Inside the SEC's New Moneymaker

Viv Bernstein@@viv_bernsteinSpecial to Bleacher ReportAugust 14, 2014

Courtesy of ESPN

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Tim Tebow sports a stylish gray suit as he settles into his seat in a television studio in this nondescript one-story office building in suburban Charlotte. If there is a football uniform in his future, Tebow isn't going to find it here, deep inside ESPN's Southern base of operations.

So is he retired from football? No, Tebow won't say that word. But as he begins his new life as a college football analyst and prepares for Thursday's debut of the much-anticipated SEC Network, maybe he is right where he belongs. Tebow is back in the Southeastern Conference, back in the place where he is most welcomed, embraced and adored, and back in the spotlight.

"We want him to be a star," said Justin Connolly, ESPN's senior vice president of college networks and the executive in charge of the SEC Network. "We want him to resonate and grow his following, which is already monumental. And that, from my perspective, would be great for the SEC Network, it would be great for Tim Tebow, it would be great for the fanbase, it would be great for the legions of folks who follow him."

Chuck Burton/Associated Press

And it would be great for ESPN, which is about to debut what Disney CEO Bob Iger is already boasting is one of the most successful cable network launches in history.

The SEC Network has a chance to create stars on the field, in front of the camera and maybe even in the executive offices in the coming months and years. So much is possible—and so much is at stake—when the lights go on for the first time Thursday.

1,000 Games or More

If you are an SEC fan, if you live for every football Saturday, if you wear your allegiance on your T-shirt, face paint or tattoo, you will want to turn on your television at 6 p.m. ET. The SEC Network is about to become your world.

Assuming ESPN has done its homework right, you will see something brand new and yet comfortably familiar. You will see your campuses and stadiums, you will hear your war chants, you will almost smell the local food that will be strategically featured to flavor the broadcasts. The SEC Network has worked diligently to capture the essence of the Southeastern Conference lest it comes off as nothing more than a slick ESPN South.

The SEC Network debuts with a three-hour live show, SEC Now, which is the network equivalent of SportsCenter. A shorter version will air every night with news and interviews of some of the top personalities in the conference. Thursday's show will feature live shots from all 14 campuses; appearances by Peyton, Eli and Archie Manning and Shaquille O’Neal, among others; an interview with Nick Saban; and more. Much of the assembled talent—from anchors Dari Nowkhah, Maria Taylor and Peter Burns to on-air personalities Brent Musburger, Joe Tessitore, Tebow, Marcus Spears, Greg McElroy, Booger McFarland, Kaylee Hartung, Paul Finebaum and more—will be on display together for the first time.

Courtesy of ESPN

The game plan, at least at the start, is to show 1,000 events in the first year of the network—including football, basketball, softball, baseball, soccer and volleyball. Not all will be televised, though. The network has committed to 45 football games, 100 men's basketball games, 60 women's basketball, 75 baseball, 50 softball, 40 volleyball matches and 25 soccer games. Hundreds more events will be streamed live on SECNetwork.com or through the WatchESPN app. Where you see events listed as being on SEC Network Plus, those are digital exclusives of the new network.

And that 1,000 figure? It's a base. The number is going to grow in time.

"Without a doubt, what you see a year from now, what you see six months from now, is going to be different from what you see on there right now today," said Chris Turner, senior director of programming and acquisitions, who is in charge of the digital platform and SECSports.com, the conference's official website, which ESPN will now run.

After laying down an average of nearly four miles of fiberoptic cable to each sports venue at every university in the conference, with nearly 23,400 miles in all connecting the network, the SEC Network will be able to stream from just about everywhere in the conference from day one.

Every conference basketball game that the SEC retains the rights for, both for men and women, will be available either on the network or digital platform. Every baseball and softball game, too. Swimming, gymnastics, tennis—all will likely have some presence. If universities can produce it—and each has upgraded facilities including a completely new $10 million studio at Tennessee as well as 10 new control rooms around the conference—the digital network will stream it.

Driving the Bus

Did we mention there will be football? The SEC Network will be on 24/7/365. Here's betting much of that time is going to be devoted to the sport that has made all of this possible.

"Football will drive this bus for a long time," said Finebaum, an analyst on SEC Nation whose popular radio show will now air on the SEC Network weekdays from 3 to 7 p.m.

Courtesy of ESPN

Football fans already know the frenzy that surrounds ESPN's College GameDay broadcasts, that pregame show on campus each Saturday morning. That's SEC Nation.

Hosted by Tessitore—with Tebow, Finebaum, Spears and Hartung—SEC Nation will travel to a different campus each week and be shot amid tailgate parties near stadiums. When the first football game to appear on the SEC Network is played on Aug. 28 between Texas A&M and South Carolina, SEC Nation will be at Gamecock Park to kick off the coverage.

Hartung, who once was on a network news track before switching to sports and moving to the Longhorn Network a few years ago, now has arguably the most enviable job in sports.

"I get to tailgate and get paid for it," she said. "For a girl from Baton Rouge, that's a dream come true."

Courtesy of ESPN

Courtesy of ESPN

Once the game begins, Musburger takes over the lead play-by-play job, with Jesse Palmer as analyst and Taylor on the sidelines. That's the No. 1 team. The other broadcast teams will pair Matt Stinchcomb with Tom Hart and Andre Ware with Dave Neal. McElroy and McFarland will be in-studio analysts for previews, halftime and wrap-up shows.

Beyond SEC Nation, in-season the SEC Network will have weekly editions of SEC in 60, which compacts two of the previous week's games into one-hour broadcasts; Film Room, where a guest coach from the conference will break down film of a game; and SEC Walkthrough, a look back at previous games. Weekly, coaches' news conferences will be aired.

There will be SEC Storied, a documentary film series that will focus on people, events and memorable moments in the conference. And on weekends, SEC Scoreboard will offer recaps and highlights and SEC Rewind will look back on classic games.

There won't be much of an offseason for football programming, either. National signing day, pro days, spring games and months of season previews will all assure that football will remain the focus of SEC Network.

"Obviously, football is probably the one sport that exists in some form all year," said Dan Margulis, ESPN senior director of programming and acquisition. And Margulis will be sure to program as much of it as he can.

All that attention is bound to create stars on the field, although Palmer said the SEC Network won't overhype them.

"I think it's important to allow that to happen organically," he said.

But the network, no doubt, will provide plenty of fertilizer.

It Started with a Tweet

The on-air talent added so far—and basketball analysts have yet to be announced—is a mix of experience and potential. You know Musburger already. You will soon know folks like Maria Taylor, a 6'2" former volleyball and basketball player at Georgia who worked for Comcast Sports Southeast before moving to ESPN in 2012. She will host SEC Now, report from the sidelines on football broadcasts and work as an analyst for women's basketball and volleyball.

Courtesy of ESPN

It's a lot of work. But this network is going to be a training ground for talent. For some, it could be a springboard to the mothership, ESPN.

"We're looking to launch careers here of the next great broadcast talent," Connolly said.

By the way, have you noticed a trend in the hires? Spears and McFarland played at LSU. Stinchcomb and Taylor: Georgia. Tebow and Palmer are from Florida and McElroy played at Alabama.

"Most of the folks that we've hired have an SEC connection, know the conference really well, and I think can kind of report and provide a perspective that is a little bit more SEC flavored than nationally flavored," Connolly said. "I think that's important."

It's one way that the SEC Network has tried to be authentic. Graphics, animations and music are another. (The network hasn't even begun yet and it already has its own song. Robert Randolph and the Family Band's "Take the Party" has been rewritten with SEC-inspired lyrics and will open SEC Nation on game-day broadcasts.)

So how did Spears, the former Dallas Cowboys and Baltimore Ravens defensive lineman who helped LSU win a BCS championship, land one of the sweetest gigs in all of sports television despite little broadcast experience?

With a tweet.

On a lark last winter, Spears looked up the name of Stephanie Druley, ESPN vice president of college networks, who oversees production of the SEC Network. He found her Twitter handle.

Here's the message he tweeted to Druley: "Follow me back."

Spears had to know he couldn't get a job off of a tweet. But he sent it, anyway.

"I was out of my mind," he said. "But sometimes when you're passionate and you feel something, you've got a take a chance, take a dive."

Courtesy of ESPN

Druley took a chance, too. She followed him back and then read the 140-character job pitch Spears sent by direct message.

"If anything, he's very resourceful," Druley said, "So we brought him in and he was good."

Note to all broadcasting hopefuls and ESPN wannabes: Druley is no longer hiring via Twitter.

And a Quarterback Shall Lead Them

Back when Connolly was a young executive at Disney, he went bungee jumping north of Los Angeles. He called it petrifying. So how does that compare to starting a national network from scratch?

"I think starting a network is more nerve-racking," he said.

Connolly, 38, is a Harvard Business School graduate who came from the distribution side of ESPN before he was named vice president of college networks in December 2012 to run the Longhorn Network and later the SEC Network.

Don't worry. The former prep school quarterback, point guard and center fielder from Massachusetts is not all Yankee blue blood. Connolly actually has a bit of SEC in him, too, having spent time at Vanderbilt before transferring to Harvard as an undergraduate.

Butch Dill/Associated Press

Connolly has twice made the Sports Business Journal's "40 Under 40" list of up-and-coming executives in the industry. Running a network is a big step up, and one that Connolly pushed for, but perhaps it's a natural progression in a rising trajectory that could land him in a C-suite someday.

Of course, that depends on whether the SEC Network is a success. But it would be hard to bet against it right now. Some of the most significant struggles of the Pac-12 Network, the Big Ten Network and the Longhorn Network have been the inability to get carriers to include them in their cable or satellite packages at launch.

The SEC Network will have no such concerns at the beginning. With recent announcements that DirecTV and Charter Communications are on board, the network will be available to 90 million households nationwide right away—almost as many as the nearly 100 million that get ESPN. By comparison, the Big Ten Network began with 17 million homes at its launch in 2007 and now is up to 52 million.

How's this for coverage: The new network will even be beamed to the International Space Station so that NASA Capt. Barry Wilmore can watch his beloved SEC while stationed there for six months.

In truth, carriers didn't have much choice but to add the SEC Network, despite fees that Derek Baine, senior analyst at SNL Kagan, confirmed would be in the range of $1.30 per subscriber in the 11-state conference footprint and 25 cents nationally. That's well above the $1.05 in market/5 cents nationally the Big Ten Network is able to generate.

"This is an easy decision for our company to make," said Joseph Clayton, CEO of Dish Network and one of the first to sign up for the SEC Network. "Not only do we have a customer base here in the SEC geographic footprint, I'm from Kentucky, our chairman's from Tennessee—we understand the passion, the heritage, the tradition, the motivation of the Southeastern Conference fans."

Jay Sailors/Associated Press

Added Finebaum, who recently wrote the book, My Conference Can Beat Your Conference: Why the SEC Still Rules College Football, "The SEC is a lot more than BCS championships or sold-out stadiums. It's a culture, it's a way of life and I think that's why the SEC Network is getting the distribution it is. I think some of these companies really don't want to have to come to work the next day if the word gets out they're not broadcasting it."

As for the asking price, it might not seem like a lot. But it is one more sign that sports is straining the business model for carriers.

"Are they creating any new SEC football or basketball games or Dodger baseball games or Pac-12 football or basketball games?" asked Dan York, DirecTV chief content officer. "No. What these leagues and conferences and content networks have done is re-sliced the pie and put on substantially higher prices for the exact same product with the expectation that consumers will just foot that bill, including those who will never watch one of those games. That is an unsustainable and unreasonable model."

Indeed, some say the rising cost of sports networks is driving some of the major consolidation in the industry, including the possible purchase of DirecTV by AT&T.

ESPN is the leader in that regard, garnering $6.04 per subscriber nationally. And the SEC Network is one more slice of that pie; SNL Kagan’s Baine confirmed the conference and ESPN will split revenues generated by the subscriber fees 50-50 after expenses. In turn, each university will pocket millions from the network.

Some of that money will go to athletes, who will receive more benefits as a result of the new power-five autonomy model and the recent decision in the Ed O'Bannon court case that will ultimately result in schools creating trust funds for players.

"Clearly there is going to be a need for some reallocation of resources on the basis of the autonomy model that we put forth," SEC Commissioner Mike Slive said last month in anticipation of changes to player benefits, "to the extent that we can help our institutions with that we'd love to."

Butch Dill/Associated Press

The SEC Network will also shine a national spotlight on the 14 universities, which will no doubt impact everything from recruiting to alumni contributions.

"For everyone involved, it will bring unparalleled exposure to our total sports programs across the footprint of the Southeastern Conference and it will begin to generate new fans from outside the regions of the 14 schools," said Dave Hart, Tennessee vice chancellor and athletic director. "It transcends the athletics department at all 14 schools, without a question, because it will bring that same level of exposure to a university."

The only glitch right now: Good luck finding the SEC Network on your television. The channel finder on SECNetwork.com is still incomplete.

Tebow's Platform

When the new SEC Nation crew made an appearance in Nashville earlier in the summer and addressed the fans who had gathered, Tebow took a moment to walk out into the crowd and hugged a man in a wheelchair. Immediately, he was engulfed by hundreds of fans.

"I've only seen Billy Graham in his heyday on television, but I can imagine it was a similar scene back in the '40s and '50s and '60s in a stadium," Finebaum said. "It was breathtaking to watch."

That's the power of Tebow. The question is what he will do with it now that he has this platform.

Courtesy of ESPN

After years of facing scrutiny for his evangelism, will Tebow now be able to wear his religion on his sleeve the way he wore it on his eyeblack as a player? If ever there was a market that would embrace it, isn't the Southeastern Conference it?

"First of all, you've got to be who you are," Tebow said. "You've got to be authentic, you've got to be real. But my job and what I'm asked to do and what I'm paid to do is give my opinion on football players on teams on coaches and the games—on what is happening on the field—and that's what I'm going to do."

If he succeeds at that, there's no telling how much greater his following will be. And what might come next. Those are the stakes for Tebow.

How will it all play out? We'll find out starting Thursday.

Stay tuned.

Viv Bernstein is a freelance journalist based in Charlotte. She has been a regular contributor to The New York Times for 12 years and has covered everything from the Democratic National Convention to the Daytona 500. Bernstein has written for USA Today, The Washington Post, ESPN.com, espnW.com and previously was a staff writer for the Detroit Free Press, Hartford Courant and Raleigh's The News & Observer. 


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