ESPN officially unveiled the SEC Network today and as you can already tell, Bristol's footprints are going to be firmly entrenched with the conference. The SEC has dominated the college football landscape for the past several years and is in line for a huge cash influx in launching their own network, following in the footsteps of the Big Ten and the Pac 12. But while the Big Ten Network has Fox as a partner and the Pac 12 is independently owned, the SEC Network has hitched its wagon to ESPN and Bristol machine is firmly promoting this as an ESPN network. Here are the three major takeaways from today's announcement:
-While bringing the SEC Network into being, ESPN has also extended their rights agreement with the conference for 20 years through 2034, which according to Darren Rovell isn't just the longest sports rights agreement, but the longest contract in television period. It's safe to say ESPN's commitment to the SEC is the most firm in all of sports. Sorry to those of you who feel ESPN already shows the conference some level of bias in their coverage (and that's a sentiment that is definitely up for worthwhile debate given the media's influence in college football), but it's going to continue for another two decades minimum.
-Most importantly for the SEC Network, it will start off the bat with an impressive 45 football games, which may have been more than originally anticipated given the complexity of rights and the league's spread across ESPN and CBS already. BTN, which has been around for several years and has much wider distribution, also aired over 40 football games last fall so the SEC Network will start on a mostly level playing field. More than 100 men's basketball games are also slated along with several other sports like women's basketball, baseball, and more. Those football games will naturally be the key draw in gaining wide distribution from the outset. If SEC Net can just get one or two games involving Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and LSU then it can gain a foothold much faster than it would for games mainly featuring Vandy, UK, and Ole Miss.
-Speaking of distribution, ESPN does already have one national outlet signed up – AT&T U-Verse, which was also the first to take the plunge on the white whale of sports television – Longhorn Network. U-Verse isn't going to cause any of the corporate execs to go dancing in the streets, but it's a start. Wide distribution for the SEC Network won't necessarily be a slam dunk. The Pac 12 Network is still trying to gain ground nationally, for example.
As football season approaches though, I'd expect the SEC Network to pass the Pac 12 in terms of national distribution just because of the power of the brand and ESPN's backing. This is a much safer bet for ESPN than the Longhorn Network, which by its nature is only going to reach a small corner of the market. The demand for the SEC Network and the quality in programming should ensure a promising outlook, which will mean one thing – the rich will undoubtedly get richer… both for the SEC and ESPN. I can hear the new chants now…
"S-E-C, $-$-$… S-E-C, $-$-$… S-E-C, $-$-$"