In 1991, eight years after beginning his one-man New Hampshire law practice that had come to focus exclusively on NCAA issues, Mike Slive accepted his first commissioner's job, as head of the Midwest Conference. Successful as a commissioner of that league, four years later, Slive accepted an offer to become inaugural commissioner of the newly formed Conference USA. And seven years after that, in 2002, Slive became commissioner of the SEC, replacing Roy Kramer. At the time, the SEC was bringing in $27.7 million in revenue, a little over $2 million from television and bowl revenues were redistributed to each team.
By 2010, the eighth year of Slive's tenure, the SEC would redistribute $209 million in revenue, just north of $17 million per team. While 2010 would mark the 29th consecutive year that the SEC led college football in attendance, what was the primary reason for the extraordinary growth in league revenue of 800 percent in just eight years?
One word: television.
But how did Slive make it happen? How did he lead the SEC to the richest payday in the history of college sports?
The plan began two years before the SEC's television contract expired. Slive, the boy who'd grown up listening to New York Giants games on the radio in an era before televised sports, began planning for the sell of the SEC's television rights by paying close attention to the Mountain West's deal, the Big Ten's decision to start its own network and the NFL's launch of its own network. The decisions made by those three leagues left the SEC with a fundamental question to answer: whether the league wanted to follow the Big Ten's lead and form an SEC Network or enter into an agreement with an existing network to carry its games.
This issue was complicated by the local multimedia rights retained by the individual SEC universities. This was an issue that the Big Ten didn't have when that league chose to form its own network. "The Big Ten back in the 1980s, for whatever reason, all the television was ceded to the conference," Slive said. "Whereas in the SEC, although the conference had the ability to take first pick (of televised football games) and then what was not taken (by the networks) could be utilized by what we'll call local multimedia packages, those packages (the SEC's local multimedia) had been built up and had substantial value for many of our institutions."
The local multimedia rights, which in conjunction with retained bowl money, led to every school in the conference "well exceed(ing) $20 million per team" in bowl and television revenue. As a practical matter, many of the larger schools were left with much more money than than for their local multimedia packages. That's additional television and bowl money that is already included in the BIg Ten's payout to its teams, money that the league never takes in the SEC. As the conference set out to craft a new television deal the goal was nothing less than nationwide domination, manifeSECt destiny.But how would the league do that? Ultimately Slive and the SEC determined they needed to satisfy four major objectives to meet their goal with a new television deal: "One would be obviously equity," Slive says. "Two was the ability to have academic programming. Three was that we would have the ability to brand ourselves in a way that was positive. Four, we could take care of all our sports."
As Slive and his team at the SEC prepared to enter negotiations, they began to believe they might be able to "have our cake (keep the local multimedia packages) and eat it too (partner with ESPN)," Slive says. Aided in negotiation by recently departed former ESPN vice president Chuck Gerber, who Slive says provided invaluable knowledge for the league, ESPN and CBS ponied up the largest rights fee in college sports history. Over the 15 years of the deal, the SEC would net $2.25 billion from ESPN and $825 million from CBS, over three billion dollars combined. "They addressed them all (the conference's four goals), and," Slive smiles like a cheshire cat, "the revenue was robust."
"So we were able in the final analysis to accomplish what we would have accomplished by starting our own network and have the guaranteed revenue and the enormous distribution taken care of," Slive says. "Remember the Big Ten had to, and still has to, fight those distribution battles with its network."
In fact, there was only one small concern about the deal, would the nation's cable operators embrace ESPNU? At the time of the deal, ESPNU was only in 23 million homes. Slive worried that if ESPNU wasn't available everywhere that SEC fans would revolt. The 11:30 central/12:30 eastern kickoff that had traditionally been televised only in the regional footprint of the SEC would now, theoretically, be available anywhere in the country.
But first ESPNU's distribution had to grow. And here the business minds at ESPN behaved intelligently, gambling that the cachet of SEC sports, in particular the 13 Saturday football games, would lead to such a groundswell of demand that the nation's cable operators would capitulate and add the network to their channel packages.
And they did.
"We were the major catalyst for ESPNU moving from 23 million homes to 73 million homes in one year," says Slive.
What's more, the deal with ESPN offered a significant boost to the conference's basketball television deal. "In basketball, we were woefully underexposed," Slive says. "Now every single conference game is on."
But it wasn't just football and basketball. ESPN also committed to televising a whopping 5,500 SEC events over the 15 year life of the contract, an average of nearly 367 events a year. Last year, the first of the television deal, ESPN held up its end of the bargain, televising 380 SEC events.
Slive also emphasized another aspect of the negotiation that he believed had received limited attention. "As part of the new deal, any game that was ever on ESPN or CBS, we own the copyright. And the copyright going forward," Slive says. As a result the SEC has embarked upon an ambitious plan to create a virtual network, one that exists entirely in cyberspace and will allow historical games to be streamed directly to computers and hand-held devices across the nation.
Already, per Slive, the SEC had the second-most trafficked iPhone sports application in the country last year. (ESPN was first.) Now the advanced digital packages offer a bevy of new opportunities to reach consumers who are not yet sated with SEC product. All of this fiscal success, combined with an unparalleled on-field winning percentage meant that the SEC had won the race to conference domination by the end of the first decade of the 21st century.
As Slive said in his address to the league media, "Our goal was to make the the SEC the nation's most widely distributed conference. We succeeded."
But how would the rest of the college sports world react to the SEC becoming the masters of the collegiate sports universe?
Cue this summer's expansion fever, a fever that many believed was brought on by the other conference's desire to catch and surpass the SEC. As the Pac 10, the Big Ten, and the Big 12 dashed frantically across the nation's landscape, Slive and the SEC maintained a low profile.
In fact, Slive seemed to relish his role during the expansion imbroglio, that of a latter day Aesop, stocking his public commentary with fables and aphorisms that offered limited indication of what was to come next. By late July of 2010, Slive acknowledges his fascination with the realignment talk that swept across the summer months. He shifts in his seat, grips his navy-clad knee, leans over, a professor fully intent on sharing his own inscrutable logic.
"Our goal," says Slive, speaking slowly and with the precision of a lawyer at oral argument, "whether we were proactive or not, was the status quo unless there was a paradigm shift. Of course the right question (after that) is: what is a paradigm shift? We were prepared to do what we needed to do to react -- I guess is the right word -- to what might be a paradigm shift. Now whether one conference in the far west is a paradigm shift, that's an interesting discussion we could have."
He pauses, leans forward.
"Maybe, maybe not."
He pauses again, wrinkles his brow, a judge in mock contemplation, as if he has just been confronted with an unexpected query.
"Maybe, maybe not."
"And people say well why do you have to change, and that's a good question too. And my answer is the old axiom, you have two choices in life, you either move forward or you move backward, and it's (conference expansion) probably as much a perception issue as it would be anything else."
Slive pauses and smiles, delighting in his verbal wordplay, the delicate dance of a lawyer's tongue. "Is it an analogy to say that we were a little like a duck? On the surface we were very quiet, careful, deliberate, and underneath we were working."
He claps his hands together, a childlike glee. "That was expansion," he says.
Despite the duck-like profile of the SEC, Oklahoma president David Boren said Slive and the SEC had extended offers to both Oklahoma and Texas A&M during the summer's expansion courtship. Was this the metaphorical movement of the ducks feet beneath the water? When asked about this, Slive plays coy. "I read that," says Slive. "I didn't respond." Asked to respond now, Slive smiles, "My only response would be, I don't know if I've ever seen an issue like this. I mean have you ever seen an issue where there's been more written about than that? Oh, it was great. It got the nation's attention in a way in which that probably even struck you guys (media). So my answer to your question is that a lot of it was accurate and a lot of it was inaccurate."
Once more, the SEC's own Aesop, grins, eyes disappearing into his face.
Slive's reticence notwithstanding, for a few months it seemed like Texas would be the next state to join the SEC footprint. Asked whether he believes the SEC would at some point in the future expand into the state of Texas, Slive replies, "The honest answer is, I don't know. I don't want to speculate. I'll tell you one thing though, you were with us in Destin (for the SEC spring meetings). I was really gratified and struck by the discussion of our presidents, AD's and coaches, all separately, about how they feel about our league. They feel the way I feel about our league...They feel very good about it and they really were not interested in change of that nature.
Finally, asked if he believes the University of Texas was cowardly for not joining the SEC, Slive dodges the question. "One of the things I won't do, and don't do, is I never put myself in somebody else's head and try to think about how they think," he says. "But I was driving home listening to Paul's (Finebaum's radio) show. And you were on and somebody wanted to punch you out for saying that."
And just like that, Mike Slive, the former meat cutter, had deftly diced up my expansion questions and turned them back onto me. The duck was still paddling furiously beneath the surface, but he was betraying no reaction above the water.
Coming Thursday: Part 3, where Slive discusses a certain departed coach he refuses to mention by name.