With Mike Slive moving up the time table for his transition out as commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, Greg Sankey is set to take over the driving duties on Monday. Before we begin to talk about Sankey’s tenure, we need to first consider the juggernaut legacy that Slive is leaving in Birmingham. From there, we’ll consider Sankey’s qualifications and then move on to three major landscape changes that Sankey is expected to preside over in the next decade. Slive’s departure marks the end of the halcyon days of the SEC. Sankey is expected to have neither favorable winds nor following seas during his tenure. Such is the nature of the beast. The question is: does Commissioner Sankey have the chops for what’s coming?
Let’s tackle this logically.
Start with the SEC as it is today–the most all-around successful conference in all sports from both men and women. The conference parity is also incredible; in most sports where the SEC succeeds, it’s often alongside other SEC schools. Take softball for instance; 5 teams out of the final 8 are SEC schools! An entire side of the bracket is exclusively occupied by the SEC. That is unbelievable. Yes, softball is an extreme example, but the conference is well represented in most sports’ postseasons–often by several teams. This is not an accident. It is a direct result of strong governance and growth led by the commissioner’s office, Commissioner Slive specifically.
In his 13 years as commissioner, Mike Slive oversaw immense growth in the athletic achievement of the SEC. Under Slive, SEC schools achieved National Titles in 18 discrete sports (in descending order):
- Women’s Gymnastics (11)
- Men’s Indoor Track (9)
- Women’s Swimming and Diving (9)
- Football (8)
- Women’s Indoor Track (6)
- Men’s Swimming and Diving (6)
- Women’s Outdoor Track (5)
- Men’s Outdoor Track (4)
- Women’s Tennis (4)
- Baseball (4)
- Men’s Basketball (3)
- Men’s Golf (3)
- Softball (2)
- Men’s Tennis (2)
- Women’s Basketball (2)
- Women’s Golf (1)
- Women’s Bowling (1)
- Women’s Rifle (1)
All data above courtesy of Wikipedia
Mathematically, the total number of possible national titles in these sports during Slive’s tenure is 234 (13 years, 18 sports). The SEC tallied 81 national titles during this time, for a winning percentage of 34% across the board. This means the odds on the SEC winning ANY national title in sports the conference sponsored under Slive was a whopping 2:1. Those odds are certainly higher than any other individual conference can muster–in fairness, though the SEC still has more in the sports that it competes in, not all conferences compete nationally in the same sports so the results are not directly comparable. The calculation also assumes that the sports listed above were recognized nationally all 13 years, which isn’t the case. The conference has also added sports under Slive, so keep in mind that the data above is illustrative, but quite incomplete. Still, its incompleteness by statistical standards notwithstanding, the notion that the SEC won one out of every three national titles they played in under Slive is nothing short of amazing, and it shows the size of the boot that Sankey will now have to fill.
The athletic accomplishment under Slive has been impressive, but it pales in comparison to the success the conference achieved by launching the ESPN-backed SEC Network. In the eyes of many, the rich got richer with the network’s launch. No longer would television coverage be relegated to just the conference’s revenue sports and major tournaments. The SEC Network broadcasts nearly every sport listed above throughout the year, in addition to broadcasting major games for the revenue sports as well. The SEC divvies up revenue at year end, and at this past week’s meeting in Destin, the conference announced that each full member’s share would be $31.2MM, with a large chunk of this coming from the revenue generated by the network.
Finally, the most seminal of events under Slive was the passage of governance from the NCAA proper to the Power 5 conferences (SEC, ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12). Over the past two years, Slive and company have laid the bylaw infrastructure–with the help of the Presidents and ADs of the SEC–to establish a strong framework for future self governance. This is where Greg Sankey comes in. Slive has not moved independent of the rest of his executive committee in all this. Greg Sankey has been instrumental in the establishment of rules and standards coincidental to the responsibility of self-governance. Sankey has been the executive associate commissioner of the conference since 2012. He and Slive were basically the dynamic duo, and you would be crazy to think that the commissioner-select job wasn’t Sankey’s to lose.
This brings us to the person that is Greg Sankey. A couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece about him winning at Twitter thanks to his accessibility and willingness to interact with fans. My assessment has not changed, Greg Sankey gets it. At his heart, he is the SEC’s biggest fan; and that is the best news ever for the future of the conference. However, being a fan isn’t all that it takes to be a good commissioner–if it were, I would be on an executive committee. Sankey has past experience in the big chair with the Southland Conference and has over 20 years experience administering major college athletics. He is very well positioned to successfully assume the extensive duties as conference commissioner–read his bio here.
Now, I mentioned earlier that Greg Sankey is inheriting a stormy forecast for the future of his conference. This is not anything he has orchestrated, and it is not something that Slive screwed up that he now has to deal with. The collegiate landscape is shifting beneath our feet. Let’s talk about three major issues that Sankey will likely preside over in his first decade as commissioner.
Pay for Players
With the SEC raking in unprecedented revenue from the SEC Network, and the court decision allowing private school athletes to unionize, it’s become clear that structured pay for athletes is coming down the pike. The SEC is now able to self-govern and has approved a cost of attendance stipend to players along with added benefits for player family members for travel to games. The issue at hand is that the demand for players to profit from their likeness and to be outright compensated to play. Consider professional athletics. The players make the millions of dollars that they do not because they’re worth that amount of money to our society, but because they deserve to be compensated commensurate with the amount of money they make for their teams. You pay the entertainment what it is worth. These days, the players playing the revenue sports are the entertainment. Pay is coming, and the SEC will be looked at for precedent. Sankey will have some difficult decisions to make when the time comes.
Let’s face it, the NFL has a terrible culture for players. This culture is just an amplification of the culture of sport further up the line. The SEC has taken major strides with this past meeting to address the culture of violence towards women by not allowing transfers in that have been disciplined for such crimes. Again, since the SEC is looked at as the first among equals of the Power 5, the leadership in this area will fall to Sankey and his committees. However, the difficulty facing Sankey is that the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy has been a tremendous failure, and he should have no interest in becoming the next Goodell. He will need to find a way to balance strong discipline with the rights of the athletes. Obviously, no such policy can make everyone happy, but the SEC will pioneer this change and set the precedents to be followed by its sister conferences. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, and make no mistake, the SEC wears the crown.
Power 5 Conference Fracturing and “Grey Area” Violations
The SEC has seen this already rear its ugly head with the Satellite Camp issue. The Big 10–another self-governing conference–has a certain set of governing rules surrounding recruitment at camps that are not completely consistent with the SEC. The recent SEC meeting has voted to reconcile this rule with competing conferences so as to remove any disadvantage. However, this points to yet another major unresolved issue. The NCAA has decided to wash its hands of the day to day administration and regulation of the major conferences–though its overarching bylaws still take precedent. Think of the NCAA as the Federal government and the Power 5 conferences as the State. Like in government, the conferences cannot make rules that fall on the wrong side of the NCAA rule, but they can make rules that are more restrictive. As you can imagine, this could–read: will–lead to jockeying between conferences to create conference advantages without breaking the rules. As these conferences come into their own over the next ten years, it will become evident that a Power 5 Board of Governors will need to be established to make practices consistent among the conferences. This likely will lead to essentially creating a new national authority geared solely to the interests of the constituent conferences.
Over the next decade, Sankey’s leadership will be absolutely crucial to the survival of college athletics as we know it today. He will oversee an explosion of exposure for his conference, especially in women’s athletics. The growth and change of the collegiate athletic landscape will be one hell of a storm over the next ten years. Despite this, the SEC could not have a better man in place to weather the storm. As of Monday, Sankey will be the most powerful person in the most powerful conference. He will have his work cut out for him; but, I can’t imagine anyone told him the job would be easy.
Still, he certainly seems up to the challenge.
Good Luck, Commissioner Sankey. And, please don’t quit Twitter.