The world has changed. Can you feel the difference?
Yesterday at 6pm Eastern time, the SEC Network was launched. Available to 90 million homes (a new deal with Mediacom will take that number even higher), commissioner Mike Slive and several of his acolytes pointed out that yesterday's debut was the largest blast-off of any cable network in the history of, well, cable networks. Granted, the media world has changed over the decades as there are now satellite-providers and internet-providers to help drive up the total number of households a virgin channel can reach, but the fact remains -- to use a little Southern vernacular -- the SEC Network done blowed up.
Fans from across the conference were greeted with a seven-minute opening video voiced by lead announcer Brent Musburger and a number of former SEC star athletes. While some ugh-ed and groaned over the venerable broadcaster's appearance, his participation lent the debut gravitas. Quick, name the lead announcer for the Big Ten Network? Then how 'bout the Pac-12 Network? Exactly.
Like him or not, Musburger is an all-timer and using him to kick things off made plenty of sense for a conference that never tires of rightfully telling everyone else just how damn big and bad it is. (Even if Musburger is likely just holding down the fort until Tim Brando arrives on the scene in a couple of years.)
Folks can and will nitpick all aspects of Opening Night. You can bet some fans were already counting the number of times their school was mentioned in comparison to their hated rival. Alabama grad Rece Davis was at Auburn while Missouri grad John Anderson got to shake and howdy with the homefolks back in Columbia. Davis must've lost a coin flip somewhere along the line.
Tony Barnhart -- who should be given a major role with the network -- was simply sent to Starkville to chat with Dan Mullen at a Mississippi State practice. For the South's longtime lead football reporter/columnist, it seemed to be a waste of his talents. There are sideline reporters out there looking for more airtime and any one of them could have handled the "How's practice going, Coach" assignment.
In typical ESPN fashion, anchors Dari Nowkhah and Maria Taylor shared some sort of choreographed high-five for no reason at all. For a network that owned this summer's World Cup with serious, intelligent discussion and presentation, it seems the top brass in Bristol are going to make sure their soldiers in Charlotte deliver plenty of yuks and "swagg."
There was a tease for the TV version of "The Paul Finebaum Show," complete with photos of his most well-known batty callers. Yeah. They'll do wonders when it comes to reversing stereotypes of Southerners. There was also former LSU Tiger Booger McFarland back in the studio to both talk a little football and force Nowkhah and Taylor to use the word "Booger" on national television. (Here's hoping Jadeveon "Doo-Doo" Clowney never winds up working for the channel.)
There were plenty of interviews with coaches and players from all sorts of sports most SEC fans don't follow. Nothing wrong with that. It'll be good for some of the league's other hard-working student-athletes to get some pub every now and again. And how else is ESPN going to fill 24 hours a day of programming?
The first ad aired on the channel was purchased by Belk, the SEC's newest corporate partner and the title sponsor of the SEC's newest bowl partner. Belk is a North Carolina-based company. Toss in the fact that the new channel is based in Charlotte and it's enough to have conspiracy theorists wondering how long it will take the SEC to officially advance over the Smokies and into the Tarheel State.
As for quotes, commissioner Slive had the line of the night when he suggested the new network was "for the kids." Hey, nice sentiment, but the SEC Network was created for the money. The fact that athletes might benefit from the additional exposure is a secondary consideration and everyone knows it.
But through the highs -- that opening segment was a beaut -- and the lows -- as a TV guy myself I felt for the folks who'd worked so hard only to have a microphone here or there drop out on them -- one thought kept running through this viewer's mind -- no other conference could've pulled this thing off. Fan passion was the key to getting every major television-provider in the country on board with a week to spare before launch day. Fan passion was the key to ESPN jumping on board even though they'd just struggled with the launch of their Longhorn Network. And fan passion will sustain the channel in the decades to come.
It can be debated why supporters of SEC schools are so fervent. Perhaps it's because there were no Southern professional teams until the mid-1960s. While Easterners, Midwesterners and even West Coasters had pro teams to support decades earlier, there was nothing Down South to steal fans' interest away from their favorite college teams.
Or maybe folks below the Mason-Dixon line are so attached to their colleges because football was just about the first thing after the Civil War in which Southerners could whip their neighbors from the North. In 1908, LSU won the South's first national football title. Auburn followed four years later. Too bad William Faulkner isn't around to give his take on that theory.
It's also possible that the rural nature of the SEC lends itself to college sports insanity. Aside from Nashville, there are no SEC cities that will be mentioned alongside the nation's largest metropolitan areas. The Columbias, Knoxville and Lexington are a bit more cosmopolitan than Starkville, Oxford and Auburn, but they won't soon be confused with Minneapolis, Detroit or Chicago.
No other conference matches the SEC in football attendance. In the biggest sport that's played in the biggest stadiums, the majority of those big stadiums are located in SEC country. If college football could be played year-round, SEC fans would never tire of it. The same can't be said for other regions of the country where pro baseball, basketball and hockey teams have massive followings.
During the SEC's run of seven consecutive BCS championships, columnists from other parts of the nation picked nits with the fact that Southeastern Conference fans would chant, "S-E-C, S-E-C, S-E-C," at the end of any title game. "A lot of those schools shouldn't do that because they didn't win a title." In Dixie, that argument has long fallen on deaf ears.
SEC schools beat the hell out of one another every fall. Their fans understand that fact and while their might be a lot of heat and rancor between some of the fanbases, there's also a healthy dose of respect. Most North Carolina fans won't pull for Duke to win a basketball national championship for the sake of ACC bragging rights. Good luck getting Ohio State and Michigan fans to root for one another in a show of Big Ten solidarity.
But in the SEC, there's no prompting or prodding necessary. If you watch the SEC Network's opening montage below, you'll see a conference putting its all-for-one and one-for-all mentality front and center before a national audience of millions. Only the Southeastern Conference could pull that off and have it seem believable. That's because for SEC fans it is believable and it is real.
The SEC Network era has begun. Fan passion made it possible. And no other college conference in the country could have so smoothly turned an idea into a 90-million home reality in 18 months.
Well done. To ESPN, the SEC, and to you.