Georgia-Memphis is one of the big non-conference games, but it has a weird backstory that many missed.
The Georgia-Memphis series was signed as part of the AAC-SEC Alliance, which is a home-and-home series much like the Big 12-SEC Challenge. Typically, in seasons that start in an odd-numbered year (2019), the teams that finish in the top ten of the SEC conference standings from the prior season are admitted into the Big 12-SEC Challenge for two seasons. Teams that do not qualify for the Big 12-SEC Challenge play conference games on the day of the challenge and they are televised on the “double main event” SEC Saturday Night block on SEC Network. These schools are left out and left to their own devices as to what to do with this extra game that they could schedule during non-conference play, ESPN and the SEC stepped in to do something about it in April.
The AAC-SEC Alliance is born.
The idea of the top ten teams being admitted into the Big 12-SEC Challenge actually came to end because of the new AAC-SEC Alliance. What mattered now was ratings and interest. In ESPN’s hype factory, the idea of pitting the media acclaimed #1 and #2 recruits of the Class of 2019 in a regular season game against each other is a great one as it would presumably put eyeballs on the ESPN network of choice, which in turn would mean more College Football Playoff National Championship promotions and cross-promotional efforts for the recently crashing Disney Parks (they will shove Walt Disney World down your throat during the Advocare Invitational unlike previous years, you have been warned). Aside from putting Georgia in this “Alliance”, schools that did not have a good hook with a Big 12 opponent were also put into the “Alliance”. Ole Miss and South Carolina both would have qualified for the Big 12-SEC Challenge in the past, but were placed on the outside looking in as they will not be participating. Vanderbilt is rebuilding and do not have a natural opponent in the Big 12 outside of Baylor.
The Big 12-SEC Challenge is about creating those sexy made-for-television games and in the case of Georgia, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, and South Carolina, the network programmers had different visions in mind.
On April 18, 2019, the announcement was made that an alliance was created. The matchups still had yet to be determined.
“Teams to play in the imminent matchups as part of the alliance will not be announced until late May, at which time schools will proceed with scheduling dates and times. All four games will be aired on ESPN networks.”
ESPN often dictates and facilitates the scheduling of games and tournaments. ESPN Events owns most of the College Football Bowls and ESPN Events owns many of the non-conference tournaments that take place in November. The original plan was to have Georgia host Memphis this season, but this was changed at the demands of Memphis and it was a part of the negotiation as the AAC was free to choose the schools they wanted to showcase and the SEC and ESPN sought to maximize viewership. It is why Texas A&M and Missouri are a part of the Big 12-SEC Challenge and not South Carolina and Ole Miss. The SEC did not make this call, ESPN changed the plans and also saw the opportunity with Georgia hosting Memphis.
How did CBS get the Georgia-Memphis game?
This is the mind-boggling question. How does something like this happen? Georgia-Memphis is not going to be as hype-worthy of a game in 2020-21 as it would in 2019-20. This season’s game is the type of game that ESPN craves and they were supposed to be the beneficiary of what would be a major game with NCAA Tournament ramifications.
Did ESPN and CBS negotiate to do a home-and-home split between the conferences? Was it arranged so that CBS would get the games on the AAC home floors and ESPN would get the games on the SEC home floors? The answer is a succinct ‘no’. South Carolina will host Houston to be televised on ESPNU, Vanderbilt will host SMU to be televised on SEC Network, and Ole Miss will visit Wichita State to be televised on ESPN2.
CBS owns rights to air AAC home games, games are even branded CBS AAC. The rights to the Georgia-Memphis game would fall into the hands of ESPN the vast majority of the time, but CBS has the rights to a small package of games and chose to exercise their priority rights in this case. This arrangement between the AAC and CBS exists even though in March 2019, the AAC signed a 12 year media rights deal with ESPN worth $1 Billion.
CBS historically airs a few AAC games a season, they used to air the AAC Tournament. Last season, they aired two conference games and a UConn-Villanova game that was a part of their Big East television rights.
ESPN thought they were going to be able to air all four games and CBS swooped in to take highest profile game. Challenge series’ always have enjoyed continuity in terms of networks airing games. ACC-Big Ten Challenge on ESPN, Big 12-SEC Challenge on ESPN, Gavitt Tipoff Games on FS1 and the Fox operated Big Ten Network.
CBS would not have swooped in to air any other possible matchup combination available that took place on a AAC home floor and they would not have had the ability to air the originally scheduled and swiftly changed game, which was Memphis at Georgia.
CBS may have dropped the ball in choosing to air Alabama-Texas A&M in Football two weeks in advance as opposed to exercising their option and airing Florida-LSU during the same week, but they were able to take a premier College Basketball game away from ESPN and use it as a possible lead-in for an NFL Wild Card game.