Way back on the 8th of January in Tampa, Fla. — the final pregame press conference for the College Football Playoff title game pitting Clemson against Alabama about to begin — someone looked around at a crowd of more than 1,000 media types and said to Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey, "This looks like SEC Football Media Days."
Replied Sankey with a grin, "No, I think there's more people at media days."
He was joking, but probably not by much.
And when the Commish gives his annual "state of the conference" talk today at the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, Ala., there should again be a shade more than 1,000 media folks from print, television, radio and the internet (though hopefully no fake news slimeballs) soaking in his every word.
And why wouldn't they? These aren't just big passions and big expectations regarding 14 member schools that Sankey must oversee on a daily basis. This is big business, as worthy of Wall Street Journal coverage as it is of ESPN, Sports Illustrated or this newspaper's sports department.
For proof, merely consider this past week's story in USA Today that 10 of the top 17 revenue producers in college athletics call the SEC home, starting with the Mucho Money Machine that has become Texas A&M.
Aggie Land may not be terribly happy with head football coach Kevin Sumlin at the moment — he seems to be frying on the hottest seat in college football not reserved for Notre Dame's Brian Kelly — but it doesn't seem to be impacting the school's bottom line when it comes to sports.
According to the numbers crunched for the 2015-16 season, A&M generated a stunning $194,388,450 in revenue against $137,101,774 in expenses. That's a tidy profit of $57,286,676. And that at a school that already has one of the nation's top 10 endowments at $9.75 billion. That's right, billion, with a very big B.
So the Aggies don't just have all the money they could possibly need to buy out Sumlin, they might be able to make that Alabama coach whose name also begins with an S an offer no one smart enough to earn such an offer could refuse.
But for all their preposterous wealth — and that $57 million profit margin is more than the next three SEC entries of Alabama (4), LSU (7) and Florida (8) combined — the Aggies are merely the richest of a very rich conference that had 10 schools for the 2015-16 school year with revenues of $122 million or more.
Put another way, the next most financially successful conference among those first 17 schools is the Big Ten with five in Ohio State (3), Michigan (5), Wisconsin (11), Penn State (12) and Michigan State (16). The only other league among those first 17 was the 10-member Big 12, which had Texas at No. 2 and Oklahoma at No. 6.
In case you're interested, Tennessee stood ninth at $140,448,955 with a profit of over $12 million while Georgia stood 15th at $123,841,268 with a profit of just over $7 million.
And you wonder why four SEC stadiums top 100,000 in attendance (A&M, Alabama, LSU and Tennessee), two more top 90,000 (Georgia and Florida) and two more go over 80,000 (Auburn and South Carolina).
But which schools should have the best chance to fill those stadiums and those coffers while chasing realistic dreams of reaching this year's SEC title game?
Let's start with Alabama, which seems to be everyone's favorite despite its usual exodus of stars to the NFL. The Tide could well lose its opener against Florida State inside Atlanta's shimmering Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It also ends the regular season at Auburn. Just a hunch here, but pencil the Tide for 10-2, but still winning the West to reach the SEC title game.
As for the East, if UT coach Butch Jones can finally keep his Big Orange healthy, the Vols should go no worse than 8-4 and might even prevail as the beast of the East. For that to happen, they need to beat Florida for a second straight season, winning this one in Gainesville. But Georgia must come to Knoxville as must last year's season cripplers South Carolina and Vanderbilt. LSU also visits Neyland Stadium on Nov. 18 after back-to-back games against physically bruising Alabama and Arkansas.
That said, Georgia would still seem to be the East team to beat, especially if former Alabama assistant Kirby Smart can be as good in his second season at UGA as his mentor — Tide boss Nick Saban — was in his second season at Bama.
Much as Saban followed up third place finishes in the SEC West in his first seasons at both LSU and Bama, he won the West at each stop in his second year. Smart actually tied for second in the East last year with Kentucky and Tennessee, finishing 4-4 in league play, but with gifted quarterback Jacob Eason now a sophomore and running back Nick Chubb finally back to full speed, Smart just might duplicate Saban's second-year successes at his SEC stops.
And if not — whether it be Smart, Sumlin, the Vols' Jones or any other coach who comes up short one too many times — at least no SEC school's fan base should worry about where the money will come from to start over. The money's obviously there. The trick is finding a coach worthy of earning it.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org