Six months. For South Carolina football fans still salivating over the Gamecocks’ three consecutive 11-win seasons, kickoff for 2014 no doubt feels interminably far away.
From Justin Connolly’s perspective, Thursday night, Aug. 28, is just around the corner.
Connolly, ESPN senior vice president/programming for college networks since December 2012, is the man charged with building the SEC Network, which debuts with the USC-Texas A&M game at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Fans might be asking: How can I get my SEC fix on the new network? In South Carolina, only AT&T’s U-verse, with a “small footprint,” has signed on so far, but Connolly says Time Warner Cable, DirecTV and Dish will be “a big focus (of SEC pitches) between now and launch.” The network has rolled out its getSECNetwork.com campaign urging viewers to “raise their hands” so providers know they want the package.
The Aug. 28 doubleheader broadcast (Temple-Vanderbilt fills the under-card) kicks off a 45-game football slate and will include the inaugural “SEC Nation,” the fledgling network’s answer to ESPN’s “GameDay.”
“There are comparisons, but we’ll try to do it differently,” says Connolly, a Boston native and Harvard grad but now a confirmed SEC-aholic. “We want to take SEC Nation out to the tailgates with the fans, get into the pre-game vibe. From a TV production standpoint, GameDay is shot from above; we’re more into what’s going on around the scene.”
Connolly has miles to go, though, before “Nation” hosts Joe Tessitore and Tim Tebow first smile into the cameras from Columbia. On-air talent must be hired, schedules for televising other sports (from basketball and baseball to softball, volleyball, etc.) charted, and non-live shows, including newscasts, press conferences and original shows (which will include “classic games, storytelling,” Connolly says) planned and formatted.
And don’t forget designing and building show sets, creating new graphics and music, and even synching fiber-optics systems on each of 14 campuses to feed events to SEC Network’s studios in Charlotte – where a second facility is being built. For the apps-savvy, the network’s digital site will make available some 560 games and events per year, including 450 televised ones, via desktop/laptop/mobile phone.
Start marking your calendar now; it figures to get crowded quickly. Besides football (three games each Saturday so “you can sit down at noon and watch until midnight,” Connolly says), SEC Network will air 120 men’s and 60-70 women’s basketball games, 75 baseball and 60 softball games. “Where the digital outlets can be a big help is doing a three-day series from one location,” Connolly says.
As for the faces and voices singing the praises of all things SEC, “we’re in the thick of evaluating talent opportunities, and the next two-four weeks, there’ll be more announcements,” he says. “When you do the volume of games we’ll do, the studio work, we have a lot of needs on the talent front.”
Already, radio talk-show host Paul Finebaum has carved out his “guru/attack dog” role with his national ESPN Radio show and TV appearances last fall. Tessitore has a play-by-play track record, and though Tebow is a newbie in a color/analyst role, he brings a “buzz” factor. If Finebaum is the iron commentary fist, Tebow figures to be the warm-and-fuzzy velvet glove.
Brent Musberger has been mentioned as a possible addition to the SEC Network. “Nothing at this moment,” Connolly says, but adds, “We’d love to have Brent if that’s how it turns out.”
Away from the football orbit, figure on seeing a healthy lineup of South Carolina games at least initially, thanks in part to facilities. “(USC) happens to already have a fairly wired on-campus infrastructure,” Connolly says. “We try to create a hub or central command center on campus so we can go from soccer to volleyball, or basketball, and bring it all back and connect to Charlotte and Bristol (Conn., ESPN’s headquarters).” It doesn’t hurt that USC women’s basketball and baseball currently are top-10 programs.
USC’s Moore School marketing professor Mark Newsome has had his graduate level classes help craft marketing strategies for the launch of the SEC Network.
Connolly declined to get into monetary specifics on what cable/satellite outlets might charge or what SEC schools could reap from expanded coverage. Having midwifed Texas’ Longhorn Network, though, he knows both pitfalls and possibilities.
“Providers determine how they price packages on a retail basis – we don’t get into that,” he says. “But we want SEC Network in South Carolina on the same level as ESPN and ESPN2 (and) we think there’s great potential.
“With the Big 10 and Pac-12 (networks), the benchmark is there, and we think we’ll be as good if not better. After all, the SEC is the most recognized (conference) among college sports fans, (and has) the most avid fan base in the country.”
Come Aug. 28, when SEC Nation plants its flag on George Rogers Boulevard, Connolly hopes the same is true of the SEC Network. He faces a lot of miles, and missions, before then.