CBS Executive Discusses Bama

The featured guest of honor at the Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce breakfast held February 28 in Cromwell, Connecticut, was Michael Aresco, senior vice president for CBS Sports Programming. Both in his prepared remarks and in an interview later he had thoughts about Alabama Crimson Tide football.

Michael Aresco is responsible for managing the division's college sports properties which includes future contract negotiations and acquisitions pertaining to but not limited to the Southeastern Conference and the NCAA Basketball Championship. Speaking to a crowd of over 600, the Middletown, Connecticut, native and 23-year industry veteran expressed his thoughts about sports and broadcasting.

"Some people equate sports with entertainment. It's entertainment but I don't think it epitomizes what sports is. Sports transcend entertainment. I can go to a movie and if I don't like the movie, I can walk out and shrug my shoulders and say that wasn't a very good movie. Same thing with a sitcom that I might watch on TV. But when I root for a team, it affects me if that team loses….. This means that sports is more important. By some alchemy that we don't fully understand, sports become very central to our lives. It doesn't mean that there aren't things that are far more important. But we in sports television view ourselves as custodians of great tradition. We don't view what we're doing as something trivial. We think it is vitally important throughout history. It's been part of the cultural and social fabric…In the end it's something we want to preserve and protect. We have a sports saturated culture now. It's everywhere."

As he spoke about the reasons why people play the games, watch and care about sports, the fans of the SEC could be the model for his testimony. "Obviously sports are a lot of fun. That is one of the reasons why we watch and why there will always be a place for sports. They also matter though. They are tribal…. They bring communities together from town to town, from college to college, from high school to high school. They're games but they capture our imaginations and our hearts…..It relates to everything we do. We have to keep it in perspective."

During the prepared speech, Aresco illustrated the passion of SEC football fans with a humorous story concerning a future bride's plans. He said, "This past fall I got a call. It was a woman from Birmingham. She said, ‘Are you the fellow who schedules the college football games?' And I said, yes. And she said, ‘You have to tell me if you are going to televise the LSU vs. Alabama game. Will you (CBS) televise the game in the afternoon or do you think ESPN will carry the game at night?' I said I don't know yet because we haven't decided." CBS was exercising the six day window option before selecting the game.

"I asked why do you need to know? She said, ‘I'm getting married and our parish priest told me there is no way he will do the ceremony during the game.' As I said earlier, you can't make this stuff up. She said, ‘He absolutely told me that I have to know when the game would be televised because we are not doing the wedding during the game.' If you knew the passion for SEC football in the South, you would not even remotely doubt that story."

After his speech and the presentation of the 2007 Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce Role Model of the Year Award to Aresco, 'BAMA Magazine/BamaMag.com had a chance to discuss matters with the CBS executive relating to Alabama and the SEC.

Alabama is still considered a premier team for network television according to Aresco. "They have a national following. The Crimson Tide still has a huge national following from all of those years and great tradition. They're a team we always feature if they're playing well. No question with Nick Saban there now."

Two games meriting serious consideration for the CBS broadcast on September 29 will be Alabama's match up vs. the Florida State Seminoles along with the Auburn Tigers vs. the defending national champion Florida Gators as Aresco stated, "We have the ability to pick that game (UA-FSU). We can either take that game or the Florida vs. Auburn game that day. We have the first pick and then ESPN will take the one we don't pick."

Handicapping the selection of the national game for the September 29 CBS broadcast might hinge on the two September 15 contests featuring Tennessee vs. Florida and Arkansas vs. Alabama so that the 12 day window option can be exercised by the conference's flagship national broadcasting partner after the outcomes are known. A rare meeting of Florida State of the ACC and Alabama of the SEC would be an attractive match up able to trump any other game normally on that day but with the defending national champion Florida hosting Auburn, the only team to defeat them last year, the selection will be highly anticipated. Auburn and Florida State also face stern tests early in the season in Kansas State and Clemson being the opponents respectively for each. Will the alluring story line of Nick Saban guiding the Crimson Tide against the Alabama born coach, Bobby Bowden, be convincing enough for CBS? Time and a successful start in the first three games for each team will dictate the choice.

During Nick Saban's initial Alabama press conference, he mentioned the goal of dominating your opponent and specifically the in state school 365 days a year. Domination can permeate many areas on the periphery such as television appearances as well as the on the field competition. According to ESPN sources, the highest rated SEC regular season game during 2006 was the Florida vs. Auburn contest, averaging slightly over 3.6 million households. CBS sources sited the LSU vs. Tennessee and the South Carolina vs. Florida match ups as the highest rated, averaging slightly over 4.1 million households. Considering Alabama's recent strategy to branch out and recruit across the country, the potential half million households or more advantage of a nationally televised game looms as an incentive for the new regime on many levels. The ramifications for recruiting and the exposure of the program are obvious when you are trying to encourage athletes from non-SEC territories and your team is nationally promoted on a Saturday afternoon stage with the hopes of reaping significant rewards down the road. National publicity has not been in Alabama's favor recently and television can play a role in the resurgence of the program by competing and winning on the field against a marquee team such as Florida State with a network viewing audience witnessing the event.

The SEC is contracted with CBS through the 2008 football season and the 2008-09 schedule for basketball (One issue of concern publicly voiced by SEC Commissioner Mike Slive is the early season advantage other conferences have with national television exposure. CBS is the network of choice for the US Tennis Open which is broadcast the first two weekends of college football thus excluding promotion of the SEC. During the next contract negotiations, a change may ensue when other options are explored according to Aresco. "We will discuss it but we have extended our US Tennis Open deal, so we'll have it. Now is there a possibility that we could on the first weekend of the US Open do a game if there is a quality non-conference game? Could we do it in prime time? Absolutely. And that would help us get a little earlier start. On the other hand, we don't get the start that the other guys (conferences) do, but we (CBS) do all the games (SEC) nationally. You saw the impact our championship game had on the BCS. People were able to see Florida and hear the analysis. We offer an incredible platform for the conference even though we don't get started quite as early."

As a cable and media outlet for CBS Sports, the College Sports Television alliance is a vehicle that has enhanced the coverage of the SEC according to Aresco who acts as liaison between the two (CBS and CSTV). "It's been great. They get to utilize our (CBS) talents. Our guys can do the wrap up for them (post game show). We want to make sure we put the SEC on every platform we have including CSTV. CSTV is a great resource for us. They can extend the coverage that we can't. We have to get off at 7:00 PM EST. They can continue. In addition they do SEC nation all season where they are doing features and specials on the SEC. We want them involved in everything we do and the SEC being one of our premiere products, they will be heavily involved."

New rule changes affecting the television broadcast of the 2007college football season include shortening the teams' three allotted timeouts per half by 30 seconds each, from 1:25 to 55 seconds. "It's an issue, said Aresco. "I don't know whether there is an appeal process. We are definitely looking into it. It can have some impact on us. We're going to try and mitigate that by working with the conference. Sometimes you get a little blind-sided by it."

Commissioner Slive has spoken recently about the formation of their own television network to promote the SEC and Aresco's acknowledges the possibility of that development as he said, "The Big Ten's done it and they have a chance to be very successful so I'm sure the SEC having the best football product arguably could clearly contemplate working towards it. I don't know what they're going to do and I can't speak for them. They'll certainly take a look at it."

The SEC has contracts with CBS, ESPN and Lincoln Financial Sports. According to Commissioner Slive, the potential timetable for a conference network to be established will probably coincide with the completion of the contract between CBS and the SEC which concludes with the 2008-09 academic year. The SEC network would exist as a supplement to the conference television landscape which would include maintaining a relationship with a national network and a national cable network. An existing network or a group of venture capitalists might be among the options considered for the development of the SEC channel.

When asked if major changes would be on the horizon for the future contract with the SEC, Aresco replied, "They'll be some minor tweaks. No, because we're really happy with the package. The package is very solid. It's grown. The ratings have been really solid the last few years. This year we had fifteen competitive games for the first time ever. All fifteen games we televised were competitive games. We'll clearly tweak it a little bit on basketball and football but by and large we're really happy and we are going to continue with the national model. We like it, it works."

The marriage of CBS and the SEC appears to be solid and will continue to flourish in the coming years. "Our relationship with the NCAA and our relationship with the SEC are the strongest in sports. We love Mike Slive. He's been a friend of mine for twenty years. A great guy. He's been a great commissioner. He's done a great job for us. Anything we've ever asked the conference to do to help us out. It's a challenging time for ratings. We love the product, we love the people. I could go on and on. There is nothing negative I could say about SEC football. You've got seven or eight marquee teams. Spurrier's back in the conference. I haven't seen a roster of coaches like that in years. I haven't seen a roster of young quarterbacks like that in years. Urban Meyer's got it going in Florida. I mean they had five or six of the top ten recruiting classes in the SEC alone. So we think the future is as bright as it's been. Mike's (Slive) done a heck of a job on enforcement and trying to make sure there is education among the schools. He's really made a huge contribution in that regard. We will be talking to them in the not to distant future. It takes time. These are major deals. We have such a good relationship. We have been partners for twelve years. I would hope that we could get something done."


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