The Southeastern Conference made it official Thursday: It has no plans to loosen its chokehold on collegiate athletics.
The league formally announced the formation of the SEC Network, a television channel devoted exclusively to conference sports, as more than 30 of its coaches from various sports and dozens of media members looked on at the Hyatt Regency. The announcement prompted SEC commissioner Mike Slive to quote Aesop: “The level of our success is limited only by our imagination.”
“And the SEC has dreamed big,” Slive added.
The network, a partnership with ESPN, will broadcast 24 hours a day beginning in August 2014.
“It will be here before we know it,” said Justin Connolly, who was promoted from within ESPN to run the network. “Our aim is to bring the passion and the identity of the SEC on screen.”
AT&T U-verse has been signed as a distribution partner, and ESPN is beginning discussions with other cable and satellite providers in hopes of adding more partners before the network’s launch. The hope of the SEC and ESPN is that service providers within the 11-state SEC footprint will make the channel available at the same level of service as ESPN and for providers outside that geographic area to make it available at the ESPNU level, Connolly said.
“We believe this conference has national appeal,” ESPN president John Skipper said. “This is not a regional network. This is a national network.”
The network, which will be based out of existing ESPN facilities in Charlotte, will feature more than 1,000 live sporting events from all 21 of the conference’s sports in its first year, Slive said, although 450 of those will be on the television channel while the rest will be broadcast across digital platforms. The network will show approximately 45 football games, more than 100 men’s basketball games, 60 women’s basketball games and 75 baseball games in the first year, according to ESPN.
“We boast that we play in the greatest conference in America, and I think with this announcement today, it is apparent,” said South Carolina athletics director Ray Tanner, who was in attendance along with Gamecocks football coach Steve Spurrier and women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley.
ESPN representatives promised a network unlike any of its counterparts, with high production quality and access across multiple platforms. Connolly compared Thursday’s announcement to taking “the tarp off this Ferrari.”
Programming will include live studio shows, spring football games, signing day coverage, pro day coverage and shows such as the “SEC Storied” series. The conference also promised its network with host “top-tier” football games rather than just leftovers. While CBS will retain first choice of games each week, the SEC and ESPN will determine the spot of the remaining games and will, for the first time, be able to schedule a game opposite the 3:30 p.m. marquee time slot of CBS. The SEC will not add anymore Thursday night games as part of the new deal, Slive said.
“There will be something for every SEC fan all the time,” said Slive, who promised “an unparalleled fan experience.”
The network is expected to deliver an unprecedented payday for the SEC, although Slive declined to discuss figures. The true monetary value of the network won’t be known until all of its distribution agreements are signed, and even then it could be hard to calculate separate from the SEC’s overall deal with ESPN, which ESPN announced Thursday has been extended through the 2034 season.
“I invite all our competitors to take out their actuarial tables and look up 2034,” Skipper said.
“I think it’s already been established that this network will be very successful in terms of distribution and development of potential revenue,” Slive said. “We wouldn’t have done this if we didn’t believe it was going to be in the long-term benefit of the league.”
The SEC becomes the third conference to develop its own network, joining the Big Ten and the Pac-12, and ESPN believes it can learn from and exceed those networks with the SEC.
“Nothing like this has been done before,” Skipper said. “This is taking this to a whole new level. I don’t think our intention is to compare this to anything.”
The SEC Network has been in development for more than a year, but not until Thursday would a conference representative say its name publicly. The discussions had been referred to as Project X.
“Today we say goodbye to Project X,” Slive said, “and hello to the SEC Network.”