College football is just more important to people in the South than it is to people in the rest of the country. There is a good reason for this. Pro sports ignored the South for a long time. For southerners in my parents' generation, college football dominated the news because it usually was the only game in town. Those people passed their sports consumption habits down to the next generation, and my generation will pass it along to the one that follows ours. For that reason, many SEC fans pay no mind to the NFL, unless it's a Tennessee fan checking on Peyton Manning or an LSU fan following LaRon Landry...
Unlike much of the national media -- which regularly underestimates the passion and buying power of rabid college football fans -- CBS and ESPN know that in a nine-state footprint lives a dedicated base of fans who will follow their teams to the ends of the earth. Baseball can't match that dedication. The next time you meet someone who claims to be a die-hard Red Sox fan, ask him how many magnets he can fit on his RV. That's why the two networks will pay a combined $3 billion over the next 15 years to televise SEC sports.
Staples makes a good point that ESPN has figured out that there are a lot of eyeballs in the SEC states and those eyeballs are glued tight to SEC football. That said, his point regarding intensity of fan support can be taken one step farther. I doubt that ESPN and CBS forked over hundreds of millions of dollars to the SEC just to get ratings in this region. They realize that genuine fan support creates unparalleled atmospheres at SEC games and that makes for great TV. I'm reminded of what Bill Simmons wrote when he decided that he was going to become an EPL fan:
You know how Red makes the comment that, after a life spent in Shawshank, he can't even squeeze a drop of pee without asking for permission first? I feel like that's happening to us. American sports have been ravaged by TV timeouts, ticket price hikes and Jumbotrons that pretty much order fans how to act. Just look at what happened in the NBA playoffs. Miami fans were urged to wear all white like a bunch of outpatients from a psych ward; the Detroit announcer screamed, "Let's give it up!" and "Lemme HEAR YOU!" as the crowd responded like a bunch of trained seals; Clippers fans weren't able to stand and cheer after an outrageous Shaun Livingston dunk in the Denver series because disco music was blaring at deafening levels. And it's not just basketball. During Angels games in baseball, the crowd waits to make noise until a monkey appears on the scoreboard. You can't attend an NHL game without hearing the opening to "Welcome to the Jungle" 90 times. Even our NFL games have slipped -- you cheer when the players run out, cheer on third downs, cheer on scores and sit the rest of the time. It's a crying shame.
Not to pull a Madonna on you, but European soccer stands out because of the superhuman energy of its fans -- the chants and songs, the nonstop cheering, the utter jubilation whenever anything good happens, how the games seem to double as life-or-death experiences -- and I can't help but wonder if that same trait has been sucked out of our own sports for reasons beyond our control. And no, that same energy hasn't completely disappeared; you can see a similar energy on display at Fenway, Yankee Stadium, Lambeau, MSG (if the Knicks and/or Rangers are good, a big "if" these days) and any other city with enough history and passion to override the evils of the Jumbotron Era. Still, these are aberrations. By pricing out most of the common fans and overwhelming the ones who remained, professional sports leagues in this country made a conscious decision: We'd rather hear artificially created noise than genuine noise. That's the biggest problem with sports in America right now. And there's no real way to solve it.
Simmons's current opinion (and it's a perceptive one) is that European soccer is the next big thing in American sports because we've become a TV-oriented sports culture and European footie translates better on TV. The games are played in front of singing, crazed fans without any of the manipulative prompting so common with American pro sports. If he's right, then SEC football is an attractive TV property outside of the South because it brings something to the table that most American sports do not: genuine, unadulterated passion. A fan in Seattle or Philadelphia who is disillusioned by what the pro sports experience has become could be sucked in by an SEC game because it reminds him of the way games used to be before t-shirt bazookas and "Cheer! Now! Do It!" reminders on the scoreboard.
The one limiting factor to neutrals being swayed by a better TV experience is their feelings about the locales of the game. European footie will have a hard time becoming mainstream because it's foreign. It's not necessarily that the most popular foreign league is English. Most Americans like England and remember that they were our allies in WWII. (We forget that the Russians were as well, but that's a different rant.) However, because English footballers are generally rubbish, the league is mostly dominated by foreign stars: Drogba, Essien, Fabregas, Torres, etc. Unless NBC is wrong about the sentiment of the average American when it ignores the rest of the world in its Olympic coverage, the EPL may always remain a fringe sport because of all the funny names.
To a lesser extent, this could be an issue with SEC football. The South is still viewed by many in the North as being defined by the Confederacy and Jim Crow. Florida seems nonthreatening because it is heavily populated by retirees from the Northeast and Midwest, but can we imagine people in the Northeast getting very excited about Alabama and Ole Miss, given where they get their ideas about the Deep South? (Better they think about Bull Connor than the Boston busing riots, right?) I'd be fascinated to know what ESPN and CBS think about the potential for the SEC as a TV property outside of the Sunbelt.