SEC Network affects league's next big challenge -- conquering playoff

ATLANTA -- This conference channel will be about distributions and satellite negotiations and Slive-faced dollar bills.

But at its core, the SEC Network aims to be a national brand. ESPN bossman John Skipper made that clear during the network’s official unveiling Thursday, chiming in unprompted that the 24-hour channel with 45 football games annually starting in August 2014 will stretch beyond airwaves in Atlanta and Birmingham.

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“We believe this conference has national appeal,” said Skipper of the conference and the network that runs until 2034. There were more than 30 SEC coaches sitting behind Skipper and commissioner Mike Slive.

Taking that concept further, the network needs to appeal nationally to the 20 or so selection committee members choosing the four-team College Football Playoff in 2014-15.

The league’s next great challenge is applying a full-court press on the committee to preserve the insane streak of national titles when BCS computers no longer can.

The commissioners haven’t finalized the criteria for team selection, but at least in theory the committee should include football minds willing to grind through tape-delayed games of the top teams each week. So the SEC, which wants to position itself for at least two national semifinal contenders each year, is doing one big hand-wave to the new postseason.

Watch us. We’re on all day -- on CBS (which still gets first pick for its game of the week), on ESPN flagship, and three times every Saturday on the new Network.

There’s even a chance for two SEC games on an early-season Thursday night, one on ESPN flagship and one on SEC Network.

If the SEC Network gets full distribution in the South rather quickly, which many television insiders expect, Slive and ESPN can work to win over other areas of the country that might be fatigued by SEC titles.

Exposure isn’t a problem for the SEC, but pumping the ESPN platform all day only helps matters.

An eventual turn to a nine-game league schedule could affect the playoff and the network. A stronger schedule equals, according to Alabama coach Nick Saban, better chances.

“I think that’s very, very important,” Saban said. “The more we all play each other, the better chance you’ll have to get some kind of common ground of strength of schedule.

“Six teams in the top 10 at the end of last season, how do you parlay that into strength of schedule relative to other [conferences and teams]? I say let’s go play those teams.”

The most compelling football matchups will ultimately drive subscribers. The league won’t know the network’s true worth or scope until a year or two after launching. The Big Ten Network, which broadcast 42 football games last season, is in more than 52 million homes.

No doubt the SEC will probably try to top that.

Though he declined to discuss or compare revenues, ESPN’s senior vice president of college networks Justin Connolly said, “Absolutely, this can be the biggest conference network out there.”

“You just look at the passion,” said Connolly, who will run the day-to-day operations of the network. “You saw just the national championships, the level of play over every single varsity sport is unique, when you have that in terms of momentum and the wind in the sail, I think it can be by far the strongest.”

The SEC has turned the momentum of seven titles into a blockbuster 15-year contract in 2008 with a re-up five years later in the form of a channel -- all the while rubbing some mojo off on new member Texas A&M. The Aggies are aligning with SEC values by expanding Kyle Field to 102,000 after an 11-win season.

Will every decision work out for the SEC? History says no. Slive, 72, might be retired by the next time the SEC is a runner-up.

If the network pans out like the SEC expects, Slive’s curtain call will boost revenue while adding exposure at an uncertain time because of the playoff.

“The SEC has dreamed big,” Slive said.

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