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The New SEC-ESPN Partnership Is About Much More Than A TV Network

trees in forestFor more than a year the sporting world has been talking about a potential SEC/ESPN-owned television venture known as the SEC Network.  Or as SEC types once called it: “Project X.”

Since May of 2010, we’ve been pointing to the possibility of an SEC-owned network (though some sites that launched well after 2010 would have you believe they were the first to cover the topic).  Money has always been the driving factor behind such a channel.  And now the talk all revolves around how much cash the network could bring in for the league and its teams.

But the SEC’s new deal with ESPN is about so much more than just the new SEC Network.

As we showed you yesterday, The SportsBusiness Daily reported on Monday that the SEC has bought back all of its third-tier television rights from groups like IMG, Learfield Sports, and CBS Collegiate Sports Properties.  In addition, the conference also bought back its digital rights from XOS Digital, the group currently behind the SEC Digital Network and

Moving forward, ESPN will be allowed to sell all of those rights together.  Instead of XOS Digital selling this chunk, IMG selling that chunk, and ESPN selling another chunk, now the league will have an ESPN sales force packaging all its products.

That aspect of the deal — even more than the new SEC Network alone — will fill the conference’s coffers like never before.  The television network will be a big part of it, to be sure, but it’s the ability to bundle television, digital (internet), and syndication rights together that is at the heart of this new SEC/ESPN coupling.

In the past, the SEC has taken the easiest approach to making cash — it’s held out its hand.  If a Learfield or an XOS or an IMG offered the most money for some portion of the league’s multimedia rights, Mike Slive smiled, said “thanks,” lit a cigar with a hundred dollar bill, and then put the rest of the loot in the bank.  Every spring the league’s presidents would convene in Destin, grab a nice fat check from the league office, and then return home feeling pretty doggone good about things.  As they should have.

But now the SEC has gotten even wiser.  ‘Tis better to package everything together, they’ve realized.  Better for sales, better for league revenue, better for the future.

Consider the following scenario.

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The SEC Has Bought Third-Tier Rights Back In Preparation For New Network

handing over cashThe 14 schools of the Southeastern Conference will no longer be selling their third-tier television rights.  With a new SEC Network on the way — and a need for programming of all sorts — the league office has already completed buying back each school’s rights from groups like IMG, Learfield Sports, and CBS Collegiate Sports Properties.

The SEC and ESPN will announce their new television network tomorrow in Atlanta.

According to The SportsBusiness Daily, the third-tier television rights include “one football game, eight men’s basketball games, baseball, women’s basketball and all other nonrevenue sports that are not picked up by ESPN or a syndicated partner” for each school.

The SEC has also taken control of all its digital and sponsorship rights.  Those too will go to ESPN as the network will now package television and digital advertising when selling the league to corporate sponsors.  Obviously, the league’s partnership with the four-letter network is getting much, much stronger.  And according to IMG College President Ben Sutton, all of these moves will benefit the SEC:


“The conference and the schools will be strengthened by this new arrangement.  It was a very productive negotiation.  There’s always a little pain along the way, but both side worked really hard to get this done.”


Sutton’s company had handled sales of SEC corporate partnerships in the past.  IMG will continue to manage multimedia rights (radio, on-campus signage, etc) for a number of its existing SEC partners.  Schools’ multimedia — non-TV — rights were not part of the SEC’s buy-back process.

The previous rights-holders — IMG, Learfield, CBS Collegiate — agreed to give back $15 million worth of television rights during negotiations.  In exchange, those rights-holders will drop each school’s guaranteed income by about $1 million per year “for the next several years,” according to The Daily’s industry sources.

The new network and larger corporate sponsorship packages should bring in quite a bit more per school than the $1 million being yielded.  As we wrote in December, our sources project that the SEC — taking every revenue stream into account — should be writing checks to member institutions for $30-35 million in the not-so-distant future.  That’s about $10-15 million more than the league’s current annual payout.

We’ll have much more on the new SEC Network later today and tomorrow.

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