ATLANTA — Mike Slive, having detailed components of the SEC’s multimedia-marriage with ESPN and having dodged questions of how many millions it would generate, playfully exited the media huddle by giving one reporter an atta-boy pat on his backside.
Pairing a lawyer’s intellect with a coach’s mannerisms, Slive showed once again why he’s the perfect captain for a league rich not only with crystal trophies but also the most lasting and lucrative television contract in college sports.
Thursday’s glitzy unveiling of the SEC Network — a ceremony opened by some 30 SEC head coaches being introduced single-file as if they were Miss America contestants — revealed a partnership with ESPN that will further stoke the jealousy of non-Southern football fans who have long sensed the Worldwide Sports Leader was too huggy with the conference.
Now they’re tethered by a contract extension that lasts through 2034 (by which time the SEC will be yawning over its 28th consecutive national football crown) and a 24/7 network estimated to generate about $28 million annually to each of the league’s 14 schools.
Slive’s bold ambition for the network that debuts in August 2014: “Something for every SEC fan, all the time.”
That equates to 1,000 live events each year, highlighted by 45 football games and 100 more in men’s basketball. Even some 16 months before its go-live, the SEC Network already has a major distributor: AT&T U-verse. Don’t have that in your area? Log on to GetSECnetwork.com and get a head-start on lobbying your provider.
ESPN overseer Justin Connolly likened the long-awaited launch as time “to take the tarp off this Ferrari.”
In order for the SEC Network to exist, the individual schools had to reclaim the precious TV inventory they previously sold to third-tier rightsholders such as IMG and Learfield. One source said the schools paid handsomely for the buyback, which was actually a partial buyback, considering the sports marketing giants retained rights to radio broadcasts, some coaches shows, and advertising signage.
“It was a win-win for everybody involved,” said Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs, “or else they wouldn’t have done it.”
Big Ten and Pac-12 universities undertook a similar buyback when those leagues launched networks, which might leave some West Virginia fans wondering whether WVU’s decision to finally outsource its third-tier rights is running counter to industry trends.
Arkansas athletics director Jeff Long, a self-described advocate of outsourcing, negotiated deals with IMG at Arkansas in 2008 and at Pitt in 2005.
“In my mind, that’s such a specialized area,” he said. “We didn’t have people working in that day in and day out. (Firms like IMG) were the ones who could grow the product. If you just do it yourself, you can’t get to those national entities. and you can’t get your brand out in those places. I always felt like the outsourcing was the key to getting our brand more widely dispersed.”
Long reasoned that almost no Division I programs still handle third-tier rights marketing in-house because “it’s not the most efficient model.” He claimed such attempts at Pitt and Arkansas left both programs “tremendously undervalued.” For instance, he recalled Arkansas’ revenue jumping from $2.8 million to $5.2 million the first year it outsourced to IMG.
“I don’t think that you can compensate your people at the appropriate level to get the best sales people,” he said. “You can’t do the training that’s necessary to keep people on the cutting edge in sales. To me, that’s one of the things you leave to the professionals. They’re good at it.”
IMG College, of course, was in negotiations to acquire WVU’s third-tier rights — at least until bidding irregularities perpetuated by athletics director Oliver Luck and Board of Governors chairman Drew Payne stalled the contract and drew the ire of West Virginia Radio Corp., the parent company of MetroNews. After the state attorney general’s office verified ethical questions, WVU pledged to rebid the package, a process currently ongoing with Luck and Payne recused this time around.
Each SEC school is reportedly projected to draw $28 million annually from network proceeds alone — a figure separate from bowl payouts, its first-tier CBS deal and the remaining third-tier rights. Yet revenue is but one factor fueling to the formation of conference networks. (Can some ACC variety be far behind?) Another impulse is to maximize exposure for a league’s athletic programs.
When he was the football coach at Wisconsin in 2007, Bret Bielema witnessed first-hand the debut of the Big Ten Network, and he quickly came to appreciate how it opened up nontraditional recruiting areas for the Badgers.
“We were always going to be popular in Wisconsin, and Chicago and the surrounding Midwest, but all of a sudden I was in a home in Fort Lauderdale and the dad said ‘I can’t wait for my son to be on a network that I can see him play every week.’”
On Thursday, Bielema sounded thrilled to be settling in at Arkansas just as the SEC carves out its own channel.
“The true value is when I’m in a young man’s home three years from now, and he says, ‘I’ve been watching your coach’s TV show for three years,’” Bielema said. “That’s the stuff that has a cumulative effect.
“The exposure that we’re getting by jumping into a partnership with ESPN, that is something you can’t begin to fathom.”
Exposure is hardly a concern for Kentucky’s John Calipari, though he joined the chorus of coaches emphasizing how much the ESPN tie means to his powerhouse program.
“Kids still want to be on ESPN,” he said. “You can do your own network and all those things, but kids still want to be on ESPN. We just tied ourselves to Macy’s. We’re not trying to create a new brand.”
What does the SEC’s forthcoming network signal for the Big 12, considering the leagues share a footprint in the state of Texas and frequently face off in recruiting battles? Financially, the 10 members of the Big 12 are stable, but the difference in wins, losses and prestige could spell a different bottom line.
Like the ACC, the Big 12 clearly resides in the SEC’s shadow, and with Slive’s league about to commandeer its own channel, the shadow’s only growing bigger.
“This is a national network. This is not a regional network,” said ESPN president Jon Skipper. “We understand that in the 11-state footprint is where the most passionate fans are, but there are a lot of SEC fans in California and Texas and New York and Connecticut and Virginia and Nebraska.”