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The SEC ESPN Network, a burden of riches

Thursday in Atlanta, the SEC and ESPN revealed a collaboration that will pump even more money into southern college sports.

1. The SEC broke out the sexy bedroom lights for this: a full rack of them, all lined up against the curtain behind a forest of directors chairs on a tiered stage at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Atlanta. It felt less Birmingham formal and more Anaheim glossy in the room.

2. The announcement of Project X -- aka the SEC Network, produced in partnership with ESPN -- was a media event. A collection of journalists, ESPN execs, and all 14 SEC football coaches do not get together in a ballroom for surprises. ESPN president John Skipper and SEC commissioner Mike Slive summon audiences only to tell a bit of what you already know and to unveil what has been negotiated in advance. ESPN alone brought a platoon of message-ironing PR people. The schools had their own. At the end of the day, there may have been enough to play a nice zone against reporters, if not a full man-to-man defense.

3. So it was an information-poor exercise by design, but not entirely devoid of actual news. Yes, the SEC and ESPN are married, or at least betrothed until the year 2034, a date so far in the future it might as well be 2134 for the purposes of those in the room. Slive will be 93 by the time renewal is a consideration; Skipper will be 77. These are generational choices, not short-term ones; if a divorce in the first term of President LeBron James happens between the SEC and ESPN, football babies born during the press conference itself will still watch their teams' games somewhere on ESPN when they're of legal voting age.

4. Their prenup is none of your business. Slive slammed the door on any discussion of financials, and so did Skipper when pressed in one-on-one conversations. This much is known: there will be money. It will be given to the SEC by ESPN in exchange for sports products: games, replays, and some form of original content. How much of that money there is in the ecosystem is unknown, and will remain so until the inevitable leak. For now, I can't prove or disprove your claim that the SEC Network is going to make a million dollars every three seconds for ESPN and the conference, but it will be a tremendous and possibly embarrassing amount of money.

5. Embarrassing is a key word here. While Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban talked in the back row, the question was asked: doesn't this much money force the conversation about paying players for the value they, as the players in the games that draw the eyeballs who are attached to the wallets of SEC consumers, generate for schools? "Full cost of attendance" is one level of commitment everyone seems fine with, including Slive, who said as much in his welcome speech.

6. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier threw around actual numbers: "3,500, 4,500 bucks a year could really help the players. Our players don't have hardly anything, and they bring in so much money for us coaches, our university, and all our other sports."

LSU's Les Miles demurred to authority; Tennessee's Butch Jones supported cost of attendance, and said the rest was up to the schools involved. The "cost of attendance," whatever that may end up being defined as, implies more money. More money means paying players more, even if it continues to happen under the guise of amateurism.

7. How/if this happens is unclear. It may not happen at all: people who get tremendous amounts of money rarely enjoy sharing it, even at margins they can tolerate. The people who showed up in the Hyatt Ballroom don't really make the second half of that decision anyway. The school presidents and the institutions themselves do.

The first step is done, though. ESPN being ESPN, they have agreed to rain even more cash onto the SEC. The major powers in college football may have finally hit a point at which the amount of money coming in makes their league indistinguishable from a major sport, and where Alabama can no longer plausibly claim to live by the same set of rules as Alabama A&M. Not doing so would require a redefinition of shamelessness.

8. In the South, this is never totally out of the question.

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