SEC's network with ESPN: A fan's primer

The SEC network will help its schools get more exposure and revenue. (USATSI)
The SEC network will help its schools get more exposure and revenue. (USATSI)

The Southeastern Conference and ESPN postponed a joint unveiling of their 24-hour network scheduled for Tuesday in Atlanta because of the Boston tragedy.

When the time is right, the SEC will showcase a network that has gobs of potential, a cornered market in the South and a chance to strengthen the national brand from New York to California.

That’s if it sells like the SEC and ESPN expect it to.

The league has a good product, a plan to put some of its better games on the network, the backing of ESPN and incentive to restructure a traditional media-rights deal that looked impressive in 2008 ($2.25 billion over 15 years) but ranks the league fourth among power conferences in 2012-13 projected television revenue, according to Forbes.

“It’s a no-brainer for the SEC,” said Joel Lulla, a television strategist who has worked with the Big 12, Boise State and others. “I’d be very surprised if the SEC Network doesn’t get full distribution very quickly.”

The SEC is keeping many details under wraps, but after asking around to television and league sources, here’s a quick-hit fan’s primer for the network.

What you get: Around-the-clock SEC programming -- live games, studio shows, analysis, replays, features, just about anything you can think of to fill 8,736 hours in a calendar year.

Where you get it: In your home, as long as your carrier strikes a deal with ESPN to show it. ESPN and the SEC will get to work on this soon, if not already.

For how long will you get it: The SEC's deal with ESPN is expected to go for 15 to 20 years.

When you will get it: The tentative launch date is August 2014.

Headquarters: All signs point to Charlotte, home of ESPNU headquarters. Logistically, this makes sense.

Name: TBA

Sports involved: Likely all of them, from calling cards such as football and men’s basketball to swimming and track and field.

CBS’ role: CBS doesn’t have one. It’s strictly ESPN and the SEC in a partnership. CBS will maintain its football game of the week status.

Distribution: Broad distribution in the footprint (including 11 SEC states), and “sports-tier carriage” in the rest of the country, according to Sports Business Journal, which broke the news about the scheduled Tuesday announcement. That means the Southern states will likely get the channel as part of their expanded package -- which most fans get nowadays -- once the carrier strikes a deal with ESPN. In a sports-tier carriage scenario, a fan must pay extra to get the channel at a price to be determined.

Broad distribution reach in the South: Around 30 million homes, according to Florida president Bernie Machen

What’s in it for SEC/ESPN: Exposure and revenue.

How to get it: Leveraging cable and satellite (Dish, DirecTV) against each other for subscriptions.

What is ESPN’s role?: ESPN must help sell it. And the SEC trusts that ESPN’s brand name, coupled with the SEC’s track record, will deliver in negotiations. ESPN has experience with bundling channels, and let’s be honest -- many fans will probably pay a little extra for ESPN programming without thinking twice. There’s built-in marketplace leverage.

Will the network change how you watch SEC football?: It very well could.

This isn’t another Jefferson Pilot. The SEC plans to host not just Tier 3 games on the network, but marquee matchups, too, according to sources familiar with the network developments.

There will be some top-shelf programming, especially in the first few years. On some weeks in the fall, for example, CBS would get the game of the week and the No. 2 game could go to the SEC Network if SEC/ESPN so choose.

Basically, these partners can do whatever they want with the content outside of CBS games, and it’s in the best interest of both parties to bolster the 24-hour channel with programming that can cater to all fan bases in the South.

The league bought back all its regional rights (mostly Tier 3 programming) from Learfield Sports, IMG and CBS Sports. That will be on the network.

Of course, ESPN still needs marquee games for its flagship and doesn’t want Kentucky-Mississippi State as its headliner, so there must be some compromise here.

Which brings us to …

The key for getting good games on the network: Balanced scheduling. One source said the league plans to avoid stacking games -- in other words, four marquee football games one week, only one or two the next. Spreading the wealth over a 14-week will be imperative.

Naturally, a nine-game league football schedule could help with this. And maybe the SEC will go that route eventually.

Inherent challenges: The cable-reach business is a little more complicated than trading a $1 for a channel subscription. The SEC might not be immune to lengthy negotiations that the Big Ten and Pac-12 have experienced.

The more money a league or network demands, the harder the sell can be. A conference channel must navigate pricing, network fees, tiers of service the network will carry, negotiating with markets outside of the footprint, advertising sales and keeping everyone relatively happy.

The Pac-12 Network, which launched in August, has found distribution everywhere but one very big place -- DirecTV. Those negotiations are ongoing. That some fans in the Pac-12’s own backyard of California can’t watch the programming is a concern.

The Pac-12’s deal with Dish Network included sponsorship rights for Pac-12 campuses, and some believe this setup has affected DirecTV talks. 

The Big Ten Network, which launched in August 2007, fenced with Comcast and Time Warner before eventually striking a deal.

But the SEC seems to have three things in its favor: the country’s best football, a dedication to broadcasting meaningful games on the channel and television carriers that are used to negotiations with conference channels.

Perhaps both parties can work out any kinks that might have stalled progress with the Big Ten and Pac-12.

How much is this bad boy worth?: Hard to tell just yet. Machen says the league might not truly know the value until around 2016, when everything is sold and the network gets comfortable.

One sports television source not directly affiliated with the SEC or the deal estimates an eventual worth of around $400 million per year in SEC television revenue from ESPN and CBS (which pays $55 million per year). That’d be $28.5 million per team before factoring in bowl game earnings or NCAA credits.

The Big Ten and Pac-12 project $250 million in 2012-13 television revenue, or $20.8 million per school, according to Forbes.

Those numbers will likely increase.

Estimates for the Big Ten have reached more than $40 million in overall revenue once it renegotiates its primary media rights deal in 2016.

The SEC is re-negotiating with CBS because of the additions of Texas A&M and Missouri.

What does it mean for expansion?: There’s no doubt the network positions the SEC nicely should it one day decide on a 16-team model. More inventory equals more programming.

But as one league source pointed out, the SEC feels programming won’t be an issue with 14 teams, that there is plenty of good product to distribute.

The league wouldn’t exactly make a public proclamation even if it wanted to add. Machen said the only potential catalyst for expansion has nothing to do with television -- if “some ace jewel called us and said, ‘Can you help us?’” he said.

Conference realignment appears to be in a holding pattern as the ACC navigates a lawsuit with Maryland over a $52 million exit fee.

Who’s next to jump on the 24-hour-channel train?: The ACC is evaluating the prospects of a channel and is waiting to hear back from ESPN on the matter. The ACC has several attractive television markets -- Atlanta, Boston, Miami, Charlotte, Chicago if you count part-time lover Notre Dame. The basketball will be outrageously good. Football has seen better days but still has brand recognition between FSU, Clemson, Virginia Tech, Miami and others.

But it’s uncertain ESPN wants to invest in another channel after undergoing this huge project with the SEC.

My sense is the Big 12 will forgo the 24-hour model because its members are tied up in secondary-rights deals.

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