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December 1, 2017

Greg Sankey

Atlanta, Georgia

THE MODERATOR: We're joined by Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey. Commissioner Sankey will make an opening comment, and then we'll take questions.

GREG SANKEY: Welcome to Mercedes Benz Stadium. Just having a conversation that I think in Atlanta maybe the first meetings were back in 2007. The first time I recollect us meeting with representatives of the Falcons and the Georgia World Congress Center with a vision for what's happened here was back in 2010. So it's certainly good to be here.

The Falcons and their staff and the Mercedes Benz Stadium staff have been great hosts. Our staff has been working hand in hand with them since March when this was still a pretty intense construction zone. So to see our teams on the field practicing in the stadium is certainly a great reward.

Tomorrow you'll see the first regular season rematch in the SEC Championship Game since 2010. I'm particularly proud that there will be seven players on each team wearing our SEC graduate patch. We obviously know there will be more of those placed on our uniforms after fall semester graduation, but that has been something that's demonstrated great meaning to our student-athletes.

One of the announcements today -- in fact, one of the news announcements today is that we won't be away from Atlanta for football for an entire year. Next July we'll be hosting SEC Football Media Days in Atlanta. We'll be using the College Football Hall of Fame, as well as the Omni Hotel adjacent to the College Football Hall of Fame, to conduct our media days. It's the first time, I think, since 1985 the event's been held outside Birmingham.

It's not a permanent site. We will intend to go back to Hoover in 2019, and then I've commented previously that we think there's some wisdom in moving around throughout our 11-state footprint over time. So we don't have plans necessarily for 2020, but we look forward to the 2018 experience and hope to feature both the College Football Hall of Fame, which will be hosting, and perhaps have an opportunity for the Mercedes Benz Stadium to host an event.

I was -- I don't know if the word is entertained, bemused, whatever, back in July regarding the reports of our competitive fire and spirit in the Southeastern Conference. So it's good to sit here today with three of the top six teams in the nation. Also 5 of the top 25 in the College Football Playoff Selection Committee's poll.

Our popularity as a conference in football remains high. Probably the best evidence is the highest rated college football game on television occurred last week between Auburn and Alabama in the Iron Bowl, and we expect another great event, great game, great viewership tomorrow afternoon when CBS televises the SEC Championship Game.

As it relates to the College Football Playoff, obviously, Sunday is a day of great interest. It's a poll that has great meaning. We have three teams competing for opportunities to participate in the College Football Playoff semifinals. Two of those teams are division champions playing tomorrow. The other is a co-champion that lost the head-to-head matchup, obviously, in the Iron Bowl. That team, Alabama, lost one game by 12 points after winning 11 more.

We've got two one-loss teams in our conference, Georgia and Alabama. Each of them has lost to a top ten team on the road.

One of the remarkable aspects, I think, of Auburn's schedule is they've played three No. 1 teams this season. I don't know if that's happened before. And they obviously have been victorious in two of those games.

As it relates to the strength of the Southeastern Conference beyond football, today we wish well to the University of South Carolina women's soccer team, who's playing in the semifinals of the Women's College Cup in Orlando. It's good to have a team back in the Women's College Cup.

We have three of the top ten teams in men's basketball. I think those of you that have been around my tenure as commissioner, I've talked about the importance of continuing to improve men's basketball in this conference.

There's obviously a certain level of turbulence at this time of year related to coaching turnover. It's interesting that that's something I predicted. This is not the only reason, but I do think you're seeing the impact of the early signing date, moving up decisions around coaching hires. You think back just a few years we had a coaching hire where, after the last week of the regular season, a coach was dismissed and it wasn't until after the National Championship Game in December that the new coach was hired. And we're seeing a compressed time frame, an elevation of attention, and I think those factors contribute -- not solely, but contribute to the amount of turbulence around this turnover.

Earlier today, you've seen that the NCAA released the results of the Ole Miss infractions case. Because of my commitments through the day here in Atlanta, I've not had an opportunity to fully review that decision. I think it's important we've reached this point in the process. I was able to watch the Ole Miss press conference, and they've identified their interest in pursuing appeal, particularly the concern around the second year of a Bowl ban. Our role is to assist and advise them in that process, which we'll do.

I do want to say on Sunday Ross Bjork called me and told me that they had identified their new head coach, let me know it was Matt Luke. I thought Matt did an outstanding job in some incredibly challenging circumstances. The impact of the Bowl ban this year is real. It's a 6-6 team that would otherwise be Bowl eligible but for the self-imposed ban. Obviously, last year in the turbulence had an impact on the program. They went 5-7 and did not have that opportunity.

Moving beyond the Southeastern Conference, it's clear that there are a number of issues affecting everyone in intercollegiate athletics. Those issues transcend any single university, any single conference, any single sport, and go back to the announcement of indictments with certain individuals associated with men's basketball. We've certainly experienced a great deal of transition with the leadership levels of this conference. My focus is on ensuring that we move forward in the same manner we have over the years. We'll have challenges. We'll have disagreements. But the greater good is formed by the fact that this is a magnificent conference.

If you heard and listened to what I described earlier, the strength across the board in our sports is real. As our leaders have come in, we've had the opportunity to discuss and orient them. We'll do so with those new leaders and look forward to the Southeastern Conference continuing to be a great intercollegiate athletic conference.

With that opening, I'll be happy to try to address any questions. If you want our statistics on targeting and replay and pace of play, I'll be happy to provide that information for you. I will note that we have reduced game length from 3:26 down to 3:20, 3 hours and 20 minutes, this year. That was an intentional effort. We'll continue to look at opportunities to reduce that in a way that doesn't tinker with the structure of the game.

I actually think it's very important that college football remain unique. That is the first time there's been an improvement in the length of game, in other words, that length of game time being reduced, since 2008. So we've made the proper adjustments, and we'll continue to look for some additional opportunities to make sure our game moves along efficiently.

With that, Kevin, see what questions might exist.

Q. (Indiscernible). They've had (indiscernible) going on for three months. Two players out indefinitely still. Do you ask for updates? How concerned are you about the reports coming out that the coaching staff aren't cooperating with the internal investigation?
GREG SANKEY: Whenever we have an issue that relates to NCAA rules compliance, which I'll say there are probably specifics of this issue. The indictments are a greater issue. We're going to be in regular communication with our campuses, and that's true here. Any time you have these types of issues, there's attention and concern.

I appreciate the leadership of President Leath. He's obviously new to the conference. I've greatly enjoyed working with him. He and I have developed a healthy working relationship through our communication. We'll continue to do so.

Obviously, Jay is still leading that athletics program, and he's a part of that communication as well.

Q. (Indiscernible) a lot of power over some decision-making, particularly hires. (Indiscernible) with respect to athletic directors fired in the last month. Does anything about that concern you? To what extent?
GREG SANKEY: I want to be really careful that we not say around the league. We have 14 institutions. You identified two. And both of those are very different in my view. Over the last week, as I noted, I know we've seen a lot of turbulence in the coaching realm. That's presented some challenges to the University of Tennessee. I'm not fully up to speed on today's news. I'm going to be careful about any observations there.

University of Arkansas, again, very different circumstance. The leadership of the university can make a decision and did so in that circumstance. I understand that. I've been a commissioner here now for three years. I was in a different league for seven. And personnel transitions take place. That's a reality of intercollegiate athletics.

Q. Greg, going back to the Auburn basketball issue for a moment, you didn't address Bruce Pearl specifically. First wanted to ask you, has Bruce Pearl cooperated with the SEC in whatever the SEC may be asking of him? Are you satisfied with his level of cooperation with the league at this point?
GREG SANKEY: I don't think your question is on point. We as a conference do not investigate.

Q. Secondly, back at Media Days you addressed in your opening remarks that you felt the serious misconduct policy was something that needed to be readdressed and revisited. It's about six months later now. Where do you feel that issue stands, both within the SEC and college sports in general?
GREG SANKEY: I think reviewed is probably a better description, and elements of my -- I don't know if it was in my speech or in an answer -- was to take a look to make certain the policy was working as intended and determine if there are other elements.

We've worked as a staff to review various policies, and we've done that over the fall. We're also working to identify the right working group to analyze this during the spring. When we have that, we'll empower that group to move forward. So we've engaged in the continuing staff review, actually, of our policies right now because I think that will, most importantly, inform that working group as it moves forward.

That doesn't predict different outcomes, James, and I think we want to be careful about that. We were a pioneer on this issue. We've seen some others, to your second question, alternately adopt their own policies, some similar, some unique, not everyone. I've not necessarily been evangelistic about that policy being adopted, but I've certainly provided information and observations as I've been asked about how we approach these matters.

Q. You mentioned some of the turbulence with some of the member institutions. Is it disheartening to you that the turbulence some of them have experienced this week has seemingly overshadowed the event that you guys have this week in Atlanta?
GREG SANKEY: Let me be clear, it has not overshadowed this event, not at all. Would I prefer that we not be talking about these issues today? Absolutely. Absolutely. But I also accept that decisions are made in their own time frame, the time frame of those involved, not for us.

We will play a football game here. As I read the ticket prices, by far the most intense effort to seek tickets to access this game. As I talked about last week, we had a marvelous TV rating. We think that will happen again. I don't begin for a moment to think it's overshadowed.

Q. Coming back to the tendency situation, the fact that social media results in protests and things like that is pretty impressive. The fact that seemed to have an effect on a coaching decision, is there anything about that concerns you?
GREG SANKEY: I think the people involved have to comment on what guided their decision. I want to be careful about that. I've used that phrase a couple of times now.

But let me step aside from that particular situation and talk about social media, or media in general. Obviously, there are things happening all around us that are very different from the way things were 10, 20, 30 years ago. Some of the references -- and it's beyond just one particular university. You can follow my Twitter feed and probably see the intensity of disagreement. It was done in a coffee shop or a public square in the past, and now it's done socially and can be viewed literally anywhere in the world. That's a changing dynamic, and I think people are continuing to find the right adaptation for themselves, for their programs, for their decision making.

Q. I know you're committed long term to Nashville for the. Do you see potential for MBS hosting the Men's Basketball Tournament?
GREG SANKEY: That's not one I've thought about. That's a fair question. We are committed for sites in men's basketball through '26, I believe. '25, '26. Nashville's been a great host, just like Atlanta has been a great host for our football Championship Game. We were intentional about looking for a primary site both for men's basketball and, we announced earlier, women's basketball in Greenville, South Carolina. We think it's important to build around that community, and we've seen that happen.

So it's not been something that's particularly contemplated. Obviously, what's happened here is brand new. We're still in our initial run. Perhaps that may be a consideration at some point, but it's not been to date.

Q. This isn't just an SEC problem, but around college football, ticket sales remain pretty robust, but it seems more tickets go unused. Is there anything that can be done at the conference level or the national level to try to help alleviate that?
GREG SANKEY: I think there are things that can be done. In fact, we, as a staff, just because you're in the season looking at trends and trying to understand things, have looked at some of those trends. Keep in mind we're still the most highly attended conference in football. Our ticket sales remain strong. Clearly, as I described before, the interest remains strong.

Yet we don't want to sit back and be inattentive. We've had a working group on fan experience. I think we need to update some of our collaboration around that group, and we've talked about that but haven't enacted any plans that will involve our campuses. The conversations, what can you learn from different leagues? I think it becomes a national issue. And what might you learn from professional leagues and how they continue to attract fans?

Fundamentally, we're pleased we continue to lead in attendance. We continue to regularly fill stadiums. We don't want to be inattentive to changing attendance patterns where they may exist.

Q. Want to speak to the transfer working group's proposal regarding the matter of immediate eligibility for transfers, of course, pending the academic threshold they have to withhold there. Where do you stand on that? To get a little bit predictive of outcomes, I guess, where do you see the outcome or the result of this policy should it be instituted in the months ahead? If the talk is it could be as soon as this calendar year, what do you think the impact will be on this conference moving forward if that policy is adopted?
GREG SANKEY: I was tracking so well on the questions, and then they've mounted. You'll have to hold me accountable to make certain that I at least come close to dodging all of them (laughter).

First of all, as it relates substantively to the transfer working group, I think there's value in looking at the up front control of communication, destination, and financial aid at another institution. I think that's exactly the right conversation. Now, how does the year of residence apply is when it starts to become a challenge.

We know from data -- and I can't quote specifics and where the gradients are located on a continuum -- but we know that, when you transfer, your time to graduation is extended, and I speak as a transfer who is mildly successful in life, depending on your view. But one of the ways to remedy some of those academic challenges when transfers occur is to make standard the year of residence. But then you have identified the working groups looking at a threshold GPA where perhaps there's more freedom.

I won't predict the outcome because I think it's an important conversation. Those transfer issues create stress. I think one of the points of feedback, for example, from the National Student-Athlete Advisory Committee is let the intra-conference transfer rules remain as-is generally. In other words, we have a year of residence across the board. Others have a much higher withholding number, really twice that amount. So I think that would be a part we'd have to work through.

I'll avoid the prediction because that outcome then starts to inform the answer to the latter question -- how does that affect football, and how does that affect men's basketball?

I think globally the issue speaks clearly to make really wise decisions in recruiting about people who will affiliate with your program for the right reasons and making certain, like we do now, that our student-athletes are well supported across the board -- medically, health and safety, from a nutrition and academic standpoint, coaching standpoint -- so they're at the place where they want to be and they want to participate.

The reality is, even in the high transfer sports, the majority of student-athletes choose wisely and remain at the school they pick.

Q. First, you mentioned, obviously, SEC team in the top six, but there's a chance that Alabama may not make the playoff. They're 5 right now. Just your thoughts on that whole idea that an 11-1 Alabama team may not end up in the playoffs.
GREG SANKEY: I'm going to have full perspective, so there's a chance they will. There's a chance. When you're not playing, things fall out of your control. Because you asked me specifically about the University of Alabama's opportunity, I think you have to look at their record this year. They played against a Florida State team that was ranked third in the nation. At the time, it was full strength until the quarterback went out the last five or six minutes of that game, and they won that game. That was a hard fought game, and I think you saw two teams that were consistent with their predictive model.

I think they played seven teams in the top 25 this year. I think I have my numbers right. They've had one loss on the road to now the second ranked team in the country.

That's a viable resume, and the assignment to the College Football Playoff Selection Committee is to choose the four best teams in the country. That's the expectation. I know they've worked diligently so far, and I expect they'll continue to work diligently to compare that resume to others, where it's not a secret I'm giving away, where there are some losses that have caught people's attentions. We have right now two one-loss teams and a two-loss team. The two-loss team has beaten the No. 1 team two out of the last three weeks, and that's a remarkable achievement and, I think, reflected in their current ranking.

So I'm certainly hopeful. I'm not going to create false expectations. We engage in the appropriate communication with the two members of the selection committee who are assigned to us. We walk through all of the data points, like I just described, and more. We walk through the injuries, walk through the schedule issues, and really talk specifically about all three that are still in consideration for semifinal participation, and then we talk about others under consideration for the top 25. So you can imagine that's an extensive call.

If we have two in, I think that would be remarkable. If we have one team in, I think we have great Bowl destinations for our teams that are still in the New Year's Six opportunities. I know our coaches and student-athletes will -- that those will be meaningful opportunities for them no matter what happens.

But I think the committee has a difficult challenge come Sunday, and hopefully we've made it clear enough as they engage in their work.

Q. Last one I promise.
GREG SANKEY: Is this one question, or six hidden in one?

Q. I give you one every six months.
GREG SANKEY: Since you're particular, I just want to be clear. There was April, July, and now. So that's three in eight months.

Q. I missed spring meetings.
GREG SANKEY: No, I didn't give you spring meetings, James. But go ahead. This is not adversarial. This is entertaining.

Q. Exactly. Just two New Yorkers going at it.
In college sports, we've seen penalties being instituted for taunting, for excessive celebration in football in particular. But at the professional level, they've become a lot more lax when it comes to those -- a lot more player freedom on those issues. There's also the My Cause, My Cleats policy and whatnot in the NFL.

GREG SANKEY: Tell me what that was again.

Q. My Cause, My Cleats, where the NFL players can wear cleats for social awareness issues or charitable endeavors or things like that before a game a designated week each season.
GREG SANKEY: I'm kind of busy on Sunday, so you'll have to forgive me, after Saturday.

Q. Are those things becoming a little more lax toward player behavior on the competitive field or allowing players to express their support for either social issues or charitable endeavors, are those things that could be applied in the years ahead to college sports that we've seen from the NFL, the NBA, and other professional leagues?
GREG SANKEY: We've not had any such conversation, and I don't contemplate one at this time.

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