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December 18, 2011

HURT: Expansion brings new markets

As the interminable wait for the BCS championship game nears a more-manageable three-week countdown, there has been a window of opportunity to do a few different things - including the new territory that has been annexed into the Southeastern Conference.

Fortuitously, the University of Alabama basketball team was in Kansas City on Saturday (although not playing one of their future SEC brethren), which created a golden opportunity to look at the new western border of the league.

Technically, one could argue SEC territory stretches all the west to El Paso now (although I am not sure how strong the Aggie sentiment is in that community.) It's more instructive to consider the league's new territory as extending to a line down from Kansas City, through Fayetteville and into the Dallas and Houston megalopolises (or is it megalopoli?).

Those (and St. Louis) are the vaunted "new television" markets. Whether Kansas City is Missouri Tiger territory is another question - Kansas is far closer and there is a pervasive Jayhawk feel, or it seemed so to me.

Without belaboring points that have already been made about the cultural ties between this area and the South - yes, there are a lot of good barbecue places here - it is clear Kansas City is a sports town. The Chiefs are the clear heroes here, even in a dismal coach-fired year.

The most recognizable Alabama football names, perhaps even ahead of Nick Saban, are Javy Arenas and Wallace Gilberry. There's another Alabama link.

The big mural downtown at the Sprint Center is sports-related and features the legendary pitcher of the Kansas City Monarchs, Satchel Paige (from, you guessed it, Mobile, Alabama.) The point isn't to find every minuscule thread that leads back to Alabama. It's just to note Kansas City - and perhaps most of Missouri, outside of St. Louis - has proven college sports interest and should be fertile ground for the SEC.

Alabama football fans may get a chance to test that, more quickly than expected. Nothing official has been released concerning the expansion-altered SEC football schedule for 2012, but it would not surprise me if Alabama's first visit to Missouri comes sooner rather than later. It could come much sooner. Much, much sooner. Take that in the spirit of a Christmas hint.

There is also a solid chance the SEC basketball tournament will be coming to Kansas City in a few years - Missouri certainly wants it to be played in the Sprint Center - and that wouldn't be terrible.

The arena is the hub of the Power & Light district downtown and it would be roughly similar to having the tournament in Nashville. The difference, of course, is it wouldn't be centrally located, and the crowd would be primarily Kentucky fans, sprinkled with Arkansas and Missouri. Face it, if the SEC Tournament were held in Anchorage, it would be "primarily Kentucky fans."

Certainly, expansion has its pros and cons, and it will be hotly debated again as soon as the new 2012 football schedule comes out. After all, you can't please everyone. But Texas A&M and Missouri are fine schools, and if growth was inevitable - and perhaps it was - there are certainly worse places to grow.

Cecil Hurt is sports editor of The Tuscaloosa News. Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil.hurt@tuscaloosanews.com or 205-722-0225.

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