The SEC doesn't own the Playoff, but it does own something else
It's not a conspiracy. It's a story.
This century’s dominant college football conspiracy theory is about collusion between the SEC, ESPN, and College Football Playoff selection committee. It broke contain from message boards and social media long ago, and U.S. senator Rick Scott nodded to it this week when he demanded that committee turn over "any emails, text messages or other written communication exchanged between members of the Selection Committee and individuals affiliated with ESPN.”
The theory: ESPN (or parent Disney) owns the exclusive broadcasting rights to the Playoff. ESPN is also in business with the SEC, and getting deeper into it all the time as it makes the SEC the cornerstone of its college sports programming. Given this financial entanglement, Mickey Mouse pressures the Playoff committee to boost SEC teams (specifically Alabama), or committee members prop up the SEC on their own to curry favor with the TV sugar daddy that pays hundreds of millions of dollars a year for the right to air the games.
I have laughed at ideas along this line. Recently:
No laughing anymore! Florida State isn’t playing in the Playoff, and a less deserving Alabama will take its place. My opinion aged as well as a turd on a blacktop in July.
Yet I hold strong on the frontline of a pointless army—defending an entertainment conglomerate, some bureaucrats, and college sports administrators from charges of playing dirty pool.
There have been worse theories than that of the SECSPN-Playoff cabal. But I don’t think pro-SEC meddling from ESPN or Playoff fat cats got Bama its spot. There are too many holes:
The Playoff does not make more money because the SEC has a team in the field. The Playoff gets a set annual amount of money from ESPN. It’s about $470 million, which it mostly sends back to conferences. That figure does not go up or down depending on who’s in the field. Would ESPN be inclined to bid more on the Playoff in the next media-rights cycle if every game gets maximal ratings? Maybe a bit, in a vacuum. But ESPN will bid anyway to stay involved with the Playoff, and other suitors will push the price up. Sports rights are expensive, and when big companies model out big expenses years in advance, they understand that the participants in their sports TV inventory will vary. Fox CEO and real-life Succession character Lachlan Murdoch was pissed when the Rangers and Diamondbacks produced a poorly rated World Series this year, but nobody thinks Fox is going to stop paying for MLB games as a result. “That’s how the cookie crumbles,” as Murdoch put it on a recent earnings call. And Florida State has a huge fanbase anyway. In this analogy, they aren’t a small-market MLB team. Maybe Alabama is the Yankees or Red Sox, but FSU is what? The Braves? The Noles command lots of people with remote controls, as they like to remind the rest of the ACC.
The juice is not worth the squeeze for ESPN, either. Yeah, ESPN is about to pay the SEC billions of dollars. Yeah, ESPN would like SEC teams to remain established among the most valuable properties in sports media. Alabama not getting to play in one Rose Bowl wasn’t going to compromise that and certainly wasn’t going to compromise it enough to justify going to war with another TV partner, the ACC, and opening up a mystery box of legal exposure. ESPN cares about the SEC more than the ACC, but the Mouse would rather not get into a major fight with a conference that co-runs a TV channel with it. Because the ACC comes fairly cheap and generates pay-TV carriage fees via the ACC Network at a moment of ballooning sports rights fees and enormous losses on streaming, ESPN should care about that relationship a lot.
Why would the committee members participate in this scheme? Chairman Boo Corrigan is an ACC athletic director at NC State. There’s only one SEC-affiliated member on the whole committee (Kentucky AD Mitch Barnhart). Are the committee members all on the take? Do they seem cunning enough to launder kickback money?
So, no. It’s not a conspiracy. I think what really happened is less of a caper but more instructive about how college sports work.