After months of rumors and speculation, ESPN and the Southeastern Conference finally revealed the details about the much-anticipated SEC Network on Thursday.
During a press conference in Atlanta, the two sides formally announced a 20-year agreement through 2034 to create a 24/7 network — previously known as “Project X” during its planning phases — dedicated to all things SEC.
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“Today, we say goodbye to Project X and hello SEC Network,” SEC commissioner Mike Slive proudly said in front of a host of media, coaches and athletic directors. “And that’s something that I’ve been looking forward to for a very long time.”
The network, which is slated to launch on Aug. 6, 2014, will air 1,000 live sporting events each year, with 450 televised on the channel and 550 distributed digitally. It will show 45 football games annually — approximately three per week for 13 weeks — and broadcast more than 100 men’s basketball games, 60 women’s basketball games, 75 baseball games and more from the conference’s 21 sports.
The network will also air plenty of original content, including studio shows, documentaries (like its SEC Storied series), classic games and specific school content produced and developed just for the station.
The announcement was also a long time coming for Missouri athletic director Mike Alden, who led the Tigers from the Big 12 to the SEC in fall 2011 because of the promise of stability.
"We know the move to the SEC has already elevated our brand from a national standpoint, and this SEC Network will do that even more so exponentially,” Alden said in a statement. “We are now associated with a national network that will give our programs and our name access to major markets throughout the country."
The SEC joins the Pac-12 and Big Ten as the only conferences to have their own network, a move that all but guarantees a financial windfall for the conference, which already earns an estimated $205 million annually from ESPN and CBS. However, the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M allowed the SEC to renegotiate both agreements, which began in 2008 and would have expired in 2024.
Though the financials of the new agreement with ESPN are not known — Slive would not divulge the details — SEC schools received about $20 million from the conference office last year, and industry analysts have reported the conference will be in a position to distribute as much as $35 million per school in two years once the new television deals are cemented.
“We have created and structured our relationship in a way that is really in the best interest of both of us,” Slive said of his league and ESPN. “The actual details … we’re not going to discuss at this time. But we’re both happy.”
Slive hailed the agreement, which ESPN president John Skipper called the longest television pact in all of sports, as a massive step toward ensuring the long-term strength of the SEC, which has claimed the last seven football national championships and 149 team championships overall since 1990.
“We will increase the exposure for all 14 of our institutions, and we will showcase the incredible athletes in our league,” Slive said. “The SEC Network is the natural outgrowth of our continued success … in short, there will be something for every SEC fan, all the time.”
Of course, if history serves as a guidepost, it may take a while for some fans to gain access to the network. When the Big Ten Network launched in 2007, it failed to find its way onto most Midwest cable providers until 2008, due to squabbles between the network and providers over 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. However, the Pac-12 already had four major cable providers on board when it announced its creation in 2011. That is in stark contrast to the SEC, which has reached a deal with only one cable provider, AT&T U-verse, thus far.
Nevertheless, ESPN’s Justin Connolly, who will oversee the day-to-day operations of the network, is optimistic it will find a way into most homes in a timely fashion.
“Having the fastest-growing distributor on board 16 months in advance of launch certainly provides us a whole lot of optimism when it comes to having those conversations,” Connolly said.
“We will target the widest distribution possible in the 11-state SEC footprint.”
Skipper, however, made it clear that ESPN has much grander plans for the network, which will operate out of existing ESPN facilities in Charlotte, N.C.
“We believe this conference has national appeal — this is not a regional network,” Skipper said. “We understand that within the 11-state footprint is where the most passionate, most important fan base is, but there are a lot of SEC fans in California and Michigan and New York and Connecticut and Virginia and Nebraska. And we expect to be in all those places.”
One other thing that remains unclear is how much of the network the SEC will actually own. For instance, while the Pac-12 has complete ownership of its network, the Big Ten only owns 49 percent of the Big Ten Network, with Fox owning the other 51 percent.
But while plenty of questions remain, few doubt the potential impact of the network, least of all Missouri’s coaches in its most high-profile sports. Both football coach Gary Pinkel and men’s basketball coach Frank Haith — who attended the event with Alden — were optimistic about the effect the network will have on recruiting.
“Now, as a member of the SEC, you can be in every home in the country,” Pinkel said. “It's so appealing … it's amazing when you have the brand name of the SEC next to Missouri what that does for all of us."
Haith said: “We had very good visibility in our league before, but this takes it to another level, both in conference play and out of conference. We recruit nationally at Missouri, and to be able to go coast-to-coast and list off the channels families can watch their sons play on every night of the week, wow, that's a powerful selling point."
One that other coaches in the league will use, no doubt. But Thursday was a day for solidarity, and Slive used his pulpit to remind everyone that were it not for that unity, announcements like this one would not be possible.
“It is this willingness to come together that leads me to call this era the Golden Age of the SEC,” Slive said. “As fable writer Aesop wrote, the level of success is limited only by our imagination. And using our imagination, the SEC has dreamed big.
“The launch of the SEC Network today is another historic step for this great conference.”