Big Ten reaps the benefits of TV network; is the SEC next? (cont.)
Once dismissed by Madison Avenue types due to its schools' largely rural following, the SEC has recently enjoyed unprecedented national prominence. League schools have captured the past two BCS championships (Florida in 2006 and LSU in '07) as well as consecutive men's (Florida in '06 and '07) and women's ('07 and '08) basketball titles.
On the tube, SEC football games on CBS garnered an average rating of 3.5 last season, the network's highest in eight years, while the league's ESPN (2.7) and ESPN2 (1.3) audiences were the highest of any conference. Its syndicated Raycom package (previously branded as Jefferson-Pilot and Lincoln Financial) was not only the most-watched among football conferences, with an average 1.4 million households, it also drew more 18 to 49-year-old male viewers than any syndicated show on television -- beating out the likes of Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune.
These syndicate-level football games (the ones that CBS and ESPN pass on) would presumably become the featured programming on a theoretical SEC Network. Whereas Comcast argued last summer that a viewer in Indiana isn't going to care about a game involving Iowa, that's not necessarily true in the SEC. Not only is an Ole Miss fan apt to watch Georgia and Alabama face each other in football or basketball but also baseball (where the NCAA's annual top-10 attendance list is dominated by Southern schools) or even gymnastics (where it's not unusual for certain meets to draw basketball-sized crowds).
Slive recalls standing on the field of the Superdome during the closing moments of LSU's BCS victory over Ohio State last January and hearing the crowd break into a chant of "S-EC, S-E-C."
"That's not something that happens everywhere," said the commissioner. "In addition to having passion and loyalty for their own institutions, there's a lot of pride and loyalty about being in the SEC."
The Big Ten's network is co-owned by Fox Cable Networks. Slive said "several different entities have expressed interest in talking to us about a channel." Though he did not specify which companies, one of them may well be Comcast, which already shows SEC events on its Comcast Sports South (CSS) channel and holds a stake in the Mountain West's network.
For all these reasons and more, many believe the creation of an SEC Network is inevitable. Based on both the Big Ten's experience and the expected demand, the conference would have a pretty strong case to present to cable providers in the South. O'Malley, however, is not so sure.
For one thing, the two conferences' TV situations are not identical. Whereas the Big Ten's schools long ago signed over all their individual broadcast rights to the conference, SEC schools still retain many properties, allowing them to produce their own pay-per-view or local broadcasts. Kentucky's Big Blue Sports Network, for example, airs a handful of Wildcats basketball games. Presumably, schools would have to surrender these rights for the good of the network.
Meanwhile, the same, rabid fan interest that might make such a channel conducive may also make it more lucrative for the league to keep as many events as possible available to existing networks. According to multiple sources, ESPN is seeking to add significantly more SEC contests to its stable, either through its other networks like ESPNU and ESPN Classic, or by potentially taking over some of the league's syndicated broadcasts, much like it does currently for the Big East and other leagues. (An ESPN spokesman said the network would not comment about any ongoing negotiations.)
"In my mind, a dedicated network [like the Big Ten's] has the greatest benefit potentially, but there's risk attached to it, and schools tend to be conservative by nature," said O'Malley. "I would not necessarily predict at this point that the SEC will do its own dedicated network. There might be enough money there with alternative models."
Whether or not the SEC ultimately chooses to create such a network, it's safe to assume that all Division I-A leagues will continue to closely monitor the progress of the Big Ten Network. The Big 12 explored starting its own network two years ago but ultimately passed; however, the ACC (with its current network contracts expiring in 2010) and Pac-10 (which will be hiring a new commissioner next year) could eventually explore the same route.
"It's at the point where other conferences are almost obligated to look at [starting a network]," said O'Malley. "But it is more complicated than simply, 'let's do the network.' "
The question SEC officials have to ask themselves is, are the potential benefits of a network worth bearing those complications? Their counterparts at the Big Ten are only now starting to find out.