The SEC, ESPN and Dish Network made a major announcement on Monday, when it was revealed that Dish and The Walt Disney Co. agreed to a multiplatform, long-term agreement to carry several channels of Disney programming, including the soon-to-be-launched SEC Network. Coupled with existing deals with AT&T U-verse and the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative (NRTC), the network will be available to roughly 19 million homes as of March 5, with more than five months to go before its launch.
Justin Connolly, ESPN senior vice president of college networks, sat down with Bleacher Report to discuss the network, the progress of carriage deals, what the agreement with Dish means for the launch and programming that fans can expect to see on the SEC Network.
Bleacher Report: Just how significant is the agreement to get the SEC Network on Dish Network, and what does it mean for the future of the network as you lead up to your launch date in August?
Justin Connolly: The Dish Network deal is a huge step for us, and a huge step for the network to have a national distributor on-board five-plus months prior to launch. Just the idea that availability to any consumer who wants the network and to have that day one when we launch, I think is incredibly significant. It also sends a message to the marketplace and other distributors that Dish sees this as an opportunity to grow their business. I like to say that the SEC has quite the "satellite culture" across DirecTV and Dish, and I see that Dish recognizes that in doing this deal. You should be ready to see a media blitz on behalf of Dish Network touting the fact that they have this network.
B/R: With the current deals that are in place, the SEC Network is already slated to be available to roughly 19 million homes with five months to go before launch. The Big Ten only had 16 million when it was launched, and jumped to within 30 million within a month. Is there a specific subscriber goal you have in mind at launch, and is there a pie-in-the-sky number that you think is attainable as a best-case scenario?
JC: We don't really have a numerical number per se that we're chasing. Our interest is in trying to get widespread distribution across the board here, with really every distributor we can. At the same time, we've got an incredibly valuable product. I think, from quality of games we're going to put on, to the number of games, to the studio shows, to the talent we're bringing to this thing, we really feel like the quality of this is going to be top notch. So part of the dynamics here is making sure that quality is getting recognized and valued appropriately when we do these deals.
There's going to be a dance here across every distributor. Our goal is to have anyone who would like to carry the network, acknowledges the value and we can strike a deal with, we want to do a deal with.
In our view, this is a national network. SEC teams compete for national championships in pretty much every sport. Feedback from distributors who have smaller SEC footprints remains positive. They know the big programs in the SEC translate nationally, to the extent you look at how SEC games rate nationally. They attract audiences across all 50 states. It's not something that's specific to the 11 states. The passion and interest in those 11 states certainly leads the way, but there's interest in every corner of the 50 states for SEC competition.
B/R: The first original launch date was Aug. 21, 2014, but was moved up a week to Aug. 14, 2014, when the Dish Network deal was announced. Why the one-week jump?
JC: We picked (Aug. 14) for a few different reasons, actually. We have an interest in letting customers know sooner rather than later if they have to make decisions in order to see the games they care about. Call it a two-week window before we kick the first football game off on the network when Texas A&M visits South Carolina on Aug. 28.
The second thing is that the 14th will allow us a longer period of time to work the kinks out. We don't expect many, but from a production standpoint, sometimes they happen.
And I think there are some creative things we can do in terms of having 14 days with 14 schools leading up to the first football game on the network. We look at it as a number of things lining up where we made a decision that we wanted to move it up a week.
B/R: What lessons did you learn from the Big Ten and Pac-12 Networks, and how important is the fact that the SEC Network is wholly owned by ESPN, rather than the Pac-12 owning its own network and Fox owning 51 percent of Big Ten Network?
JC: For starters, both the Big Ten and Pac-12 have done a lot of things right. They have great networks. What we have, which I think is very valuable, is the ability to draw the experience of ESPN. We have folks in our company who have launched multiple networks. I think our production and programming level is unparalleled in terms of how we cover sports, sports news and events. The ability to draw on that wealth of resources I think differentiates us in a big way.
We also have a legacy for storytelling which is unrivaled, and we are going to build upon that on the SEC Network with the SEC Storied franchise, which lives on ESPNU. The ability to dip in and double up that effort and debut, exclusively, five SEC Storied episodes on the network I think is one of those things that ESPN can do that others can't.
The other thing that I think others have done well and that we can do well is just volume. Doing over 1,000 live events in Year 1 is going to be a massive undertaking, so we'll use the schools to help us do that as well as the expertise of ESPN so that we can get the full breadth and depth of the SEC.
B/R: You're having studios set up at all 14 member institutions to help with access and productions. Have there been any issues with satellite studios being set up, and how much involvement do you anticipate from a local media standpoint but also from the schools and journalism departments themselves?
JC: There's a massive amount of collaboration going on right now where we are trying to ensure that each of the schools have the ability to put a coach on or potentially a student-athlete and do a talk-back with Charlotte (where the SEC Network studios are located). In addition to that, in order to do 1,000 live events, we need to have the help of the schools to be able to produce a whole lot of Olympic events locally. That's been a massive focus, and the schools are in varying degrees of preparedness where some of them could probably turn on tomorrow and do it. There's going to be a late summer testing phase where we make sure we can cover all 14 schools.
B/R: The SEC Nation pregame football show on Saturday mornings that will run concurrent with ESPN's GameDay will be a major program for the network. Will that be a mirror image of the GameDay format, or will you mix it up to make it its own entity?
JC: We are going to focus on differentiating it from GameDay, and at the same time we'd think it'd be silly if we didn't borrow and use the lessons learned along the way. I do think that one of the bigger areas of focus for us is to mix it up. GameDay sits down and becomes the centerpiece for fans to congregate. I think the focus of SEC Nation will be to actually take the show out to the tailgates and try to integrate it a little bit more. The idea is to incorporate some of the cultural elements that are so rich on SEC schools on Saturday, and try to amplify that. Whether it's cooking or music or the ambience of being in The Grove or being there for Tiger Walk, for us, it's so rich. We think we can design the show while making it a little more tailgate-centric, while still bringing the depth of coverage as it relates to every SEC game going on that weekend.
B/R: You have already announced some personalities that will be a part of the network, including Paul Finebaum, Tim Tebow and Joe Tessitore. When will you be able to name more names and how big of a splash are you looking to make?
JC: We're working on some things. It's a little premature, but I think we will continue to demonstrate quality both on the analyst and play-by-play side. It shouldn't be too much longer before we continue to reveal the frame around the network.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand.