SEC TV? Decisions still to be Made

ATHENS – Sometime soon, maybe next week, maybe next month, and at least by the time August gives way to September, the Southeastern Conference will announce its new football television deals.

The current contracts (with CBS, ESPN and Raycom), which run out at the end of the 2008-2009 academic year, were worth $50 million to the league in fiscal year 2007 alone. The new ones, rest assured, will be worth more.

Given that football television contracts already account for more than a third of the conference's budget, it's impossible to exaggerate the importance of the relationship between television and major college athletics.

"It's the lifeblood of it," said former Georgia football coach Jim Donnan, who has seen the business from both sides after serving as an analyst for ESPN after his time with the Bulldogs ended. "When you look at what the SEC is bringing home, it's incredible. You can't have these Olympic sports and these other sports operating with the budgets they have without (that money)."

The major players in the discussions that will lead to the new deals – from SEC commissioner Mike Slive to UGA president Michael Adams to ESPN executives – have been reticent to talk much about the matter this summer, but one thing is clear, the SEC is in a tremendous bargaining position.

The conference has produced the last two BCS national champions, two of the last three men's basketball champions and the last two women's basketball national champions. Nine of the league's 12 football teams (with Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and Mississippi State being the only exceptions) played to at least 96 percent capacity in their stadiums last year, and half the schools averaged more than 100 percent of their stadium's capacity for each home game.

"You never want to discount the fact that part of our success is our fans and the culture of our region," Slive said. "Success on the field is helpful and it is important, but what is also important is the fact that our fans have a tremendous demonstrated interest in what we do as a league. That's not lost on people who are interested in carrying our events."

Who those people are is not something Slive is willing to discuss, but the current partners all hope to be involved again and "other entities" have made pitches as well, he said. The league will consider the matter "carefully, deliberately and quietly," he said.

The biggest question mark in the negotiations is whether the SEC will start its own network, a model established by the Big Ten and Mountain West conferences.

If The SEC Channel becomes a reality, it will replace the deal currently in place with Raycom, not the national network deal (CBS) or the regional deal (ESPN). In short, the future of the early SEC game on most Saturdays, the Mississippi State vs. Auburn and Arkansas vs. Kentucky variety, is what is at stake.

Four factors go into the decision to form a network, Slive said, content, management, money and distribution. The first three are no sweat. The key word for fans is "distribution."

How many people would have access to SEC TV? It took more than a year of bitter negotiations for the Big Ten Network to get a spot on Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, meaning that most homes in Big Ten country had no way to access the channel and missed all the football games it broadcast. Even now that a deal has been reached, it's likely the network will be part of Comcast's digital level of service after this season, meaning many customers would have to increase their service package to get it.

"If (the SEC) goes to a channel model, it's going to affect Joe Blow in that fewer Joe Blows can see it," said Jimmy Rayburn, Raycom's vice president of operations. "Even the most optimistic distribution model is not 100 percent. If they go the channel route, people will be disenfranchised. They will choose not to pay for it, or they won't be able to get because they're in the country. There will be a fairly significant number of people (who will not see the potential new channel)."

The SEC will take that very much into account in its decision-making, Slive said.

"What you are thinking about at all times is your fans," he said. "You want your fans to be able to see your kids play."

If the fans of college football are indeed the determining factor, then it's hard to imagine the league will start its own TV network given the distribution issues, but there are other fans to consider, the league will argue if it chooses to start its own network.

The new network would have to fill many hours with sports like baseball, softball, gymnastics and tennis, which get little, if any, TV exposure now.

"I think the public has more interest in other sports," Slive said. "As part of what we do, we have an obligation to our coaches and our student-athletes to provide that kind of exposure they need and deserve."

If the issue comes down to simply money, the SEC channel probably will become a reality soon. Each conference school would be expected to receive more money than it does now if a new channel is created, Rayburn said.

While the SEC's athletic directors and presidents hashed over TV proposal after TV proposal at their annual meetings last month, the men whose face is plastered all over the medium's coverage took almost no notice. Even the prospect of being briefed on the talks was too dull for Florida head coach Urban Meyer to consider.

"I," Meyer said, "will start doodling plays when that is going on."

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