The SEC Network's Real Challenge

Tom Shaw

Hint: It's not Comcast's harebrained campaign.

Yesterday, we noted that Comcast is trying to enlist SEC fans to push back against the SEC Network. It's a terrible idea from people who don't understand SEC fans; going after non-sports fans (who are more plentiful in most areas) would have been the play there.

It's not going to work. The big cable companies will carry the SECN eventually, just like they did with the Big Ten Network. They held out for about a year there, but they caved before missing out on the second football season. Something similar might happen with the SECN, but it will end up on expanded basic tiers throughout the region before too long.

No, here's the real challenge for the network in the future:

If you're not able to click that link to see the image (hey there, office drones), it comes from page 23 of this report. It's for the UK (Britain, not Kentucky), but the situation in the US differs little.

Among all those polled (age 16 and up), television is the media form people say they would miss the most if they didn't have it. However, its lead comes from having strong majorities among the oldest age groups. Those aged 45-54 still picked TV as their most-missed media, but its the first age group coming down where TV didn't get over 50% of the mentions. Jump down a demographic to age 35-44, and smartphones and Internet use on PCs and tablets combined outrank TV. Go down one more to age 25-34, and smartphones by themselves outrank TV. Go even younger to 16-24 and just 13% say they would miss TV the most, compared to 18% for Internet on PCs/tablets and 47% for smartphones.

Now, most American households are fortunate enough that they don't have to make a choice between pay TV and smartphones. With that said, a rising number are choosing to do without pay TV anyway. The pay TV companies and large studios are doing everything they can to keep people in the old system, from making TV a cheap addition to Internet service to having Hulu run ads even on its Plus offerings to causing content to disappear from Netflix randomly. It's in all of their best interests to keep people in some kind of cable or satellite subscription. Even so, people are leaking out of that system.

The real challenge is to figure out the best way to make money off of online offerings. ESPN has done a great job of offering its content online and through apps, but it's all tied to having a cable or satellite subscription. ESPN is the owner of the SEC Network, so whatever it chooses to do, that's what the SECN is going with too for better or worse.

The thing is, they need to figure something out soon. Student attendance is already falling in college football, and as that survey showed, the youngest people are the least attached to TV. If there isn't an affordable way to watch sports that doesn't involve a pay TV subscription, they'll just watch something else. There's so much out there, and viewing tastes can easily change over time. Did you know that more people worldwide watched a video gaming tournament last year than the BCS title game? It's true.

There is a blessing and a curse from the SEC hitching its wagon to ESPN. While the worldwide leader's digital offerings are the best from a technical standpoint, ESPN and Disney are about as wedded to the old model as can be. I'm hesitant to put a deadline on it, but certainly there needs to be some kind of solution in the next 10 years.

College football has a lot of challenges ahead, from the O'Bannon lawsuit against the NCAA to the potential of the Internet to completely disrupt the higher education system. The issues presented by the slow transition away from traditional TV are the ones schools and their media partners have the most control over, so there's no good excuse for not being proactive on them.

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