Live in 3, 2, 1…SEC Network set to launch!
The Southeastern Conference, which is arguably the biggest brand in all of college athletics, is preparing to get bigger – much bigger. In August, the SEC will officially launch the new SEC Network which will change the landscape in which fans consume information and watch their favorite Southern teams both on television and online. It will also mean money, and lots of it, for the conference and its member institutions.
“The SEC Network will provide an unparalleled fan experience of top quality SEC content presented across the television network and its accompanying digital platforms,” stated SEC Commissioner Mike Slive during a press conference to announce the network. “We will increase exposure of SEC athletics programs at all 14 member institutions, as we showcase the incredible student-athletes in our league. The agreement for a network streamlines and completes an overall media rights package that will continue the SEC’s leadership for the foreseeable future.”
The SEC, in partnership with ESPN, will launch a 24/7 broadcast network and online digital platform that will feature more than 1,000 live sporting events per year. Of those, 450 will be televised on the network and 550 distributed digitally. Games that previously had been aired on regional networks like FOX Sports South, CSS and even pay-per-view, will now all be available on the SEC Network and its digital platform.
Depending on which television provider fans subscribed to, they may not have always had all of those regional channels, or if they could access them, it oftentimes required the purchase of an additional “sports package” from their television provider. While still in final negotiations, both SEC and ESPN representatives have said they want to make the SEC Network available to fans in the same cable packages as ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU, alleviating the need for the purchase of an extra cable package.
AT&T U-verse and DISH Network have already signed on to carry the SEC Network to all of their subscribers nationwide. All other carriers, especially those with a large presence in the SEC’s 11-state footprint are expected to sign on prior to the August 2014 launch date as well.
The network will originate from ESPN’s Charlotte, N.C. offices, where a full studio was already in existence, with additional staff located at ESPN’s Bristol, Conn., headquarters. ESPN’s Justin Connolly, who was formerly senior vice president of affiliate sales and marketing, will oversee the network’s day-to-day operations.
“I am thrilled to have this opportunity,” Connolly said. “It is a great honor and a great responsibility to be part of this initiative. Our aim is to bring the passion and the identity of the SEC onto the screen. There is not another sense of conference pride in America like the connection that lives among all 14 SEC schools and their fans.”
There have been other networks for conferences like the Big Ten and Pac-12 in recent years – and even one for the University of Texas – that have been met with mixed reviews and took some time to get off the ground. Officials with the SEC Network and ESPN, though, are both confident that they have the right recipe for success: the most fervent fan base for college athletics in the country and loads of quality content, most notably of which are the live events.
ESPN President John Skipper summed it up, saying, “This is a unique opportunity and nothing like this has been done before. The level of distribution we will have at the beginning, along with the quality of production and the games we will have, will take this to an all new level.”
In its first year alone, the SEC Network will carry 45 football games, including weekly triple-headers on the network during the 13-week regular season. It will also have a traveling pre-game show called “SEC Nation,” which will air from an SEC campus every week of the football season. The show will be hosted by Joe Tessitore, who is a familiar voice to many SEC fans from his years of calling games with ESPN, along with commentators Paul Finebaum and Heisman trophy winner Tim Tebow. Legendary broadcaster Brent Musburger and former Florida quarterback Jesse Palmer have also been announced as the lead commentators for football games on the league’s network.
Musburger, who recently signed a multi-year extension to stay with ESPN, said in a statement that, “I’m delighted to be staying with ESPN, thrilled to be able to call the best football conference in the nation every week and am really looking forward to working with Jesse, who I covered while he was at Florida. Jesse has tremendous football knowledge, knows this league very well and does his homework.”
Palmer said of the opportunity to join the SEC Network broadcast alongside Musburber that, “I am honored and humbled at the rare opportunity to help launch a national network of this magnitude and to do so alongside Brent, a legend within the sport and the industry.”
He added that, “Playing in the SEC represented four of the greatest years of my life, and I feel incredibly fortunate to now have the opportunity to cover this great conference.”
During the offseason, the SEC Network will also feature the league’s 14 spring football games plus signing day and pro days coverage. The network won’t focus solely on football, though. It will also carry more than 100 men’s basketball games, 60 women’s basketball games, 75 baseball games and 50 softball games. Extensive event coverage from the SEC’s 21 different conference championships will also be highlighted, including exclusive coverage of the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament’s first three round. The network will additionally provide a variety of studio shows and a simulcast of the popular Paul Finebaum radio show. Hundreds of additional live events from various sports will also be offered exclusively on the digital platform.
While the live sporting events will be the primary source of programming for the network, it will also feature studio shows and original content such as the “SEC Storied” series, which is similar to the popular “30 for 30” series on ESPN. The network and its digital platform will additionally connect with each SEC institution and create opportunities for each school to produce and develop content.
In the months leading up the launch of the network, conference and ESPN officials have been visiting every member institution to evaluate the production quality of events produced on each campus. Steps are being taken to bring every campus up to the minimum standard set by ESPN so that every game featured on the SEC digital platform has the same quality broadcast as a nationally televised basketball or football game. This has also included the construction of on-campus studios, where much of the content produced for the network will originate.
In addition to the increased exposure for each member institution and the conference that comes from a 24/7 network, many coaches and administrators also see benefits for their individual teams. Speaking about the construction of a new on-campus studio for the SEC Network at the University of Tennessee while at last year’s SEC coach’s meetings, Vols head football coach Butch Jones said, “Obviously with all the things that are going to have to be produced, it’s an opportunity to sell the Tennessee brand. Not just in football but in every sport.”
The benefits for each member-institution of the SEC won’t be limited to just an increase in exposure and upgraded production facilities on campus. All 14 programs also stand to profit greatly from the network financially as well. Prior to the network launching, previous television revenue distributions to the 14 conference members in the 2012-13 season were $289.4 million, or roughly $20.7 million per school.
Those figures included money generated by football television, bowls, the SEC Football Championship, basketball television, the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament, NCAA Championships and supplemental distribution. With the SEC Network adding almost 1,000 more games on television and online to what will already be airing on ESPN’s primary channels, and the still existing CBS contract for football, that revenue number stands to increase substantially in the coming years.
Also as part of the agreement creating the new network, ESPN and the SEC agreed to extend their existing media rights agreement through 2034. In addition, ESPN will now oversee the SEC’s official Corporate Sponsor Program. These agreements will keep ESPN partnered with the SEC for the next 20 years. For that time, ESPN will own 100 percent of the network, while the SEC will own 100 percent of the content, according to the Business Journal.
Fans wanting to make sure they have the SEC Network when it launches in August can contact their current service providers directly. The SEC has set also up a website at www.getsecnetwork.com to help fans find out if their local provider will carry the network.
Originally published in Sports & Entertainment Nashville, May 2014.