Lights, Cameras, SEC Hoops Action!

During the October SEC Tip-Off media event for men's and women's basketball, Commissioner Mike Slive elaborated on future CBS and ESPN television contracts taking affect following the 2008-09 academic year. "For the last six years one of the conference's primary goals has been to elevate the national visibility of and appreciation for Southeastern Conference basketball," he said.

SEC Commissioner Slive continued, "Notwithstanding all the success, SEC basketball remains somewhat underexposed nationally and therefore to a degree unappreciated. For that reason in our recent television negotiations we made a definite priority to significantly expand our national television exposure in men's and women's basketball."

He wasn't just whistling "Dixie" when he set those goals. The two brands of "The SEC on CBS" and "The SEC on ESPN" worth $825 million and $2.25 billion respectively for all sports will be prominently promoted for the next fifteen years as the 3-lettered acronym will reverberate for generations. The landmark agreements televise every men's conference basketball and many non-conference contests either on CBS during the regular season or on ESPN, ESPN2 or other ESPN platforms, over the air syndication through ESPN Regional Television (ERT) and regional cable.

Besides the usual "Super Tuesday" slot, men's basketball will also be viewed on ESPN or ESPN2 on Thursdays and Saturdays, therefore tripling the weekly broadcast of the SEC. Wednesday night games will be seen on ERT and ESPNU. An upgrade for the SEC men's tournament will include the semifinals and championship being scheduled for the first time on ABC along with two regular season games while the first two rounds will be on ERT. ESPN classic, and ESPN Mobile TV are other platforms which will carry SEC basketball.

SEC women's basketball doubles the number of appearances to sixteen along with the conference tournament championship game on ESPN or ESPN2. A minimum of sixteen appearances as well as the conference semifinals will be telecast on ESPNU. ERT will syndicate a game-of-the-week during the regular season and the 1st and 2nd rounds of the SEC tournament.

Mark Gottfried, Alabama's men's basketball coach, recognizes the untold benefits forthcoming from such a huge network commitment. "The thing I've tried to tell people and obviously no one has said this to me from ESPN but if they're committed to putting that many games on, they're also going to be committed to sell those games to the public by advertising and get people excited," he proclaimed. "Not only do you have all the games but you have all the promos in between the games." The next generation of young viewers will be perpetually bombarded by all ESPN platforms extolling the virtues of SEC basketball. Will the expanded coverage captivate a nationwide audience accustomed to the feverish football region's excellence? Can the network promotional barrage stiff-arm the pigskin praying patrons to pivot their attention to deep southern fried round ball?

Wendell Hudson, Alabama's first year women's basketball coach seeking to change the program's image, feels he can refer potential recruits to the television for further evidence of his commitment to the up-tempo style of play. "The more that you will be seen around the country and the more that you are seen by other people what it will help hopefully with is recruiting because you can get players to look at you. They'll see you on TV and think that style of play we're going to have hopefully will be attractive."

Opportunities for the SEC will exist with the advent of the television agreements to dispel any misconceptions about the league's prowess as a less than full-fledged basketball power conference worthy of being mentioned in the same sentence as the media darlings from the ACC and the Big East. Surprisingly the three aforementioned conferences attracted similar attendance for their pre-season media gatherings. According to league sources media members attending the separate one day pre-season events for ACC men's and women's basketball amounted to 145 and 120 respectively while the Big East totaled 214 and 93. Media members attending the joint co-ed Southeastern Conference's Tip-off numbered 270 for the two day affair.

Will SEC basketball coaches employ the national geographical exposure to their advantage? Georgia's men's basketball coach Dennis Felton vividly recalls one conference's recruiting tactic originating from a television partnership. "One of the things I remember is when Syracuse had that pipeline to California going and it was because they (ESPN) partnered with the Big East at the beginning. When those kids in LA were coming home from school they were watching Big East basketball at 3 p.m. or 5 p.m. in the afternoon. All of a sudden they're leaving LA to go all the way across the country to a place like Syracuse and it had everything to do with television."

"We all knew the conference was working hard at negotiating new contracts to replace the ones that are concluding this year but personally in my wildest imagination I did not see something to that extent coming. We already have the best athletic conference in the country," Felton asserted. "I think those new partnerships with those television networks are going to create a gap that won't allow any other conferences to catch up with us because it's powerful. Playing on television is really important to everyone involved starting with recruits therefore we are going to be able to accumulate more talent than ever. Obviously we're making a big deal out of it and bragging about it to our recruits. There eyes get pretty wide when they hear about the extent to the degree which we are going to be on television. I think it's really going to distance the SEC from everyone else."

Vanderbilt's women's basketball coach Melanie Balcomb believes the mega contract suits the Commodores strategy perfectly. "I can't tell you how excited I am. It's really going to give us a recruiting advantage over the other conferences because we are going to have so many more exposures. For women's basketball it's going to do great things because we're going to have almost all of our games on TV somewhere. For Vanderbilt it helps us because we recruit nationally not regionally. Because of our academic standards we have to recruit on a national level therefore the more we can get on national than regional helps us in recruiting. For us it's a win-win."

Nestled in ACC territory, South Carolina's rookie men's basketball coach Darrin Horn frequently hears the tobacco road chatter about the SEC being inferior but he intends to play a powerful trump card. "When the most powerful sports entity in the world (ESPN) decided they had to put their money behind something that was the best, they picked us. It gives us a tangible to let people know just how strong our league is," he declared.

Men's and women's SEC basketball coaches alike agreed the television bonanza will actually balance the strength of the league. "It definitely gives us and all 12 basketball teams more of an opportunity to be on TV," stated Auburn's women's basketball coach Nell Fortner. "Year in and year out Tennessee is definitely on television a lot along with LSU. Hopefully now it will give a few more teams having more opportunities to get more games on TV because there is no question it helps you in all capacities. It helps you recruiting wise, fan wise."

Horn professes the contract will boost under achieving programs. "I think where it helps us (USC) a program that has not in recent years had great success there is going to be that natural TV fit. It's going to give schools that aren't the Kentucky's and Florida's and right now Tennessee, it's going to give them even more exposure which is going to help them individually and help us individually and help our league as a whole."

Spreading coverage around the league excites Mississippi State's men's basketball coach Rick Stansbury. "What more can you ask from a conference standpoint. Puts a little more balance in the league. Maybe in the past there are certain teams, the Kentucky's and the Florida's are going to get all the ESPN games. Maybe we hadn't got as much as those people but now there is going to be more of a balance throughout the league. Basically everybody is going to be on, so that's good for everybody."

Auburn's men's basketball coach Jeff Lebo having played at perennial national ACC powerhouse North Carolina salutes the commissioner's vision. "Having national exposure for our league is vital. Anytime that you can get national exposure for your program and people outside the southeast can see a product that they may not know much about, they may not have studied or seen, I think that's always good for your league and for your team and institution. Basketball is probably going to be one of the biggest winners with this new TV deal."

Arkansas women's basketball 2nd year coach Tom Collen and first year SEC newcomer LSU's men's basketball coach Trey Johnson provided an outsider's perspective about the television agreements. Collen said, "The television contracts are monumental for the league. When I came in from the Big East (Louisville) to the SEC one of the things I brought with me was the knowledge that the Big East had moved ahead of the SEC and there was probably a couple of other conferences as well so this is going to give us a little better national exposure. Before our exposure was either Tennessee or LSU. It was all regional exposure for the people in SEC territory but it wasn't helpful when it came to recruiting. So now our games will be in Washington, D.C. and in Los Angeles and in Columbus, OH and I think that opens up those grounds again for us to be able to go in and sign better players. I don't have any doubt it's going to make an impact when we're able to speak to the underclassmen about the television contracts."

"Without question great exposure. It should help recruiting," LSU's Johnson emphatically stated. "It should help all the way around. From my perspective coming from a different league (Stanford - PAC 10), I've always felt that the SEC was probably one of the more underexposed leagues. Right now I think it's much warranted and this league is very worthy of the exposure they are getting now."

Recruits are not always keenly aware of history and tradition but they do congregate at the contemporary disseminator of sports information as LSU's women's basketball coach Van Chancellor espouses. "I think it's going to be tremendous for LSU women's basketball because now we're going to be on ESPN and ESPNU and today the young recruit is tuned into ESPN and ESPNU."

Dawn Staley, South Carolina's first year women's basketball coach welcomes the television tentacles that will extend the SEC message. "It gives us an instant recruiting tool to go into people's homes because we are recruiting from all over the country. Most importantly parents want to be able to see their kids play if they are not going to be able to attend the games on a nightly basis."

Mississippi State women's basketball coach Sharon Fanning knows the value of publicity as she said, "Over the last 15 years, one of the things that has helped grow the game has been the media through the television opportunities. Every player and every family wants to know how many times do I get to see my child play. It's a bragging point for all of us in the SEC."

Florida's women's basketball coach Amanda Butler celebrates the chance to educate the rest of the country. "I think it's tremendous for our league. We have such an awesome product in women's basketball in the SEC. It's truly the best in the country historically and continues to be. We will have more avenues and opportunities to put that on television screens and in front of people who may not live in our region or may not be exposed to Florida women's basketball or Alabama women's basketball who may not be aware of the history and tradition of this league. I think it's going to continue to help us grow and become more recognizable in the Midwest, on the West coast, up East and some of the areas that maybe don't know how great our league is. A television package and the number of exposures is a recruiting point now."

CBS is still the home of "March Madness" and SEC men's and women's basketball will continue the affiliation during the next 15 years. According to Tennessee's men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl, ESPN's niche is unparalleled. "ESPN is for college basketball regular season. Nobody even approaches ESPN in credibility, in visibility." Tennessee recruits nationally because they must according to Pearl and has been thwarted with attempts to sign players outside the region who felt the conference was not televised enough but those days are history.

SEC coaches are conscious about network analysts pontificating about other conferences so they anointed former Arkansas Razorback, Jimmy Dykes as one of the ESPN's studio analysts recommended at the league meetings to counteract non-SEC media broadcasters, Jay Bilas (Duke) and Doug Gottlieb (Oklahoma State and Notre Dame). "He knows SEC basketball. He knows SEC history and he will be a mouthpiece for our league," Pearl professed. "That was huge to have Jimmy in the studio and broadcast games."

Arkansas men's basketball coach John Pelfrey concurred as he said, "Getting him (Dykes) there was a big step because we needed a voice there for the Southeastern Conference. Fortunately for us we're in a position where that could actually become a reality. There are a lot of conferences that can't get a guy in the studio. That's a big, big deal to have a voice in the studio on behalf of the Southeastern Conference."

Tennessee's Pat Summitt, the queen of SEC women's basketball coaches and an ambassador for the game, expressed her delight with the additional proposed nationwide broadcasts. "We have benefited a lot from exposure," she said. "I think this exposure is great for women's basketball. The teams and the players these young kids are going to be watching will give them a different perspective. It's certainly going to give them awareness of a lot of teams that have great players and have great coaches. To me, that's good." Tennessee's recruiting advantage will be challenged by other SEC members now but the benefits for the game surpass the infringement of her territorial thrown. "You may say for us (Tennessee) it's bad but for the game, it's really good. That's what we are trying to do for women's basketball is promote our game and I think we all have to be committed to doing that."

Accolades for Commissioner Slive and his entire staff were proclaimed loudly without provocation from every SEC coach men's or women's during the two days at the Birmingham Marriott. Kevin Stallings of Vanderbilt raved about the SEC brain trust as he stated, "What Mike (Slive) and his staff have done for our league is absolutely brilliant. I just think the exposure is going to be incredible. It speaks volumes for the leadership we have in our league office." Kentucky women's basketball coach Matthew Mitchell was energized by the signing of the contracts. "We were so excited especially from the women's basketball perspective. It increased our exposure nationally in a major, major way and so to have starting with conference play to have weekly games on the ESPN brand is just a major development for women's basketball and I think will help us grow as a league. I just got done talking to Commissioner Slive thanking him for that because it's a tremendous thing for women's basketball in the Southeastern Conference."

Andy Landers, longtime Georgia women's basketball coach highlighted the monetary advantages. "It's certainly exciting from the standpoint of the financial windfall that it creates for all the teams in the league. Particularly in the case of Georgia, we are very fortunate to be in the position that we are in financially and additional monies like that allow us to reinvest in the student-athlete," he said although the network spotlight is still important to recruits. "They get excited about being on TV and they count the exposures."

Dean of the men's basketball coaches, Florida's Billy Donovan noticed the inequity of television appearances his first year at the Gator helm thirteen years ago. "I just think that what Commissioner Slive has done is he's put together a package that is bringing national awareness to our conference in basketball which is something that maybe has been needed for a long, long time but for whatever reason this is the first time we've been able to get something like this done." SEC football has captivated national audiences for decades so the tendency has been to slight a basketball conference loaded with talented players, coaches and numerous Final Four participants.

"Immediately when people talk basketball, they say the ACC and the Big East, the first two things that come to mind. Certainly the Big East has the big media markets in the northeast. The ACC has got the tradition rich tobacco road basketball enthusiasts forever. And that's all people are accustomed to seeing on TV and they're accustomed to seeing the same thing in the SEC but in football," Donovan explained. "What I'm saying is I think our league over the last 10 to 15 years has been as good as any league in the country consistently year in and year out and I go back to my five years I spent at Kentucky (assistant). But when you can start talking about playing on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday and Tuesdays and being on national TV all the time that is the greatest way I think to change the perception of the way the league is viewed from a basketball perspective."

Kentucky's men's basketball coach Billy Gillespie views a television appearance as one long commercial. "It's going to be astounding. Every single game it seems like is going to be on TV in a national way. It's going to help not only Kentucky but it's going to help everyone in this league. There is no school or company in America that could afford to pay for two-and-a-half hours of advertising. You're advertising your product two-and-a-half hours every single time your on TV."

Maybe Ole Miss's women's basketball coach Renee Ladner summed up the views for the SEC coaching fraternity. "Anytime that your program is on television you are more visible, and it's very impressive to recruits, our fans and players in our own program. I think it will be a huge bonus for our program, for our league and for our team. I can't see anything but a positive coming from the contract. Exposure is a great thing, and by signing the contract we are going to be out there a lot more. I think our program and our league deserves something like that. To me, it's an opportunity that is limitless and it's going to continue to bring great things to the league."

C. M. Newton, basketball consultant to the SEC Commissioner, spoke about two ramifications of the recent television contract coup for the league. "One, it's going to add to the coffers from a financial standpoint. One of the things the commissioner did was kind of swim against the stream with this contract in that not only are we getting more exposure, but we're getting more dollars which is going to be helpful to budgets but the main thing is the exposure. You're going to find Southeastern Conference basketball on the national cable television ESPN specifically on more nights of the week. We've had the big Tuesday and now we're going to have Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. We're going to have a lot of television exposure that we've not had on a national level in this league. The commissioner in all honesty leveraged football and the whole package into this basketball thing but it's good for basketball."

Having pioneered the integration of athletics at Alabama during his tenure as head basketball coach of the Crimson Tide, Newton was not totally sold on the idea of the additional exposure luring elite high school prospects from other parts of the country. "I've always felt that recruiting is more geographically oriented particularly in the South," he said. "It's possible but I think the closer a guy is to your campus the better chance you have to recruit him. I can't see us going into Indiana because of television and getting somebody that Indiana really wants or Purdue really wants but you never know. It certainly will expose the level of play and our coaches will become better known nationally."

Yet Alabama's Gottfried has already felt the affects on the recruiting trail. "I don't think there's a TV contract in the nation that compares. I think what it will do for our league is going to be tremendous. I think in recruiting I've already sensed that it has made a difference," he explained. "When you begin to sit down with a young guy and explain to him how much national exposure that you're going to receive through ESPN and CBS and our whole contract, there's nobody else that can say what we're going to say or that we are saying and so from a basketball standpoint. I think it already has helped our league. I think you have guys outside of your area now that their family and friends can watch them play. We're going to Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays on ESPN, ESPN2 ESPNU and still have Sundays on CBS."

"All reports from all coaches in all sports is that it's already significantly impacted the ability of our coaches in recruiting with this kind of exposure," Commissioner Slive noted. "My goal was obviously to make us the most widely distributed conference in the country and to try to secure the financial future of our league so I think we've done that. If good recruiting is a byproduct, then that's terrific."

One sensational player can significantly change the fortunes of an entire basketball program. Absence of an abundant yearly supply of in-state talent destines a team to suffer peaks and valleys in the win-loss column relative to the bonafide prospects in their defined recruiting region. Those SEC coaches embracing the inherent opportunity of broadened exposure may launch their programs into the national stratosphere of hoop rankings. Aggressively cherry picking prospects outside their natural recruiting realm will serve as a hedge fund against a roller coaster decline of in-state and regional talent.

Alabama Coach Gottfried's reaction concerning the television contracts of "I think it has blown everyone away," may foreshadow events as the SEC is poised to change the landscape of college basketball as the southeast gusts of wind blow across the country accelerating round-ball repercussions forever. At the bare minimum recruiting boundaries will swell beyond into adjacent conference territories enticing prospects as the national limelight makes the move more palpable for concerned family members wishing to view the exploits of their sons and daughters from a distance via television. Potential southeastern recruits contemplating flight for other conferences will have to think hard about abandoning a chance to compete in a league with gold standard television contracts.

Concerted efforts by Commissioner Slive and his talented team of negotiators have wrestled the networks attention to behold the basketball fortunes of a league underexposed for years. The commissioner's deference to the basketball coaches' wishes, creation of the Big East/SEC invitational along with hiring C. M. Newton and former ESPN executive Chuck Gerber as consultants proved fruitful for the April to August negotiations resulting in the signing of the unprecedented television agreements. Amounting to over $3 billion between the two networks of CBS and ESPN, the formula of revenue and exposure for the next fifteen years equates to a contract any Hollywood superstar would consummate in blood.

Commissioner Slive's strategy of "In summary our new television agreements, the SEC-Big East Invitational, record setting attendance the last few years, national championships (men & women), success in the post-season, the good work of our friend C. M. Newton as a consultant, more and better communication with our coaches on a regular basis provides us with continued opportunities to meet the goals we set for ourselves six years ago. And that is the Southeastern Conference is one of the very few premiere basketball conferences in this country."

The scope and magnitude of the historical television contracts could have far reaching affects for an SEC team interested in launching their program to new heights. Improved recruiting can enhance their chances of contending for conference titles, consistently having deep runs in the NCAA tournament and eventually playing for national championships. Staying power on the national stage for most schools requires more than just relying on backyard talent. The bold notion of building a national program for the ages by pursuing a standard of excellence over time requires coaching staffs to scour uncharted territories to avoid the fluctuation associated with mediocrity. Sowing the initial seed of television exposure to potential recruits might require years of plowing the fertile gymnasium fields across the land before the harvesting of worthy prospects yields discernable results on the court.

The fifteen year marathon will begin in earnest with this year's evaluation period as coaches will have a full-season to tout the television coup to recruits. Programs successfully recruiting beyond their borders will be the benefactors and winners to transform the image of SEC basketball throughout the region and the country as being one of the premier conferences in the nation. Perennial standard bearer Kentucky, the Donovan led Florida Gators and recent contenders Tennessee have been successful participants in the race thus far. SEC women's programs who are perpetual entrants in the nationwide recruiting race include the Lady Vols of Tennessee, Vanderbilt, LSU and Georgia.

Will other universities make the leap of faith choosing to compete nationally for recruits or will they continue the regional provincial approach to procure talent? Six men's media guides trumpeted the expanding future television appearances due to the August signing of the blockbuster contracts - Florida, LSU, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Tennessee and Vanderbilt. Two women's teams, Kentucky and Vanderbilt, specifically referenced the late summer agreements providing improved future television coverage.

League officials have cleared the path for every conference member to share in the limelight and grow their program as Commissioner Slive laid bare the essence of the network contractual ramifications as he stated, "Over the next fifteen years with the kind of exposure we're going to have, that's the final piece of the puzzle so I'm not sure there is much more that we can do other than our players and coaches do a good job on the court."

Beginning next season the league underexposed for decades will be under the concentrated lights of television where cameras will be showcasing the athletic action of the SEC's men's and women's basketball teams to the delight of all twenty-four coaches. Appearing on the big stage requires spectators to be entertained with big time players. The only drawback to the favorable scenario is the lights and cameras scrutinizing the performance beyond the usual prism. Show time has arrived and stage fright programs will be exposed to the critical eye of a national audience. Coaches bemoaning the lack of league face time on the tube must be prepared to board the no excuse jet scheduled to leave the tarmac soon as SEC programs buying a ticket will embark on a fifteen year journey that will forever elevate their altitude in the basketball community. Cash emanating from the lucrative contracts should provide for a cosmetologist poised to frequently apply makeup for prime time primping as the lights and cameras expose SEC basketball action for their close up view by the country. Lights, cameras and bring on SEC basketball action.

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