ESPN, SEC To Launch Linear, Digital Networks in August 2014
In a star-studded press conference in Atlanta’s Hyatt Regency Hotel, ESPN and the Southeastern Conference announced that the highly anticipated SEC Network, a 24/7 linear and digital network, will debut in August 2014.
“[This is] something I’ve been looking forward to for a very long time,” said SEC Commissioner Mike Slive, making the announcement on stage in front of more than 30 SEC coaches, including Alabama’s Nick Saban, LSU’s Les Miles, South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier, Kentucky’s John Calipari, and Florida’s Billy Donovan. “Today, we take yet another step to ensure the long-term strength of the league.”
The program offering promises to be robust, with 1,000 live events (450 on TV, 550 on digital) in the first year alone. Included in that total will be 45 SEC football games, more than 100 men’s basketball games, 60 women’s basketball games, and 75 baseball games per year.
Included in the development of the network is an extension of the current rights agreement between ESPN and the SEC to 2034.“There’s a lot of discussion about new competitors for ESPN, and I’m going to invite all my competitors to take out the actuarial tables and look at the year 2034,” said ESPN President John Skipper, taking a subtle jab at the soon-to-be-launched Fox Sports 1. “It’s a long agreement — I believe the longest agreement in all of sports — and it speaks to the commitment we have to this relationship. It speaks to the confidence that we have that the quality of the athletics in this conference will remain at the high level that it is, and it speaks to the quality of the collaboration that we have with Commissioner Slive and with his staff at the SEC.”
ESPN’s Justin Connolly, formerly SVP, ESPN affiliate sales and marketing, will oversee the network, whose production facilities and studios will be run out of ESPN’s facility in Charlotte, NC.
Distribution Challenges To Come
All this sounds good, but the biggest challenge for every new network is actually getting in front of eyeballs. Those proverbial “battles” with cable providers and distributors will play out over the next 16 months at ESPN, which is obviously no stranger to the task.
At the press conference yesterday, Connolly did announce that AT&T U-verse is already on board to begin carrying SEC Network when it debuts. It’s the deals with Comcast, Cox, and DIRECTV that will carry the most significance, however.
“Generally speaking, we will target the widest distribution possible in the 11-state SEC footprint, carried on a similar level of service as ESPN,” said Connolly. “Then outside of that 11-state footprint, [we will] target a level of service that might be comparable to where ESPNU is today. That’s really the approach that we’re seeking to take in the marketplace.”
Skipper emphasized his company’s high expectations for what the SEC Network will become.
“We believe this conference has national appeal,” he said. “This is not a regional network. This is a national network. We understand that, within the 11-state footprint, it’s where the most passionate fan base is, most important fan base, but there’s a lot of SEC fans in California, Michigan, Connecticut, Nebraska. We expect to be in all those places widely distributed with this network.”
SEC Network will make a strong splash in the crown jewel of college sports content, football. The network will carry 45 football games annually, which rounds out to three games per week with an early-afternoon game, a late-afternoon game, and an evening game on the program schedule each Saturday of the season.
“We’re a Saturday league. It’s historically a Saturday league. That’s when our fans want us to play football,” said Slive. ”We have agreed to play only two Thursday-night football games annually. That won’t change. So what we wanted to do was to make sure that we had maximum opportunities on Saturday.”
To achieve that schedule, the SEC had to renegotiate its deal with current network broadcast partner CBS, which previously held an exclusive window on its SEC and CBS Game of the Week. That exclusive window is no more, although CBS does retain the right to the first pick of which game it broadcasts each week. Once that pick is taken, a content board will make the decision as to which games end up on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, and the SEC Network.
“I think one of the advantages in this relationship,” says Slive, “is the ability to make determinations about which platform in a seamless way, which can work to the benefit of the network.”
No financial details of the agreement were disclosed, including what percentage of the network was owned by ESPN or the SEC.