Tomorrow, the Southeastern Conference and ESPN will formally announce their partnership in the new SEC Network, a television channel focused on providing more content to sports-lovin’ Southerners and making a helluva lot more cash for those folks’ favorite schools and teams.
But what will it mean for you? Judging from our email inbox, many of you have questions. Some are basic, some are more in-depth. We’ll give you our take on them here. And for our purposes, we’ll also keep the focus on football.
When will the network launch?
It’s expected that the channel will debut in August of 2014. That gives the league and its partner a full year to create an infrastructure — sales staff, on-air staff, behind-the-scenes crew, on-air sets, etc — and to sell massive sponsorship packages to clients.
Who will be in charge of it?
ESPN will handle the day-in, day-out television duties, most likely from its regional hub in Charlotte. Who knows television better than ESPN, after all? The network’s subscription fee is over $5 and some expect it to go to $7. As of last year, there was only one other national cable network — TNT — that even charged more than a dollar.
ESPN can charge that much due to America’s demand for sports. It’s also due to the fact the network owns the broadcast rights to darn near every sport from yak racing to cross-country ballroom dancing. In addition to broadcasting sport after sport, the network has created a niche of point/counterpoint shows that fill programming slots and bring in ratings each afternoon.
ESPN is an expert when it comes to television and an even bigger expert when it comes to self-marketing. The SEC will hand the reins to ESPN and say, “go get ‘em.”
Who will own it?
ESPN and the SEC together are expected to own it. Just as the Big Ten Network belongs 51% to the Big Ten and 49% to FOX, the SEC Network will likely be split down the middle, too. Most believe the league will control 51% and ESPN the remaining 49%.
When factoring in the amount of money the network will be worth to SEC schools, many are forgetting that ESPN will be taking home an enormous chunk of the profits, too. The folks in Bristol, Connecticut aren’t doing this as charity work.
Will a stronger tie with ESPN keep the network off SEC’s schools’ backs?
Outsiders will say yes, but insiders probably won’t notice a difference. There is already a belief outside the SEC — pick a messageboard — that ESPN has helped drive the SEC to the top of the BCS mountain. Of course, the SEC had already won BCS crowns in 2006, 2007, and 2008 before the league’s contract with ESPN began. Additionally, it doesn’t seem that ESPN has been boosting SEC basketball very much, does it?
Inside the league, the feeling is different. Every fan in the US of A feels that ESPN is out to get his or her favorite school. That’s because the network covers scandals and digs into bad news.
Was ESPN The Magazine’s recent expose on Auburn and an alleged 2010 synthetic marijuana scandal proof of the network’s hatred for the SEC? Was it proof, all you non-SEC fans, that the league is always covering up for its Southern business partners?
Scandals will still be covered by ESPN so the reality is most fans won’t notice any changes in the network’s coverage. If you believe ESPN loves the SEC, that’s what you’ll see. If you believe the network hates the SEC, that’s what you’ll see. Texas A&M fans will be especially conflicted as ESPN is now in bed with both the Aggies and Texas (as partners in its Longhorn Network).
That said, what ESPN chooses to cover and why has always been open to debate. Over the years the network has drawn criticism for refusing to cover some stories (Ben Roethlisber allegations, Brett Favre allegations) while beating the holy hell out of others (Mike Rice video, Penn State scandal). The network also once cancelled its own dramatic series, “Playmakers,” under pressure from the NFL, a massive partner of ESPN.
There’s no denying that a conflict of interest will exist when the news division of ESPN covers stories that won’t please the SEC or its member institutions. But ESPN has so many contracts with so many leagues and schools that the conflict with Mike Slive’s league will be but a drop in the bucket.
Will CBS still broadcast a “game of the week” and the SEC Championship Game?
Yes, you’ll still be able to watch Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson on Autumn Saturdays. The league’s 15-year, $55 million-per-year deal with the CBS runs through the 2013-14 season. That includes the SEC Championship Game each December.
There will still be plenty of SEC games on ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPNU as well.
The SEC knows that it can get lots more eyeballs by putting its best games in front of a national audience on the major networks.
You can expect changes, however, when it comes to some of the league’s less-attractive football matchups. In past years, ESPN has brokered out a small number of games to FOXSportsSouth and CSS (Comcast Sports Southeast). Those games will probably find their way to the SEC Network moving forward.
As for the weekly noon ET game that’s carried on what’s now called the “SEC Network,” it remains to be seen what happens with that syndicated package. With contracts cut, it probably won’t be changing content-wise, but it could be in store for a name change. It would be confusing for viewers if the league had an actual channel called the SEC Network as well as a syndicated package of games running under the same moniker. We expect something like “SEC Plus” or the “SEC Network Plus” to be adopted. But we’ll see.
What about pay-per-view games?
As part of the SEC’s third-tier rights buy-back, the television rights owned by each of the league’s 14 schools to one football game per season will now be turned over to the conference. Usually the true dregs on the schedule, those games will most likely be turned over to the SEC Network rather than airing as pay-per-view contests that benefit each school separately.
There is a caveat, however — what happens on Saturdays like last November 16th will be interesting to watch. On that day, there were five pay-per-view games (Jacksonville State at Florida, Wofford at South Carolina, Alabama A&M at Auburn, Georgia Southern at Georgia, Sam Houston State at Texas A&M) and one game on CSS (Samford at Kentucky). It would be quite a stretch to fit six football games into one channel’s broadcast schedule for a single day.
It’s possible, then, that the SEC and ESPN could trot out a pay-per-view plan on occasion in a state-by-state basis. It’s also possible that the SEC Network could create its own Thursday night football package as the NFL has done on its channel. A number of SEC squads have frequented ESPN’s Thursday night lineup in recent years. But how valuable would a Thursday night package featuring games with Wofford and Samford truly be?
It seems more likely that the league will simply try to get more involved with the scheduling plans of its institutions in order to make sure everyone isn’t scheduling their patsies for the same weekend.
Hmmm. Nine conference games would make for fewer cupcake-filled weekends, too, now wouldn’t it?
Will the SEC Network force the league to go from eight conference games to nine?
No. Well, not yet anyway. We’ve been down this road before so we won’t bore you with our long list of reasons why the Southeastern Conference should add one more league game per season. Instead, we’ll just look at it from a content standpoint.
If the SEC and ESPN want to make maximum coin off this venture — and they do — a move to a nine-game slate makes sense. Which do you think would be easier to sell: Sam Houston State at Texas A&M or Tennessee at Texas A&M? Jacksonville State at Florida or Auburn at Florida?
Money talks. Sooner or later the SEC will take the money and move to a nine-game conference schedule.
Will I have to subscribe specifically to this channel?
No, but this is where things will get tricky. The SEC and ESPN and all the various cable and satellite providers across the country will have to reach agreements on what those providers pay SEC/ESPN for the SEC Network. Those carriage negotiations usually don’t go too smoothly, a cross between going across the aisle in Congress and trying to reason with Kim Jung Un.
You will be caught in the middle of all these negotiations. You will be the rope that gets tugged back and forth. This is also another reason the league is giving itself a pre-launch countdown of more than a year.
The Big Ten had troubles getting its Big Ten Network picked up by cable and satellite outlets. The Longhorn Network — Texas’ partnership with ESPN — has been an absolute nightmare. The Pac-12′s new networks are still not on DirecTV. Even an entity as big as the NFL has had issues getting its network onto all of the cable and satellite outlets it desires.
The 2007 regular-season finale between the Patriots and Giants — which featured the “will they/won’t they go undefeated?” storyline — had to be opened up to two other networks because most Americans wouldn’t have been able to see that history-making game if it has aired solely on NFL Network.
Down South we tend to view the SEC as the biggest dog in the pack, but if the NFL has had trouble with its network and if the University of Texas has had trouble with its network — inside the state of Texas, for gosh sake — the SEC is in for some bumps and bruises as well.
Who will have to pay for this channel?
Every cable and satellite subscriber in the SEC’s 11 state region (depending on which providers pick the network up).
Whether you watch the SEC Network or not, inside the SEC’s geographic footprint most outlets will eventually be forced to carry the network, regardless of what the SEC and ESPN charge them. Then those fees will be passed along to you as part of an increased cable or satellite bill.
Tying back into our last answer, if Comcast, for example, balks at carrying the SEC Network in Arkansas, the league will likely place a pretty good Razorback game on the channel for leverage. Fans will be instructed to call their local cable/satellite provider and demand the SEC Network, a la “I want my MTV!” Arkansas fans will start calling. At some point, Comcast will cave and pay the SEC and ESPN what they’re asking. Then Comcast will pass that price right on to the customers who did the calling.
And what about all those non-sports fans who could care less about SEC football and basketball? They’ll see their television bill go up as well. Whether you watch ‘em or not, you cable and satellite subscribers are paying for stations like CNN, FOX News, HGTV, TNT and others right now.
More than likely, the SEC and ESPN will try to charge around a dollar per month for the channel, which falls in line with the Big Ten’s 97-cent fee from a year ago.
If I live outside the SEC footprint will I get the network?
Yes, eventually. It again depends on which cable and satellite providers cut deals with SEC/ESPN and how quickly they do it. Outside the SEC’s 11-state region, the impact on a viewer’s monthly television bill will be smaller.