With the addition of DirecTV to its list of carriers yesterday, the SEC Network is poised to be accessed by just over 85 million households when it launches on the 14th of this month. The fact that it's received the nationwide carriage the SEC and ESPN were seeking isn't a surprise; the fact that all the major deals are done nine days out is.
Television carriage deals typically go right down to the 11th hour or even beyond. And while some SEC fans were probably still feeling a bit nervous about their carrier until recently -- a number of deals have been announced since SEC Media Days -- the reality is that full clearance nine days out is nothing short of miraculous. It speaks to the power of the SEC brand and to the loyalty of SEC supporters that enough pressure was exerted to get all the big boys lined up to carry the new channel with a full week to spare.
As we prepare for the grand unveiling and rollout of this ESPN/SEC joint venture, now is as good a time as any to declare some winners and losers in terms of the SEC Network. We'll go with the positives first.
Ole Miss and Mississippi State -- Every school in the SEC will profit from the new channel. Eventually, schools could bring in upwards of $30 million additional dollars per year, thanks to the SEC Network. The money will be split evenly among the schools and the conference office, so there will still be some haves and have-nots inside the league. Alabama's athletic budget will always be larger than Mississippi State's, for example. But those schools with the league's smallest budgets -- like Ole Miss and Mississippi State -- are about to leapfrog dozens of other nationally-known programs. When the channel reaches its full potential, the schools in the Magnolia State will have athletic funds equal to massive athletic brands like Notre Dame, Southern California, Florida State and Texas.
SEC Fans -- About 99% of SEC football games were on television anyway, so there won't be a big boom on that front. But fans will able to see more live games and events from the league's non-revenue sports. Also, there will now be around the clock programming featuring SEC content. Classic games, talk shows like Paul Finebaum's, live pregame shows, documentaries, and content produced by each school will now be available at all hours of the day. Like never before, SEC fans will be able to immerse themselves in all things Southeastern Conference.
Mike Slive -- Already the cock of the walk in college football circles, Slive can now sip his Blanton's and puff his Cubans knowing that no other conference has ever had such an easy time launching its own channel. The Big Ten -- to its credit -- blazed this trail years ago and the SEC profited from watching their gains and losses. The Pac-12 tried a six-network approach that's yet to catch on nationally. The ACC has already given all its rights to ESPN anyway, so the amount of cash generated by a potential ACC Network would be somewhat mooted. And the Big 12 is just too splintered thanks to the Longhorn Network to pull off anything as grand as the SEC's new channel.
ESPN -- Did we mention the Longhorn Network? A year into its existence, the Texas-centric channel still wasn't being carried in every corner of the Lone Star State. Perhaps ESPN applied some learned lessons from its LHN struggles to its SEC Network negotiations. Or maybe it's just that much easier to sell a brand that's big in 11 states rather a brand that's big in one. Either way, the SEC Network has now gone up with relative ease. It's launch will be one of the biggest ever for a sports network. Even better, everyone signed on before the network's launch, much less before the first game of the season on August 28th. Had some fans been locked out on that Thursday, it would have been a black eye for the carriers, the SEC and ESPN. Instead, ESPN can now cruise comfortably into its first month of SEC Network programming.
Conspiracy Theorists -- In case you haven't been paying attention, some battle lines are being drawn across the college football landscape this summer. Coaches from outside the SEC are poking their fingers at the SEC's scheduling habits. "Eight conference games is not enough." "We already play nine quality foes per year." "Not everybody in the SEC is strong." The fact that so many coaches are singing in unison in August suggests that they're campaigning to keep the SEC from landing two (or more) teams in the new College Football Playoff. Enter the SEC Network. Now Slive's 14 schools have a megaphone capable of reaching 85 million homes. ESPN honchos have already admitted that the channel will be more of a promotional arm for the league than a news organization. You'd better believe that rival coaches, non-SEC fans and conspiracy theorists will be bothered by this SEC/ESPN partnership. After all, the new College Football Playoff will air on ESPN. Don't be surprised to hear more and more people suggest an SEC/ESPN conspiracy the closer we get to the new playoff.
SEC Television Ratings -- SEC fans will know where to go to watch SEC games. But as we've pointed out once before, the total number of viewers for SEC football games could drop with the new channel. College football fans have grown accustomed to flipping through ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU on Saturday nights. Even the new Saturday night FOX game has struggled to gain a foothold versus those other networks (especially ABC, ESPN and ESPN2). How long will it take for someone outside the SEC footprint to get in the habit of also checking the SEC Network for an evening game? The bottom line is this -- a Missouri/Georgia game would draw bigger ratings on ESPN or ESPN2 than it would on the SEC Network. There are many other benefits to the channel, but ratings -- at least in the beginning -- aren't likely to be one of them.
SEC Attendance Figures -- Across the SEC's 11-state footprint, fans will flock to the new channel. Whether the SEC Network can retain them will depend on programming, but it's a pretty good bet the folks in Dixie will like what they see. Attendance figures across the country have dipped in recent years thanks to the explosion of HDTV and a boom in the number of games on television. The SEC created a panel to study and improve fans' in-game experience for a reason. Now that there's going to be one channel with three straight SEC games on it -- plus the usual league games on CBS and the ESPN family of networks -- the urge to stay at home might become even greater. Schools might not want to lose the cash generated by stadium attendance, but the potential cash from the SEC Network should offset any declines in in-game revenue. Still, keep an eye on SEC attendance figures this fall and beyond.
Every Other Conference -- Other leagues might continue to yelp, "They're not all that," but the easy launch of the SEC Network suggests plainly that, yes, the SEC is all that. From a financial standpoint, the SEC and Big Ten remain neck-and-neck in terms of long-range financial prospects. From a coverage standpoint, the SEC Network will reach more than 85 million homes at start-up. The Pac-12 Network launched two years ago this month and it's still not on DirecTV. And whether it results in favoritism or not, the Southeastern Conference is now partnered with the ESPN, the loudest voice in college athletics. There will be no cheers emanating from the offices of the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 today.