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A Fans’ Guide to the SEC Network

SEC Networkimage courtesy of ESPN images

By now, you’ve heard about it. You’ve read about it. You’ve seen the advertisements on TV. You’ve probably heard Finebaum and Tebow promoting it.

The anticipation has been building for well over a year, and it’s all about to blow through Rocky Top (and Tuscaloosa, Gainesville, Baton Rouge, The Plains, Athens, etc.) like a hurricane….a Hi-Def, southern college sports utopia kind of a hurricane. The SEC Network is mere hours from launching, and people, has it ever grabbed headlines before we’ve even seen a single frame of video on our TVs!

Who are the hosts going to be? Who’s going to do the play by play? Why is the network based in ACC country? How will it be better for the fans? How many UT games will air, and what sports will be covered? Those are just a few of the questions that have popped up regularly while we’ve been waiting for this media lovechild to be conceived by two veritable battleships in the world of sports: The Southeastern Conference and ESPN.

Very soon, courtesy of some 11th hour distribution deals with DirecTV and Charter, the SEC Network will launch in 91 million households nationwide. NINETY-ONE MILLION. The media world has never seen the likes of this; what is essentially a regional sports network garnering almost full national distribution (the entire cable/satellite universe is in the neighborhood of 105 million) before it even launches. The Big Ten Network launched in approximately 50 million households, the Pac 12 Network far fewer than that, and even today, over two years after its launch, Pac 12 is still not carried on DirecTV.

So expectations are high, the product will no doubt be top-notch, and all of the member schools in the SEC are going to get PAID! Today, each SEC school will knock down close to $21 million in league revenue, but that number could soon grow as much as 50% now that the SEC Network is in launch mode and all meaningful distribution partners are on board. That will trump the $27 million annual conference payout that Big Ten schools currently get, much of which is a product of the growth of the Big Ten Network. Oh, and don’t think for a second that ESPN won’t see significant distribution revenue from this new network as well; they wouldn’t have pursued the SEC this aggressively otherwise. It’s a textbook example of economies of scale going to work for you:

Brand equity of the four letter? Check.
Scalable organization and infrastructure already in place to run the new network? Check.
Existing low cost facilities in Charlotte to act as headquarters for the network? Check
Corporate parents (Disney) with a group of media assets to bundle with the SEC Network to create leverage with distributors and advertisers? Check-mate!

Next action item for SEC Network and ESPN: Count the money as it comes in. And then count some more. Rinse, and repeat!

So we know about some of the economics that will benefit the conference, its schools, and ESPN. But what’s in it for the consumer, and what will make this network unique to some of the most rabid fans in the country (and worth a potential up-charge in their cable bills to boot)? Well, we decided to go right to the source: the programmers at ESPN’s SEC Network.

In a conversation with Dan Margulis, Senior Director of College Programming at ESPN, and the lead Programmer on the launch with the SEC Network, it became clear that there’s going to be a lot to like for the SEC fan. “We’re launching with one of our signature shows, which is SEC Now; that’s sort of our SportsCenter,” said Margulis. “It’ll be a three-hour special, doing live hits from all sites. We’ll follow that with the first of four consecutive weeks of SEC Storied, which is a franchise we built up on ESPNU. The first one will be about the 14 SEC schools and the celebrity fans at each of the schools, you know like Carl Edwards and James Carville. Charlie Daniels is the celebrity for Tennessee. And then on the opening weekend, we’re going to do a stunt with all of the BCS Championship Games that SEC teams have won since it’s inception, along with a special on the SEC and the Heisman.”

The network will then start to program with more of a school-by-school theme, with 14 consecutive days where eight to nine consecutive hours will be dedicated to each school, including four to five games from the last ten years or so that were considered “classics” for each school. Tennessee’s marathon will commence on August 19 at midnight by the way, perhaps another statement on how steep a hill this program needs to climb to regain true relevance.

“This leads up to our first game which is the 28th of August, where we’ll have SEC Nation, which is our road show that we’ll have every week from a game site, which that night will be from South Carolina, and then Texas A&M-South Carolina, and Temple-Vandy for the doubleheader, so there’s a lot going on in the next couple of weeks.”

Later that weekend, the Vols match up with Utah State, the only game on the network on that Sunday night, a game that Margulis will attend in person. “It’ll give heavy exposure to Tennessee with nothing else going on that night. It’s the Sunday night before Labor Day, so if there’s a time to play on a Sunday, you’d think that is it, and the program, the school has been great in working with us on it”.

One common question is what talent will the viewers see on the network. One thing is certain: SEC fans can run, but they can’t hide from Brent Musberger, who will team with Jesse Palmer as the lead announce team on SEC football for the network. ESPN veterans Joe Tessitore and Dari Nokwah will be the lead hosts for SEC Nation, and SEC Now respectively. And Tim Tebow will be found on SEC Nation, along with the one and only Paul Finebaum. Finebaum will also have a TV simulcast of his radio show Monday through Friday’s from 3:00-7:00 PM, meaning a whole new audience will be exposed to his “unique” cast of callers. Booger McFarland, Greg McElroy, Marcus Spears, and Kaylee Hartung round out the on-air team.

“It’s a really large crew, an impressive assembling of talent,” Margulis said.

And he would know, having played key programming roles in the launches of ESPN2, The NFL Network, and the YES Network. Big iconic brands for sure, but to Margulis, this launch is different. “I’ve never launched a network with this much distribution out of the gate. With the YES Network, obviously it was hyperlocal with the Yankees in New York, and the NFL, we launched without games, which was tough. With the SEC, it’s a great brand, a national brand, and what I’ve found is that events drive distribution, and we have over 450 TV events, including more than 45 football games and 100 basketball games, and a number of quality baseball, softball, gymnastics, etc., and that’s what’s made this a fun and unique project.”

The number of events actually climbs over 1000 when you factor in all of the digital coverage the network plans to provide, something that Margulis credits as a product of efficiency which is buoyed by a strong relationship with each university. “It is very much a partnership. We’ve been working for quite a while with the institutions to build up the relationships with the schools’ video department to get the schools ready to produce a certain number of events as we roll out our digital platform.”

Margulis also says that The SEC Network will strive for a more extensive level of access with the teams and coaches than what fans would typically see. “We’ re really excited about that opportunity. Our fans expect… they know they’re going to get games, but how do we differentiate ourselves by being SEC Network? You would think that you’d see something a little more uniquely “inside” than what you would normally see on ESPN or ESPN2, and that can only be done with the cooperation of the schools.”

Man, I would have LOVED to see how this plan would have worked out in the Dooley era. But I digress….

There will be challenges, it comes with the territory on anything this large and ambitious. When will that “unique access” wear thin with the coaching staff? How does this network not quickly become an Alabama showcase? And what about crowd control for all of those Tebow appearances at SEC campuses?

Even with those potential hurdles, it’s hard to not feel good about what we’re about to see on the SEC Network. It’s going to be loaded with content, from what is arguably the most prolific collegiate sports conference in the country. They’ve put together a solid and accomplished team both in front of and behind the camera. And, as I stated earlier, it’s in the ESPN family, which means cross-promotional heft (i.e., the “big brother” nets will always have SEC’s back in terms of exposure, marketing, etc.), stability, and leverage in the industry.

It’s almost time for some football, and we now have a new choice that is all SEC all the time. So what if it costs us an extra buck on our cable/satellite bill? The SEC Network had us at “SEC!”

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