SEC MEDIA DAYS 2017: Sankey settles in
By Tim Gayle
HOOVER –Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey launched SEC Media Days 2017 with a state-of-the-conference address on the 50th anniversary of African-American involvement in SEC sports, but later found himself defending the conference’s media relationship with cable television, primarily ESPN.
With each passing year, the nation’s top conference is linked more and more with the SEC Network and ESPN, even as cable subscribers are bailing out by the millions. Sankey acted almost oblivious to the problem as he praised the network giants who have financed the broadcasting contract of the conference.
“We are continually attentive to the media landscape,” Sankey said. “We know there’s change occurring around us. We are grateful to the two media partners, both CBS and ESPN. They are different circumstances, yet they are both strong and innovative media entities. We expect both to thrive, and we expect the SEC Network to thrive.
“I just look at the reality that change is happening around us, so we’re completely attentive to that. We know that ESPN as well is attentive to that. What we’ve seen is international distribution opportunities as these new distribution methods are created. We’ve been positioned well by ESPN. So really, despite the change, there’s a lot of good news.”
Sankey came to the podium to launch SEC Media Days with a focus on the 50th anniversary of African-American involvement in conference sports, which will be observed at the 2017 SEC Championship Game in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
“It’s about people who are more than history, but people who formed our story,” Sankey said. “On Sept. 30, 1967, Nate Northington, a sophomore football student athlete at the University of Kentucky, ran on to the gridiron at Kentucky’s Stoll Field to play in the Southeastern Conference football game against the University of Mississippi, making him the first African-American to represent an SEC university.
“By playing in a football game on September 30th, 1967, Nate Northington affected us all. This network of mutuality involves more than the four football players at Kentucky, more than just one date, one sport, one team, or one university.”
Sankey went on to mention basketball player Wendell Hudson, the first African-American at Alabama, and Auburn basketball player Henry Harris, two of the pioneers at their respective institutions.
Sankey said the recent conference meetings in Destin included talks of keeping the regular season at 14 weeks – 12 regular-season games and two open dates.
“We have that on a bit of an ad-hoc basis depending on what the calendar permits,” he said. “I want to be clear about the perspective that came out of those conversations. There’s not opposition here to a 14-week season. There’s curiosity and interest.
"There are two important points that were communicated; one, we don’t want to see practice begin even earlier in the summer. There’s also an interest in keeping the number of preparatory practice opportunities (at 29). We’re open to a 14-week season, but we want to be very careful about not moving the standard for football practice even earlier into the summer.”
The length of the season, which has been a hot topic among coaches, is tied to the length of the game, which has been a topic of debate for at least a decade. Sankey said steps are being taken in that regard as well by limiting a 20-minute halftime show to 20 minutes.
“We’re working in different ways with our schools and our media partners to be intentional and focused around halftimes, making it as close to 20 minutes as can be managed,” he said. “Also, within the game itself, around certain plays, scoring plays come to mind quickly, that we move with, if you will, a sense of urgency to keep the game flowing as best we can.”
During the question-and-answer period that followed, Sankey was asked about a pair of topics. One involved the postponement of the LSU-Florida game last year because of a hurricane threat, which touched off a wave of proprietary feelings between the two schools on the subject of rescheduling the game at a later date.
“We didn’t have a policy as a conference once you move past game day,” Sankey said. “That has to be the authority of the commissioner to designate the (makeup) game day. The membership voted — both our athletics directors and our presidents unanimously — to say the conference commissioner has the authority to place that game.
“We also had a couple pieces of policy that set the expectation that all eight conference games be played in order to be eligible for the conference championship, the two key policy changes to say explicitly, it’s no longer about two schools agreeing, it’s about the commissioner having the authority to designate when the game may be played.”
On an off-season topic, Sankey dismissed any conversation generated over the past couple of months about the possibility of Auburn moving to the SEC East, noting, “it is a conversation in most large press conferences in which I appear and that’s the extent of the conversation.”