SEC Network Announcement: Bold Talk, Many Blanks

SECDigitalNetwork.com

ESPN and the SEC certainly didn't undersell their vision for the new network. Now the hard part begins.

Mike Slive and ESPN president John Skipper did most of the work at today's SEC Network announcement. Their new baby excites them tremendously, it's safe to say.

Skipper told the assembled reporters that, "It's not a regional network. It's a national network." The SEC frontloaded its FAQ for the network with this, a reiteration of some comments Slive made at the presser:

3.How is this different than other conference or single-school networks?

This collaboration between the SEC and ESPN will bring together unparalleled content from one of the most competitive conferences in the country with the highest quality, most innovative production partner in the sports industry.

Make no mistake, they're telling you. This will be the best conference network anyone has ever made. Also, make no mistake that these two are getting as cozy as any conference and media partner ever have been. The contract between them now runs through 2034, the network's official name is "SEC ESPN Network", and ESPN will be taking over the SEC's official Corporate Sponsor Program as well as all of its online operations. The line between where the SEC ends and ESPN begins is as completely blurry.

The trick now is delivering on all of their big promises.

Some of the news is positive in that direction. The network will show 1,000 live events in its first year. Crucially, more than half of them (550) will happen online rather than on the TV network. It's impossible to overstate how important the online piece is. Internet business are attacking television as we know it from all sides. Want to know how scared the establishment is? The CEO of CBS is threatening to take his network cable-only over a small startup you've probably never heard of. The chances that pay TV will look in 2034 like it does today in 2013 are basically nil.

UPDATE: CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus told Jon Solomon that it has re-upped with the SEC for an additional 10 years, though he didn't disclose the financial terms.

The content seems solid, but the distribution is just not there yet. Only AT&T U-verse has signed on to carry the thing so far, which is a real disappointment compared to what other conference networks have had at time of announcement. The Big Ten Network had DirecTV on board by then, while the Pac-12 had four cable providers ready to go. Justin Connolly, the ESPN executive who will run the network, said that they're still in the "early days" of negotiations, but it's not great that they're not farther along by now. ESPN hasn't had a tremendous track record with similar negotiations for the Longhorn Network. The SECN is a bit different of a beast than the LHN is, of course, but the point still stands. Besides, the Big Ten Network needed about a year after launch to get all of its important distribution contracts set, and the Pac-12 still hasn't been able to get its networks on DirecTV. If you want to do your part to get distribution, go to the conference's website for requesting carriage.

Conference Rights Fees Conf. Network Total
New SEC ? ? ?
Pac-12 $20.8 M $0 (due to startup costs) $20.8 M
Big 12 $20.3 M - $20.3 M
ACC, projected $20 M - $20 M
Big Ten, 2012 $10 M $7.2 M $17.2 M
Old SEC $17.1 M - $17.1M

We also didn't get any of the financial details of the deal. I suspect some of that has to do with the carriage rights, as it doesn't make sense to put out projected revenue from the SECN before they have negotiated what it will be. Another part is CBS. CBSSports.com's Jeremy Fowler reports that a "tweak" in the league's contract with CBS is coming for "likely more money", but as it's not done yet, they couldn't announce the non-SECN portion of the rights fees yet. The original report of the SECN's existence, about a year old now, said that CBS was reluctant to pony up more money solely because of expansion. Hopefully they've worked that out.

Overall, the positives are pretty strong. The conference appears to finally have a viable online strategy, including higher quality streaming to mobile devices and at least one living room entertainment appliance. Pay-per-view is gone; if you get the SECN and all of ESPN's channels, you will never miss a game. If the league hits its distribution goals, the subscriber fees alone will pad schools' bottom lines appreciably before advertising even comes into play. Most importantly you'll have a place to watch lots and lots of SEC sports, including events that right now are hard or even impossible to watch live from your home.

It's been almost a year since we first heard about a potential SEC Network actually becoming real. For that reason, this afternoon's announcement kind of felt like a finish line in some respects. In reality, the starter's pistol just went off. Today was a pep rally for a team that doesn't take the field until August of next year. It's a long wait, but it'll be worth it.

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