The SEC’s attempt to play football is a risk-reward proposition in a supreme sense

SEC Trophy

The term “risk-reward calculation” is familiar to us. It often carries an ordinary degree of weight in ordinary circumstances, such as the “risk-reward” of going for it on fourth and two from midfield in the second quarter of a 10-10 game.

By Matt Zemek

The risk-reward dimensions of the SEC playing college football are severe, and enormous, and not to be minimized in any way.

Georgia playerThe risk: An athlete or coach could endure severe health effects — short- or long-term — from COVID-19. That would be a very high cost for playing college football in a pandemic, without a vaccine.

The reward: If the SEC can pull off a season without any major health incidents, it stands to gain a great deal relative to the Big Ten and boost its national profile.

If you are noticing the changes and uncertainties of high school football across the country, you are likely aware of the reality that with California shutting down high school football for the fall, some high school athletes in California are considering a high school transfer to other states which are playing high school football in the fall. If that kind of movement is occurring at the high school level, imagine what will happen if the SEC pulls off its season successfully.

Players from Big Ten and Pac-12 schools are going to transfer to SEC schools (plus the Big 12 and ACC if those other conferences also play football and do so successfully this fall). High school prospects, if choosing among — let’s say — Ohio State, USC, and Alabama, are more likely to choose Alabama or any other SEC school after seeing the conference dramas of the past few weeks. The SEC could gain a great deal that way.

Harrison SmithThere is another way the SEC could substantially separate itself from the Big Ten and Pac-12: money. The SEC is already doing really well in terms of money, but the Big Ten has been comparable in terms of its revenue. The Big Ten can survive a year without football, but if it goes without football while the SEC plays a successful season, not only will the SEC’s reputation grow; its war chest will grow while the Big Ten could lose out on a lot of money.

As the conferences wrestle with various legal and contractual matters, the possibility that the SEC, Big 12, and ACC could play games while the Big Ten and Pac-12 stay home could undercut the Big Ten’s (and the Pac-12’s) potential legal argument that there was no realistic way to play games.

The Big Ten and Pac-12 surely hope that the constraints of the pandemic and the limitations imposed by political and medical considerations will enable those two leagues — despite bailing on fall football — to collect most of their media rights fees and other revenue sources they were counting on. Yet, if the SEC, Big 12, and ACC all carry off a football season without severe incident, the Big Ten/Pac-12 argument looks a lot weaker. The SEC wouldn’t just pocket its own television money; it would deny the Big Ten a large sum of money as well.

Reputation; an even larger share of the elite recruiting pool; a wider and positive difference in revenue — these are all things the SEC could gain, both by itself and relative to the Big Ten, if it plays a season.

Even one athlete dying would be a horrendous, supremely dark tragedy, a moment the SEC could never live down.

A season played without a severe health episode connected to COVID-19 would be a massive and memorable triumph which could never be forgotten; it would — if it happens — be remembered as one of the greatest moments in SEC history.

Should the SEC play? Should the SEC stop? Those questions are being wrestled with, and to his credit, SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey is exercising due caution by not immediately quitting but just as carefully not assuming a season will obviously happen without a hitch.

The point being made: While the decision is wrestled with, the stakes attached to getting it right are massive. It’s a lot to take in, at an unprecedented moment in America’s existence.

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