I’m fascinated by the news of Alabama football putting its annual barnstorming tour — starring head coach Nick Saban — ‘on hold’ for an indefinite period of time.
Oh no, is the coach too busy to speak with fans and boosters?
Does Saban seeking more money for appearance fees?
Are university officials looking to graduate to bigger venues?
Does the athletic department want more control with each appearance, regarding content and/or accessibility?
These are the open-ended questions being asked by the Tide faithful today, as they ponder the significance of Alabama AD Bill Battle halting the wildly popular Crimson Caravan, which began in 2008 (Year 2 of the Saban regime).
There’s also a window of open interpretation from the words of Sam Branch, the school’s senior associate AD (director of development).
“We’ve had great success with the caravans over the last eight years,” said Branch. “We are going to evaluate some different options from a development standpoint, and we won’t have the typical caravans this spring. It’s the right time to look at new ideas and formats.”
For those who don’t know, development is code for “fundraising” or “revenue” in college athletics. And when hearing that word in the above context, it tells me the university — and not Saban — is leading the charge behind no Crimson Caravan in 2016.
The motive: pursuing more diverse revenue streams.
Is that a bad thing? Absolutely not. By all accounts, the Crimson Caravan originally launched as a means for Saban and the ‘Alabama’ brand to reach out to various sectors of the South.
The early tours convened in out-of-state locales like Atlanta, Memphis, Panama City, Fla., plus the Mississippi territories of Meridian and Jackson. There was also a large in-state commitment to cities such as Mobile, Huntsville, Talladega and, of course, Tuscaloosa.
But after four national championships and nine seasons at the helm, it’s quite possible that Saban (who should be the first member of college football’s $10 Million Club) has already met every Alabama fan living in the state (check out the crimson-clad zealots at SEC Media Days). Along those lines, every CEO from a southern-based corporation has likely shook the coach’s hand at a charity golf outing.
Simply put, while everyone still wants a piece of the Alabama program (everyone loves a winner), the dynamic for these tours has undoubtedly changed.
Yes, Saban may be contractually obligated for 15 “university-related or affiliated booster-club” appearances every year — as part of a $5.4 million personal-services compensation package (reported by AL.com); but, in this digital age, there has to be a better way for the coach to reach thousands and thousands of people, while also satisfying the commitment.
And that’s part of the fascination. When first viewing the stoic, sometimes robotic Saban (six consecutive No. 1 recruiting classes, according to 247 Sports), you would never guess he’s apparently a witty comedian with his coaches, or a superb salesman when talking to recruits via Skype, or a potential successor to Lee Corso on the College Gameday set (sometime down the road).
(Indeed, Saban has come a loooooooong way since being my head coach at Michigan State in mid-1990s.)
In short, Saban has the charisma, personality and down-home wit to take his barnstorming tour to grander venues — not unlike a popular rock band going from intimate theaters to playing Madison Square Garden or The Rose Bowl.
But to reach that next level, Alabama officials first required the leverage to dictate terms. And now, they also have time to broker the best deal.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.