The Next Big Step for the SEC

If you don’t live in, say, Birmingham, Alabama or Knoxville, Tennessee, you may not be keenly aware that this Saturday, tens of thousands of college football fans will file into their favorite team’s stadium to take in a mere intersquad scrimmage. The “Spring Game” for college football programs across the country — many of which are held this Saturday — marks the climax of spring practice, while offering the first taste of football for fans in 2014 and teaser of what’s to come in the fall. Much like college football in general, each Spring Game tends to mean a little more in SEC Country.

However as spring practice ends, on top of mind for SEC administrators — Conference executives, University presidents, and athletic directors alike — will be the launch of the SEC Network, the conference’s new television network in partnership with ESPN.

When you consider that the Big Ten launched its network in 2007, it’s surprising that the powers that be in the SEC have sat on the sidelines for this long. Over the last seven years, they’ve watched the Big Ten Network grow from a meager distribution base largely within its conference footprint, to now being delivered to approximately 52 million homes in North America. That seven-year head start in not only distribution, but carriage fees, has resulted in fully vested Big Ten schools (Nebraska receives a partial payment at this point in time) believed to each currently receive 25.7M/yr, $7.6M of which reportedly comes directly from the Big Ten Network. This is even before Jim Delany and Big Ten executives land a considerably higher television contract when it expires in 2016, now armed with Rutgers, Maryland and most importantly the 15 million households in-market they collectively deliver. The SEC distributed $20.7M to each member institution last year even without revenues generated from having its own conference network.

Nevertheless, the SEC is ready and launches its network at a very opportune time, with a tremendous thirst for televised sports content in the marketplace, of which the Conference undoubtedly provides the best product.

The SEC Network will launch on August 14th in 20 million households — with Dish Network and AT&T U-Verse — as of now, which represents a broader distribution figure than either the Big Ten Network or Pac 12 Network had at launch. It’s fruitless to compare that figure with the Big Ten Network, as that network is now fully established, however, looking at the slow growth of the Pac 12 Network as it continues its seemingly neverending distribution battles, I imagine SEC executives appreciate their advantageous starting position.

What we’ll be watching for during this college football offseason will be the cable and satellite distributor dominoes beginning to fall one by one as the SEC Network gets picked up. While it’s unrealistic to expect it to reach a level of distribution that’s taken the Big Ten Network years to build, it’s not out of the question that the SEC Network surpasses the Pac 12 Network in relatively short time. ESPN President John Skipper has gone on record expecting the SEC Network to reach 75 million subscribers (not coincidentally the same number of subscribers as ESPNU, which appears to be the model).

Seeing that ESPN’s partnership in the venture has already lead to Dish Network (and its 15M subscribers) picking up the SEC Network as a part of a larger deal between ESPN and the Satellite provider, it’s easy to see how Skipper’s figure might be quickly attainable. Additionally, the August 28th game between Texas A&M and South Carolina is scheduled to air on the SEC Network, a marquee matchup of national interest that will provide a necessary nudge to distributors during this negotiation. And if that doesn’t work, there’s always Tebow!

So, as spring football comes to a close, the distribution battles prior to the August launch of the SEC Network are something we’ll have an eye on. What the total distribution figure ends up being, and what carriage fee the conference is able to negotiate, will determine how soon the SEC and its member institutions can eclipse the Big Ten financially.