SEC Network looks to get cable contracts with brand clout

05/04/2013 9:15 PM

05/20/2014 10:43 AM

In the aftermath of the recent unveiling of the SEC Network (and the considerable optimism that came with it

) the truth remains that now come the hard part — actually making it work.

The SEC Network's first and most important task will be finding a way to reach agreements with the nation's biggest cable providers. When the Big Ten Network launched in 2007, it failed to find its way onto most Midwest homes until 2008, because of squabbles regarding how much customers would have to pay for it. The Pac-12 Network, which launched last year, is experiencing a similar battle with DirecTV, which still does not carry that network.

So far, the SEC has only come to an agreement with AT U-verse, which says it has 4.5 million customers.

Missouri athletic director Mike Alden has expressed confidence in ESPN's ability to negotiate with the nation's most powerful carriers (such as Comcast, DirecTV, Time Warner and Dish), though it has struggled to do the same for the controversial Longhorn Network, which it also owns.

“Data shows that the two most valuable brands in college sports today are the SEC, No. 1, and ESPN is No. 2,” said Alden, who met with the media Friday morning. “So you put those two together, that's a pretty significant deal.”

Alden said ESPN is banking on the power of those brands to aid it during negotiations with cable providers, something other conferences — like the Pac-12 — don't have.

“I think from a national brand standpoint — like the agencies that rate the branding — it wouldn't even be on the rating scale that the Pac-12 is one of the top 25 brands in all of sports. It's not. I don't even think it's a top-50 brand. So it's difficult for the Pac-12 Network, knowing it doesn't have a national brand, at least according to analysts, to be able to deliver on that (and get broadcast) to the state of Iowa or Arkansas. Whereas the brand of the SEC, because it resonates in California, it resonates in Nevada, it has more of a chance for greater exposure.”

It's also worth noting that when the Pac-12 announced its intention to start a network in 2011, it had already reached agreements with four major cable providers, compared to just one (again, AT U-verse) for the SEC, which still has plenty of work to do on that front.

“I think also with the power of ESPN behind it we know that the connections ESPN has in all of those markets are the best,” Alden said. “So it gives you a chance, knowing you have a national scope, a national network and the No. 1 most recognizable brand in all of college sport in the SEC. That's (why) everybody is saying this is a national network, not regional.”

SEC Network not without costs

Alden essentially confirmed reports that unlike the Pac-12 (which owns its own network) and the Big Ten (which owns 49 percent of its network while Fox owns 51 percent), the SEC has ceded ownership of the network to its broadcast partner, ESPN.

Alden explained the positives and negatives of that decision from the SEC's standpoint.

“By owning, you have opportunity for more extended control over content and scheduling and you have a chance to generate more revenue,” Alden said. “But the risks associated with that can be significant, and I think they're finding that out in the Pac-12 right now.

“I think for us, the risk associated with you being in that stream of having to be the direct connect with cable carriers and downsides of that if you can't make that (work) can be significant.”

To get the network off the ground, Alden said the conference also had to buy back the third-tier television rights — which include one football game, eight men's basketball games and other programming not picked up by ESPN — for all 14 SEC schools from CBS Collegiate Sports Properties, IMG College and Learfield Sports.

Alden did not say how much it cost the league, but Alden did add that the conference will reimburse Missouri for the roughly $4.3 million it stood to make annually from Learfield for the next five years.

“SEC will make us whole so it will continue to be $4.3 (million) so it won't impact our budget,” Alden said.

Alden said the SEC and CBS — the league's other TV partner — also renegotiated its deal, but the terms and length of the agreement (which runs through 2024) did not change. The SEC was able to get rid of CBS's exclusive Saturday window, which will allow the conference to broadcast other league games at the same time as the SEC's game of the week.

“Now on Saturday, you'll get CBS's SEC game, but also on ESPN or (ESPNU) or (ESPN2) you'll get Mizzou-Florida or Alabama-LSU, which is pretty big,” Alden said. “So every Saturday, you'll have four national SEC games and you'll control Saturdays as far as college football is concerned. That was a big thing for CBS, they wanted to hold on to that exclusive window and the commissioner was able to negotiate with them to give it up.”

The agreement also eliminates pay-per-view games starting in 2014.

“People want to get their Tiger content, so instead of paying $39.95 for it, it will be a part of the SEC Network,” he said.

Fans will benefit

If fans’ cable provider carries the network, they will be able to access SEC content almost anywhere. Users will be issued a username and password that allows them to get the content on computers, tablets, mobile phones and other consumer devices like Xbox. By partnering with ESPN, its primary rights holder, the SEC will be able to move events and content seamlessly between various platforms.

“Anytime, anywhere on any device, we want that recruitable student athlete or alum or fan to be able to get Tiger content,” Alden said. “That's huge.”

While the programming for the SEC Network is still being decided, it is known that it will broadcast live sporting events for all of the conference's 21 sports and air plenty of original content, including studio shows, documentaries and classic games. The latter will include past Missouri games, Alden said, even ones in the Big 12.

“I don't know all of them they'll have access to, but I do know they'll be building the archival footage we control the majority of our rights of any games we've played in before, but there are some I can't speak to,” Alden said.

Alden also expects Missouri to jump to the forefront of the SEC Network's stated mission to air specific school content produced and developed just for the station, since it already does some of that with the Mizzou Network.

“ESPN knows that we have our own digital network here, our own television opportunities here, so they know we have the resources that many other schools don't have,” Alden said. “When they look at a school like Mizzou, they're saying 'Hey, we can come in there and work with them a little easier than other schools.'“

These are the perks of having your own network, Alden said, a concept that was clearly on the minds of both Missouri and the SEC when the two sides began discussions regarding the school's potential defection from the Big 12 two years ago.

“I choose to believe that Mizzou certainly, because of our academic reputation, because of our institution, was the primary driver (for the SEC's interest) and I know that's the case,” Alden said. “But I would be missing it if I didn't know they also were considering the six million people that live in the state of Missouri. But I think part of the reason they considered the six million people in Missouri is because they know we've got a bunch of people in the state that follow the Tigers.”

Now, Alden is putting his trust in both ESPN and the SEC to deliver his product to more fans than ever before.

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