SEC Steers Clear of Channel Wars

By Carolyn Braff
The Southeastern Conference (SEC) has ended all speculation that the nation s most powerful football conference would leverage its power to launch a television network. With last week s announcement that the SEC has locked up a 15-year cable deal with ESPN to complement its 15-year network deal with CBS, all talk of an SEC cable network has been silenced, at least through 2023-24.
It was a process of evaluating that over almost two years, explains Mark Womack, executive associate commissioner of the SEC. We certainly looked at all the advantages of having the network, and, at the end of the day, we were able to accomplish most of those objectives with a more traditional sale of rights. We felt that this direction was advantageous for us as far as having the content available to as large a number of our fans as possible.
The cable agreement with ESPN will put more than 5,500 SEC events on ESPN s television, digital, and mobile platforms over the next 15 years, including football, men s and women s basketball, Olympic sports, and SEC championships. Matching the length of CBS s agreement, the 15-year deal is the longest national-rights agreement in ESPN history.
The alternatives that we were looking at were long-term as well, Womack explains. Had you done your own channel, you were probably talking 20-25 years. This gives us some stability long-term for where our content is going to be distributed, as well as having both networks make statements about where they are in the college marketplace.
Syndication Seals the Deal
As part of the agreement, ESPN Regional Television becomes the new over-the-air syndication home for SEC football and basketball, and ERT replaces Raycom Media as owner of the SEC s syndicated rights. The sale of local-syndication packages was an important pillar in the ESPN rights deal and a significant hindrance to the SEC s forming its own network.
I think I started out wanting to do a channel, says SEC commissioner Mike Slive. In the final analysis, the piece that makes us a little different is the fact that we ve permitted our institutions to televise on local packages, and those local packages have real value. Being able to retain those local packages and retain the revenue from them, in addition to the revenue from the CBS and ESPN packages, took it over the top.
Having ERT as a syndication partner will allow over-the-air syndication to reach outside the nine-state reach of the SEC member institutions, which the SEC was unable to do with Raycom.
Our over-the-air syndication package in the future will be not only in our footprint but in a significant part of the country in some very major cities, Slive says. We expect to have very significant regional-cable packages, and ESPN and the SEC will work together to offer multi-sport packages with SEC content for regional-cable syndication.
A Growing Distribution
ESPNU, ESPN s 24-hour college-sports network, will receive extensive content through this deal, including a minimum of 13 football and 12 men s-basketball telecasts, as well as a weekly hour-long program focusing on SEC sports. In SEC territories, ESPNU does not have the distribution reach that it has in other regions, but, according to Burke Magnus, ESPN SVP of college sports programming, the SEC deal will hopefully accelerate the process of completing an agreement with Comcast, the nation s top cable distributor.
It s good distribution now. It is not perfect, Magnus says, but it s going to get better. We need to get an agreement in place with Comcast, and this is the first step in that direction.
Digital Rights Stay Home
As with the CBS deal, comprehensive multimedia rights were bundled into the ESPN agreement, including live simulcasts of football and basketball on ESPN360.com and ESPN Mobile TV, along with additional content rights for ESPN.com. Still, each SEC institution retains the right to continue a local multimedia-rights package, and many are choosing to do so.
Our 12 institutions have significant individual multimedia-rights packages, Womack explains. We were able to protect those by doing the agreements that we did, as opposed to doing our own channel. As a conference, we were also able to maintain some of the digital rights and to determine how we re going to move forward in the new-media age.
CBS + ESPN = Total Coverage
Together, the two deals provide comprehensive coverage for SEC football and basketball. Every game not broadcast through the network package will be broadcast by one of the ESPN networks, providing more distribution for the SEC than for any other conference in the country.
When you look at our two television partners, it s been something that has a little history from past years as to how those two have worked together, Womack says. Both of those platforms in their particular element give us the best national exposure that we could hope for.
The choice to give cable rights for SEC content to ESPN rather than the CBS College Sports Network was certainly not a snap decision but one that made the most sense for a conference that excels nationally in a range of sports.
We certainly had discussions about that, and some of the CBS deal does provide some content for
CBS
College that hopefully will be beneficial for them, Womack explains. We ve had a long relationship with ESPN, and the position that they have in the college environment is one that we think provides the greatest deal of exposure for our programs and the greatest distribution for our fans.
Extra Exposure
On all ESPN platforms, the agreement makes detailed provisions for plenty of lower-profile sports as well. A minimum of 16 women s-basketball games will appear on ESPN and ESPN2, an additional 16 will air on ESPNU, and a game of the week will be featured on ERT. For Olympic sports, a minimum of 25 annual regular-season events in baseball, softball, volleyball, gymnastics, soccer, swimming and diving, and track and field will air across ESPN s networks.
We ve had a conference package for our Olympic-sports programs for a number of years, and we ve looked to grow that package, Womack explains. I think we now have some different platforms to provide exposure for those. One of the objectives was to try to increase exposure for each and every one of our sports, and I think that we will accomplish that when the whole package is put together.