filling the gap that’s being vacated by pro football is a just reason in of itself to do that.”
ESPN officials continue to maintain a position that the network believes the NFL will eventually work out its labor negotiations and form a collective bargaining agreement before any games on the schedule are impacted.
“We are optimistic that everything will get resolved,” ESPN spokesperson Keri Potts said. “We are evaluating a number of alternate programming scenarios to minimize the impact of potential lost games.”
At least one other power conference sounds willing to discuss at least the potential of participating in Sunday college football games this fall if given the opportunity – the Pac 12.
ESPN and the newly-formed Pac-12 Conference reached a 12-year agreement earlier this month for extensive conference action across multiple ESPN platforms beginning with the 2012-13 season and continuing through 2024-25.
“Understand you have apples and oranges here and you can’t compare this deal with the one (the SEC) signed last year just because it’s the same broadcast network,” Templeton said. “In many ways, they are vastly different.”
The deal will deliver more than 80 Pac-12 events each year, highlighted by more football games than the previous agreement, including new Saturday night 9:30 p.m. telecasts along with the Pac-12 Football Championship Game every other year.
The formation of this new contract has Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott investigating the possibility of his league being open to filling the spot in place of the NFL if there’s an extended work stoppage.
“We certainly are monitoring the situation,” Scott told Rivals.com. “We have no plans in place at this time, but you want to be prepared and consider all options. Still, these labor situations have a way of getting done the closer they get to a critical situation.”
The NFL has not had a labor strike that affected regular season games since 1987 when league officials used replacement players for a month-long stretch of the season but that scenario, which failed to grab acceptable attendance and television ratings 24 years ago, seems like a less viable option in 2011.
One of the biggest open minds to the Pac-12 playing football on Sundays is an individual that State fans are extremely familiar with in University of Arizona athletics director Greg Byrne. Byrne, who was the AD at MSU from 2008-10, compared it to playing games on Thursday night – something certain schools in the SEC have warmly embraced.
“Thursday night football hasn’t been around forever, and we adjusted to that," Byrne said. "Sunday is a day a lot of people watch football. You would get good exposure but Sunday games would be something we would have to think long and hard about before we jumped into.”
The SEC and most specifically Mississippi State have been more than open to help fill one of the required Thursday night slots nearly every season with the Bulldogs having played 43 contests on that day of the week, including a six-year stretch when the Egg Bowl rivalry game against Ole Miss was broadcasted on ESPN every Thanksgiving evening from 1998-2003.
“We adjust to (the schedule) and we’ll always play a Thursday night game because I think it’s really neat being in the game of football having everybody in the profession watching your game.” Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen said.
The argument could be made that MSU has been forced to carry the burden on the Thursday night requirement while other SEC schools have been less interested in participating in putting a single game of their 13-game season in the middle of the week.
“I think it’s safe to say certain schools in the league initially had no desire to play on Thursday and immediately other schools in the league, like Mississippi State, understood the value of the exposure element,” Templeton said. “Because of that, I believe more schools in the league would be more willing for the opportunity.”
While not being interested in filling the Sunday void, those in the college football circles monitoring the situation in professional football from afar are still convinced both identities will have its games played on both days of the weekend.
“I hope they get it all sorted out so the guys that leave these college programs don’t have to stop playing for at least a year,” Mullen said. “That wouldn’t benefit anybody in the game of football.”