Five Reasons Why The SEC Network Is A Big Deal

If you haven’t noticed, we’ve been making a big fuss around here lately about this SEC Network (which launches Thursday at 6 p.m. ET… in case you hadn’t heard). For those working in live sports video production, there’s no understating the general impact this is having and will continue to have on the industry at large.

The SEC Network launches today at 6 p.m. ET.

The SEC Network launches today at 6 p.m. ET.

Sure, other conference networks have come before and they’ve each found their own path to success. The SEC Network, however, takes the understanding and acceptance of the value of video production and technology infrastructure to a new level.

Here are five reasons why the SEC Network is a major milestone in the history of college sports video production.

1. The Schools Are Heavily Involved
More so than any of its conference network predecessors, ESPN has placed a tremendous amount of financial and production responsibility on the conference’s member institutions.

The schools have spent a combined $30 million on infrastructure and video production gear over the past year and will be responsible for more than half of the 1,000+ live events that the linear and digital network will program in Year 1 (at minimum 40 events each).

This isn’t just a national media entity coming in and pledging a portion of its resources to cover a team, conference, or sport. This is a conference-wide investment and adoption that has led to, essentially, the creation of 14 professional broadcasting and production houses throughout the SEC. It’s another major step forward in the trend we’ve seen: schools becoming their own broadcasters.

The other conference networks (BTN and Pac-12, most notably) all have established their own successful campus workflows, but don’t be surprised if you see those networks start to demand even more of their institutions in terms of the production of live events.

2. It’s NOT Longhorn Network
This is not meant as a swipe at Longhorn Network’s on-air product. Those who have been able to view the network’s live event and feature programming know the network produces content at a very high level. Heck, LHN has won five College Sports Media Awards in just three years.

However, the network’s distribution troubles and lack of programming breadth have been well documented.

SEC Network is miles ahead in terms of its distribution; negotiations that we’re used to seeing drag on well after a network has already started running. The 90+ million homes in which it will be available at launch is already more than any of the conference networks currently have.

While ESPN has certainly done so, this is a network that doesn’t need hyping. Even Walt Disney Company CEO Bob Iger has gone on record saying, “the SEC Network will be one of the most successful cable launches in the history of paid TV.”

Another major difference between SEC Network and Longhorn Network is marquee games. LHN has struggled to get more than two Longhorn football games on during a season and they are typically non-conference games against middling opponents. SEC Network’s first football game on August 28 pits Texas A&M and South Carolina. Games like that will force the cable distributor’s hand and draw immediate viewers to the screen.

“The [SEC Network] is very different,” says Stephanie Druley, VP of College Networks at ESPN, who also helped launch Longhorn Network in 2011. “It’s 14 and 1. The scope is so much larger that I don’t think you can fairly compare the two solely on the number of events. Where I do think the two will meet is in terms of quality. Any game that you’re watching [on Longhorn Network] feels like you’re watching an ESPN broadcast and that’s our goal here as well.”

3. The ACC Is Taking Notes
Lying in the weeds as the SEC drinks in all of the attention around this network is the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC).

The ACC hasn’t been shy about expressing its interest in creating a national linear network of its own. The league has a nearly $4 billion rights agreement in place that runs through 2026-27 with ESPN, so once all of the conference’s digital rights have been pulled back in house, it seems a natural fit. And ACC brass have been impressed with what they’ve seen at the SEC.

“Right now, ESPN is in the middle of their launch of the SEC Network and, once that occurs, we are really going to begin in earnest to talk with them about an Atlantic Coast Conference network,” said Clemson director of athletics Dan Radakovich at the SVG College Sports Summit in May.

Many estimates say that the SEC Network will net an extra $28 million per year for each institution; more than doubling the annual paycheck cut to them by the conference each year. That’s big money for everyone and is more than the other ‘Big Five’ conferences (Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac-12) pay out to their schools annually.

And again, the 14 SEC institutions have spent nearly $30 million combined on technology and infrastructure to prepare for today’s launch. If the ACC follows the SEC Network model with ESPN or another national media power, that’s big money for tech vendors looking to sell more gear.

The ACC may not have the sticker appeal that SEC football has on the surface, but the ACC does boast the largest geographic footprint of any of the Big Five conferences (43 million TV homes) and has the basketball and Olympic mettle to draw viewers year round. Oh, and they have Notre Dame.

4. Fiber, Fiber Everywhere
When the SEC Network was first announced as a concept in the spring of 2013, the first major step that needed to be taken was for ESPN to assess the broadcast capabilities of the conference’s 14 campuses. They found a mixed bag of results.

Before any focus was put on production or gear, operations team assessed the campuses’ fiber infrastructures. As expected, the football and basketball facilities were up to snuff as they were no strangers to television broadcasting. However, when so much of the digital programming is coming from the Olympic sports, those venues needed connectivity.

ESPN and the SEC laid upwards of 23,400 miles of fiber to connect over 150 SEC venues with centralized control rooms on campus; the SEC Network studio hub in Charlotte, NC; and the ESPN mothership in Bristol, CT.

The college video industry has gone back and forth in debating whether a centralized control room or a mobile production facility is the best way to invest. The SEC Network scores major points for the fiber/control room argument.

“I think when [the SEC schools] processed the amount of events they would be asked to produce they understood the benefits of a fiber network,” says Chris Turner, Senior Director, Programming and Acquisitions, SEC Network, who also notes that when ESPN crews come in for national linear broadcasts, they will use the same fiber transmission paths. “Once it’s in the pipe, it can go anywhere.”

5. Its Effect on the Present and Future Jobs Market
One thousand live events at 14 schools means one thing: jobs, jobs, jobs. SEC athletic departments have bolstered their video staffs to focus on live event production and the plans are to heavily utilize student and local freelance talent.

Freelancers in the 11-state SEC footprint will have more work than ever before, especially in year one when some of the institutions may grow scared of the idea of giving students too much responsibility right out of the gate. Everyone is looking to make a good first impression and that may result in larger freelance budgets from the administrations.

Meanwhile, students at these institutions are going to get tremendous opportunities to build their live production resumes, which is good news for sports video at large. Ask anyone in live television production and they will tell you: it’s a graying industry. Now students can come out of college will experience camera operating, producing, and directing as many as 100 live events that were distributed in some way by ESPN.

In this model, students are getting more chances to cut their teeth in production in their athletic departments than in their communications schools.