Florida’s Billy Donovan and other SEC coaches think that ESPN’s 15-year deal to broadcast SEC games is favoring the conference’s elite schools, like No. 1-ranked Kentucky, and hurting all the other ones.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — When the Southeastern Conference signed a 15-year contract with ESPN, basketball coaches applauded the deal because it provided more coverage, more exposure and more money.
Nearly four years later, several of the league’s most tenured coaches have found a problem.
Florida’s Billy Donovan, Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings and others are questioning the league’s unbalanced schedule involving Thursday-Saturday games.
The league added the short turnarounds under the new contract, giving it another night to showcase its teams. Coaches figured those games would be divvied equally between everyone. Instead, it appears top-ranked Kentucky is getting a favorable draw.
The Wildcats don’t have a Thursday-Saturday setup this season, but they play four Saturday games against teams coming off Thursday-night tips.
“Whether it’s a coincidence or not, there needs to be a level of balance with what everybody else is doing,” Donovan said. “Right now, if our league is trying to create an opportunity to get as many teams in the NCAA Tournament as possible, don’t put teams in a competitive disadvantage and not take care of your own.”
Kentucky has played twice on one day’s rest since the SEC’s schedule tweaks began in January 2009. Florida and Mississippi, meanwhile, lead the league with seven such turnarounds. Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt have five apiece. Tennessee has four. Georgia, South Carolina and Arkansas have three.
No one is blaming the Wildcats, though.
The league caters to the television networks, and ESPN’s “Super Tuesday” lineup typically draws better than Thursday. And since Kentucky is clearly the SEC’s star attraction, it’s obvious why ESPN would want to feature the Wildcats in the network’s most coveted spot as often as possible.
“It’s not Kentucky’s fault,” Stallings said. “They’re going to do what we’re doing; they’re going to play their games when they’re scheduled. So it’s not a Kentucky issue. It’s an issue with the league office, and I understand that television dictates certain things, and that’s fine.
“The conference office is responsible to make sure that, beyond that, things are equitable, and I think they need to take a look and see whether the way things are falling whether things are equitable or not.”
Coaches argue that the tight turnaround between Thursday and Saturday games can be a disadvantage. Four years ago, they had little issue with it, saying it puts teams in situations similar to those in the NCAA tournament.
“I heard the argument, ‘Well, it’s like that in the NCAA tournament. You’ve got to play Thursday-Saturday or Friday-Sunday,’” Donovan said. “Great, but so does the other team you’re playing against, you know? That’s where we’ve got to try to figure out a better way to make it work.”
Although coaches probably exaggerate the impact of the short rest, results indicate it hasn’t had a huge negative impact. Mississippi State is 5-0 in Saturday games that followed Thursday-night affairs, although all of those were played at home. The Gators are 4-1. The rest of the league is a combined 13-18.
The Wildcats are 0-2, including a Sunday loss that followed a rare Friday-night game.
“I learned a long time ago not to worry about anything you can’t control,” Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said. “I just think it needs to be balanced for everybody. There’s some advantages and disadvantages, now. You all research where Kentucky’s at. What they got. Who they got. When and where they’re playing those types of games. You just need to make it balanced for everyone. … None of us like it. You ask me if I like it? No, it’s tough.
“As long as it’s balanced for everybody, you live with it.”
SEC spokesman Craig Pinkerton said the league is aware of some of the inequities in its basketball schedule. He pointed to guidelines established to prevent competitive disadvantages: Teams play a maximum of four Thursday-night games a season, and at least one of the two Thursday-Saturday games has to be at home.
“We make our best effort to balance out the Thursday-Saturday tandem among all of the teams,” Pinkerton said, adding that the league moved a few Thursday night games to Tuesday to alleviate issues with quick turnarounds.
Kentucky is one of three teams without a Thursday-Saturday setup this season. Auburn and LSU also were left out. Mississippi, meanwhile, plays three of them in the next four weeks.
Random? Maybe, but several coaches feel the league office should have had more oversight.
Kentucky coach John Calipari made it clear he would welcome any schedule the league handed down.
“The option is don’t go on TV and play when you want to play,” Calipari said. “That’s the option here. We signed a TV contract, and we’ve got to go with what they say. If they wanted us on Thursday, believe me, we’d play every Thursday, and I wouldn’t say anything. It’s just how it is. It’s TV. …
“Whatever our schedule is, we play. Everybody knows my history. We’ll play any team, any place, anytime. We’ll play on I-95, shut it down. We’ll play on the Bluegrass Parkway, shut it down. That’s the schedule. That’s where they threw it at us, and that’s what we’re taking on.”
Donovan believes the league will work to find amicable solutions in the future, possibly adding rules about teams not having to play Thursday night and early Saturday or limiting the number of times one team can play opponents coming off short turnarounds.
“We’re all under the understanding that there’s going to be some level of sacrifice that we all have to make inside of our schedule to do that, but I think it needs to be really, really leveled out across the board and fair for everyone,” Donovan said. “There are probably some things that are going on right now inside of our league with this whole contract being somewhat new that I think our league will figure out as time goes on. I’ve got confidence they will.”