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How ESPN Sets The SEC Network Apart (Even From The Net’s Texas Project)

sec launch pad copyThere has never been a league- or school-specific network like the soon-to-be-announced SEC Network.  In terms of immediate appeal, it will be unmatched.

The Big Ten Network doesn’t have what the SEC Network will have.  The Pac-12′s networks don’t have it, either.  Not Texas and it’s ESPN-owned Longhorn Network.  Heck, not even the NFL Network.

Right now, you’re probably thinking I’m talking about super-duper, A1, top-o’-the-line college football.  But that’s not it.

Perhaps you think the SEC’s new channel will be a big success because of the passion of its fans.  That might help, but that’s not what will set the network apart.

ESPN is what will set the network apart.  More specifically, the SEC’s all-around partnership with ESPN will set the network apart.

As you know, the key to making money with a cable channel is tied more to subscribers than it is the highly volatile world of television ad sales.  Ad sales are seasonal.  Ad sales are impacted by ebbs and flows in the economy.  Subscription prices are steady.

To make the most money in the current environment — before all programming becomes a la carte via internet connections — a network must get carriage on as many cable and satellite systems as possible.  Working out deals with those providers has been the biggest pain in the neck to date for anyone and everyone who’s tried to launch a brand new channel.

In simple terms, the owner of the new network sits down with Comcast, Time-Warner, DirecTV and others to hammer out monthly fees that those providers must pay the owner for the right to carry its network.  Many times the providers don’t even want the network.  So when the owner overprices the channel — and that’s always part of the game — the providers quickly balk at overpaying for something they don’t want in the first place.

That’s where you enter the picture.

The owner of a network will begin to put programming it believes you want on its channel.  The more quality programming it can put on its channel, the more you’ll want it.  Theoretically, the more you want it, the more you’ll call your own cable or satellite provider to demand it.

Even better from an owner’s perspective is when, for instance, one satellite-provider agrees to carry the new network while a competing provider refuses.  If you, the viewer, decide to switch providers in order to get the network you want, oh, that’s a big help.  Let a provider start to lose subscribers to the competition and changes can come quickly.

Boil all this down and the plan is simple: Good programming goes on network… viewers want that programming… viewers demand their cable and satellite providers carry the programming… providers pay for the network and the programming in order to retain their clients.

At that point the providers pass the price along to you, of course, by way of monthly subscriber fees.  Maybe the new channel becomes part of your provider’s “sports pack” or maybe it’s a stand-alone entity.  Either way, your monthly bill will go up a little bit because of that new network.

So the absolute must in all of this?  Put good programming — games in a sports network’s case — on the new channel.

This is where the SEC’s monster deal with ESPN comes into play.

Other start-up networks have face prolonged carriage battles with providers because their game inventory has been, well, weak.  And that’s been the case for just about every new sports channel out there.  That’s because those other entities have other broadcast partners who want to air the best games on their own networks.

Let’s take the NFL Network as our example.  No American sport is currently enjoying as much success as professional football.  Yet when the NFL launched its own channel back in November of 2003, its selection of games was most third-rung fare.  Why?  Because the NFL gets massive amounts of money from other television networks who don’t want to pay top dollar only to have the best games of the week appear on NFLN.

Today, with more subscribers, the NFL Network features a marginally better lineup of games.  Still, its programming schedule has yet to equal those of CBS and FOX or NBC (a network that’s allowed to “flex” better games into its schedule late in the season).  The NFLN schedule looks a lot more like ESPN’s Monday night NFL package, which is to say “fair.”

The Big Ten had to fight through carriage battles with its channel, too.  Had its network been able to feature games like Ohio State/Penn State early in its existence, demand would have been higher and providers would have caved more quickly.  But the Big Ten — whose network is a near 50/50 partnership with FOX — has a $1 billion deal in place with ABC/ESPN that runs through 2016.  Think ABC/ESPN is paying $100 million per year only to see the league’s best games air on its own network?

Now consider the Southeastern Conference.  Currently, CBS pays the conference $55 million per season ($825 million over a 15-year deal) to show the league’s best game each week.  All other SEC football games will now belong to ESPN.

Let’s repeat that: All other SEC football games will now belong to ESPN.

And that’s what sets the SEC Network apart.  It can put some of its best games on its own channel right out of the gate.  Once CBS snaps up it choice for the Game of the Week, it’s up to ESPN and the SEC to decide what goes where.  Maybe a game goes to the noon ET package which will likely be rebranded as something akin to “SEC Network Plus” or “SEC+.”  Maybe a game instead goes to ESPN, ESPN 2 or ESPNU.  Or maybe a game goes straight to the SEC Network.  For ESPN it’s just a matter of moving its own pieces around the chess board.

Granted, ESPN will still want to put the league’s very best games on its own air.  And it probably won’t be overly interested in airing games like Auburn/Samford on one of its main channels, either.  Hell, conceivably it could still farm the worst games out to other networks like FOXSportsSouth and Comcast SportsSoutheast.

But ESPN is in this for the long haul.  It has a vested interest in the success of the SEC Network.  We aren’t talking about FOX or CBS having to give up games to an NFL Network that can never benefit them.  We’re talking about ESPN yielding in one area to aid its very own self in another.

This isn’t a suggestion that the Iron Bowl will be moved to the SEC Network in Year One.  There will still be plenty of cupcake games on the new channel.  But the SEC will have the ability to put better games on its network sooner than anyone else has been able to do it.  That’s the benefit of having just two partners, one of whom gets, basically, just one game per week.  The SEC’s other partner — it’s bigger partner — controls the vast majority of the content.  And ESPN will only be competing with itself in terms of shuffling games around its properties.

Many viewers will still have to call their local cable/satellite providers and beg for the channel.  Some will have to sweat whether or not they’ll be able to watch their favorite team’s game right up until the week before the 2014 season opens… or longer.  Them’s the breaks.

But the SEC Network, overall, figures to be the fastest channel off the launching pad in the history of school- and league-owned sports networks.  Forget the fan fervor, the great college football, and comparisons to regional sports networks that carry 162 baseball games a year.  The key to what figures to be the SEC’s fast success is ESPN.

And the fact that ESPN will own darn near every game on the SEC schedule.

 


2 comments
TheRoyalePain
TheRoyalePain

@MrSEC Going to be some mad people in the beginning year or two though, when they can't see the game without paying an extra whatever.

mowens75
mowens75

Great info and exciting. SEC is doing this right. Can't wait!

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