How a group of 'next-gen' advertisers turned college football power brokers are shaping the game's future

How a group of ‘next-gen’ advertisers turned college football power brokers are shaping the game’s future

Chris Del Conte has long been the leader of a close-knit circle of athletic director friends, whether in volume or voice alone. At one point, they were all mobile career climbers with ideas for how to reshape college athletics.

They are aging in their 50s and have only grown in influence. At the time, the Emerging Thinkers think tank consisted of seven current DAs and power brokers: Del Conte (Texas), Greg Byrne (Alabama), Scott Stricklin (Florida), Ross Bjork (Texas A&M), Whit Babcock (Virginia Tech), John Currie (Wake Forest), and Greg McGarity (Gator Bowl CEO). Others circulated in and out, but that only added to their vision for the future.

“Does the band have a name? I think Currie called it ‘The Next Gen,'” Del Conte said this week as Texas prepare to face No. 1 Alabama. “Now we’re the ‘middle-aged generation’. Now we’re getting closer to the ‘older generation’. Now we’re pretty darn close to the tail of the old bastards. But we started out as young bastards.

If Del Conte wasn’t the friendliest of the bunch, he’s certainly the unofficial historian.

“Our group came up with a lot of crazy ideas that came to fruition right now,” added Del Conte. “We were a bunch of guys. We just became friends.”

A few years ago, these “bastards” began to see the future. This included college football playoff expansion, realignment, guerrilla marketing and mega-games, the shining example of which (Alabama vs. Texas) is with us this week.

It’s a direct extension of Texas and Oklahoma migrating from the Big 12 to the SEC in 2025 (at the latest). It’s a tangential reaction to the expansion of the playoffs. That’s one reason why we’ll see a lot more of these high-profile games. This was assured last week when the CFP Board of Trustees (University Presidents) approved a 12-team playoff as early as 2024.

“The moves and the playoffs and where we were going all came out of those same conversations,” Del Conte said. “Nobody knew exactly what was going to happen, but we were just trying to project what might happen and put ourselves in the best position to succeed.”

Del Conte, 54, arrived in Texas from TCU in 2017. It occurred to him that the Longhorns played their traditional rivals at neutral venues or not at all. Oklahoma’s game is in Dallas. Nebraska was long gone in the Big Ten (actually because or Texas). Texas A&M left for the SEC for the same reason, if you ask the Aggies.

The Southwest Conference’s old rivalry with Arkansas — last played in Austin, Texas, in 2008 — was renewed for 2014 in Houston and last year in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

All of this had a direct impact on Del Conte, in charge of one of the two biggest sports budgets in the country. He had to find a way to regularly fill his stadium. In turn, this would help fund his other sports.

Not without perhaps changing conferences. Not without adding a Woodstock atmosphere before the games.

Not without tax relief. In 2017, a tax reform bill removed deductions that ticket buyers had enjoyed for years.

“I think we were all worried that people weren’t going [donate as boosters] because of the tax situation,” said McGarity, a former Georgia DA from 2010-2020.

There was then a convergence of Congress, playoff expansion, and willing planning partners that accompanied the realignment. The Next Gen saw that one day the group of four teams would expand. They saw in advance that a 10-2 record — even 9-3 — would be enough to get in. (The Tastes of Utah would have been in a 12-team squad last season at 10-3.)

The strength of the calendar was only becoming tomorrow important, making it a huge consideration in the lineup. It’s not just about playing against better teams, it’s also about playing them more frequently. The SEC expands to 16 teams. In 2021, Alabama played Florida for the first time in a decade. Georgia still hasn’t visited Texas A&M despite the Aggies joining the league in 2012.

With its 16 teams, SEC officials are doing their best to come up with a schedule model that allows teams to play each other home and away over a four-year period. Otherwise, what’s the point of adding two of the biggest sports brands in the country?

Three times in the past decade, the SEC has been guaranteed a national championship before the title game: 2011, 2017 and 2021.

Between 2020 and 2033, Georgia made a conscious decision in its schedule to play 13 non-conference games against the Power Fives and Notre Dame.

The Florida, Georgia, Texas and Alabama likes of this Next Gen group not only could afford to plan, but the future demanded it. Stricklin, 52, came into media relations before becoming a Mississippi State AD in 2010 and joining Florida in 2016. Byrne, 50, preceded Stricklin at Mississippi State and has been at Alabama since 2017. Bjork, 49, was at Ole Miss before Texas. UN Mr. Currie, 49, was in Kansas State and Tennessee before Wake Forest.

They all know that, in the expanded playoffs, a 10-2 team stepping up non-conference play looked a lot better than a 10-2 team playing three or four punching bags around a conference schedule.

Del Conte says three or four years ago a group of his Next Gen peers came together to militarize their schedules. Texas added Florida, Alabama, LSU and Georgia to schedules through 2030.

In the space of four months, from February 2019 to May 2019, eight non-conference national games were announced. All but one were scheduled after 2025. Feel free to connect the dots. CFP’s current contract with ESPN ends after this season.

“I spoke to the coach [Nick] Saban,” Byrne said. “He and I were on the same page trying to create some of these [games]. Texas [in 2022-23] and Notre Dame [in 2029-30] were the first two we announced.”

Alabama also has home and away games through 2035 with Wisconsin, Florida State, West Virginia, Ohio State, Oklahoma State, ‘Oklahoma and Boston College.

Combine that with the presumed advantage of schedule strength, the SEC already likes to play its league roster. It’s not a competitive imbalance in the realignment, it’s a league orbiting the moon and others catching a public bus.

When the SEC opportunity presented itself in Texas, there really was no decision to be made. The school traded that home schedule anxiety for regular games against Bama, LSU, Florida, Tennessee and, yes, rival Texas A&M. Previously scheduled non-conference games against SEC opponents will be incorporated into future conference schedules.

Don’t shed a tear for Texas this week. It has the best of everything, including a place to land when the realignment musical chairs have started playing again. He must own his perceived influence on Nebraska and Texas A&M (at least) leaving the Big 12 in first place.

But it was also Texas that decided to stay in the Big 12 when the Pac-12 called with an offer to make it the Pac-16 in 2010.

Realignment has once again become a competitive sport. The Big Ten snagged USC and UCLA this summer in response to the SEC getting Texas and OU. Is everything done?

“USC, UCLA, did I see it coming? No.” said Del Conte. “But I think things were moving. … You could feel things just by the conversations I was having, things were going in different directions.”

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