Mark Womack explains the SEC's hoops TV package

You've invited your buddies over to watch the game. You've got the refreshments on ice. You tune in to watch the Commodores do battle on the hardwood... only to find out the telecast has been blacked out in your area. What gives? SEC Executive Associate Commissioner Mark Womack talks with VandyMania's Brent Wiseman about the conference's TV package, and gives readers some insight and background on how those decisions are made. (Part 1 of 2)

It's a familiar complaint, one that's been repeated countless times this season on our VandyMania message boards. You've invited your buddies over to watch the game. You've got the refreshments on ice. You tune in to watch the Commodores do battle on the hardwood... only to find out the telecast has been blacked out in your area.

Someone has got to be held accountable, you mutter. Irate, you call your dish or cable carrier, only to talk with a clueless customer service representative. Or you call the network... or your local affiliate... or Vanderbilt... only to be told that such decisions are "beyond our control".

Who's ultimately to blame? Unfortunately, there's usually not an easy answer.

For many out-of-town Memorial Maniacs, there are few things in life more gratifying than being able to catch the Commodore men's team on local or national TV-- particularly in a season when Vandy is playing as well as it has. Yet Vanderbilt, a team ranked in the Top 25 for much of this season, will make one measly appearance on national TV in 2004 (Saturday vs. Kentucky, ESPN2, 11 a.m.)... while Kentucky will make a staggering nine national appearances on CBS, and five on ESPN/ESPN2.

What's up with that?

To get to the heart of this and several other knotty issues, we contacted SEC Executive Associate Commissioner Mark Womack, who is responsible, among a great many other things, for assembling the conference's television package with its network partners. The answers may not be entirely satisfactory-- but we got a few things cleared up, and at least we learned a few things.

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The Southeastern Conference's television partners, explains Womack, are CBS and ESPN/ESPN2 for national telecasts; and Jefferson-Pilot, Fox Sports South, Sunshine Network and Fox Sports Southwest for regional broadcasts. There's a definite pecking order, and CBS and ESPN are the respective are the kings of the hill. Why?

Silly question-- because they pay the most money to televise SEC games, of course.

"We try to put together our CBS games first," Womack says. In putting together the CBS schedule, which includes both conference and non-conference games, the SEC tries to pull together games that will have a national appeal, such as Indiana-Kentucky, Florida-Louisville, Kentucky-UCLA, etc.

In all, SEC teams will make 16 appearances on CBS this season, not counting the SEC Tournament Championship Game on Mar. 14. Not surprisingly, Kentucky, the SEC team with the biggest national following and the most intersectional appeal, will account for a staggering nine of those 16 appearances.

In other words, what CBS wants, CBS gets. The SEC could demand that all its member institutions be represented once or twice every year in the CBS package... but to demand such would severely devalue the package.

"The CBS package consists of games that they've requested, maybe even games that they've put together," said Womack. "They also get a choice of some of our very best conference games. Then we try to build a schedule around that."

It's entirely different from football, Womack says, where the conference schedule is set down years in advance, and the networks choose from among games that are already scheduled. In basketball, the two major networks request the games they want at the beginning of a year... and after those are set, the rest of the conference schedule is worked out. The conference essentially bends over backwards to give the major networks the marquee matchups it wants.

For that reason, "We couldn't even tell you what our basketball schedule is for next year at this point in time," Womack says.

ESPN/ESPN2 comes next, and the network of Dick Vitale wants a good-to-great conference game to tip off each Tuesday evening around 8 p.m. Once again, the network tries to accommodate. Kentucky appears four times this season on ESPN's "Big Tuesday" series; Florida, three times. Ironically, South Carolina and Vanderbilt, two Top 25 teams which have gotten off to great starts, will make no "Big Tuesday" appearances this season. How does that happen?

ESPN's contract, explains Womack, allows them to go one year without having a certain school appear. Since South Carolina and Vanderbilt both made Tuesday appearances last year (Vandy's was a bad 74-52 loss to Kentucky)... and since South Carolina and Vandy both finished with poor records last year, the network moguls in Bristol elected to omit both from the 2004 schedule.

"But we do have a restriction that says teams can't be omitted in consecutive seasons," Womack said... meaning both the Dores and Gamecocks should be part of a Big Tuesday game in 2005.

Most of Vanderbilt's TV appearances this season will be part of one of the two regional packages, Jefferson-Pilot or Fox Sports South.

"With Jefferson-Pilot we have a Wednesday night package and a Saturday afternoon package," Womack said. "That'll be roughly about 28 games, plus all the games in the SEC Tournament except the championship game."

Jefferson-Pilot is not a network per se, but a syndicator which televises the games through a network of local TV stations in the Southeast. Almost all major Southern cities have a Jefferson-Pilot affiliate that carries the Saturday afternoon games-- but a large number of Southern cities are forced to do without the Jefferson-Pilot telecasts on Wednesdays.

"Jefferson-Pilot syndicates the games, and they try to clear markets in all of the Southeastern markets," Womack said. "Wednesday nights are a little harder to clear from a network standpoint. For instance, the CBS affiliate in your market may be the guy who carries your games on a Saturday. But that affiliate may decide it doesn't want to interrupt network programming for nine consecutive Wednesday nights to carry SEC basketball.

"So Jefferson-Pilot may find an independent station. In the Georgia markets, a lot of times Fox Sports Net will end up carrying [the Jefferson-Pilot games] on Wednesday nights."

So, if no local affiliate in your area is carrying the Wednesday Jefferson-Pilot package-- might it make a difference if a bunch of irate SEC basketball fans deluged the local affiliate? Answer: it might.

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In Part Two, SEC Associate Commissioner Mark Womack talks about the Fox Sports Net package and some of the reasons behind a number of regional blackouts; ESPN Full Court; and possible upcoming changes to the SEC's men's basketball television packages.


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