Regardless of how Monday night’s national championship game plays out, there’s already one clear winner: the Southeastern Conference.
Two SEC titans, Alabama and Georgia, face off in Indianapolis in the final college football game of the season. It is the seventh straight year that at least one SEC team has played for the title, and the conference, whose motto is, “It Just Means More,” will have won five of those championships.
The SEC’s show of force on the field—both Alabama and Georgia won their semifinals in blowout fashion—is reflected in the league’s financial prowess. The SEC reported $729 million in total revenue in fiscal 2020, slightly less than the Big Ten’s $769 million, but roughly $200 million more than the next closest conference.
That gap will likely widen moving forward. The SEC shocked college sports last summer when it agreed to add Texas and Oklahoma, two of the country’s richest and most prominent non-SEC programs, at some point in the next few years. That came on the heels of a new $3 billion TV deal with ESPN, the largest in college sports and a five-fold increase over the average annual payment from its current CBS deal. The conference will also be a prime beneficiary when the NCAA ratifies a new constitution later this month that grants individual divisions (and likely conferences) more autonomy when it comes to rules and their enforcement.
That new TV deal alone will put the conference around $1 billion in annual revenue, right around the total brought in yearly by the NCAA. The eventual addition of Texas and Oklahoma will further accelerate that growth. And as many in college football circles discuss the long-term possibility of a “Super League”-style breakaway, some are wondering if the SEC has already achieved that status.
“Everybody believes that SEC is the best conference in college football,” Alabama defensive back Derion Kendrick told reporters last week. “Everybody is going to enjoy this game: great teams, great coaches and always have great players. And it’s also SEC.”
An analysis of data from Sportico’s Intercollegiate Finances Database reveals that the majority of the sport’s financial powerhouses will reside in the SEC following the upcoming conference realignment, if it isn’t the case already. The median football budget among SEC public schools was $41.4 million in the 2019-20 season, exceeding the Big Ten’s median of $36 million by more than $5 million and that of every other conference by nearly $10 million.
Alabama spent more on football than every public school other than Florida State, while Georgia ranked ninth. In total, there are nine SEC schools in the Top 20, 11 if you count future members Texas and Oklahoma.
SEC programs have bigger football budgets, but they also earn a lot more. In both 2018-19 and 2019-20, six of the country’s top 12 public schools in total football revenue and five of the top 12 in profits were from the SEC. Those numbers rise to eight out of 12 and seven out of 12, respectively, if counting Texas and Oklahoma.
The SEC’s growing dominance comes amid major changes in the economics of college sports. In June the NCAA lost a landmark Supreme Court case that will free schools to provide uncapped educational benefits for its athletes. (SEC member Ole Miss is already distributing $3,000 checks to any athlete in good academic standing). One month later, college athletes were granted marketing rights, also known as NIL, that allow them to be paid for product endorsements, advertising spots and autograph sessions.
Those two major changes are already benefiting the sport’s richest and most successful programs, which are able to utilize their deep-pocketed alumni, national brand recognition and massive annual football profits to provide more for athletes than they have in the past. The NCAA’s new constitution will likely have a similar effect.
One more change that will likely aid the SEC: an expanded College Football Playoff. Conference commissioners spent much of 2021 discussing possible formats, with a 12-team playoff as the likely next step. The SEC had three teams in the final Top 12 this season, four in 2020, four in 2019, and five in 2018.