The relative newcomer in the SEC's cadre of television partners is Fox Sports Net South, said Executive Associate Commissioner Mark Womack. Under an arrangement with the regional cable- and satellite-only channel, one or two Saturday prime-time conference games are produced each week (a total of 12 this season) under the SEC-TV banner and televised regionally on Fox Sports Net South.
The SEC-TV arrangement is a great boon for fans in the nine SEC states, who get to see a number of games which would not have been televised by any other network. Even better, Fox Sports Net South is available even outside the Southern states with some bigger satellite packages-- often allowing fans outside the South with a dish to pick them up. Vanderbilt has appeared on SEC-TV once already (vs. Kentucky) and will appear twice more in games vs. Florida and LSU. Fox also picked up Vandy's marquee pre-conference games vs. Indiana and Michigan.
So what's the problem?
In many Southern cities, Fox Sports Net also often carries NBA and NHL telecasts featuring the local teams, which often pre-empt the SEC games-- to the anger of SEC fans. Other times, for no apparent reason, the Fox games are mysteriously pre-empted for inane Fox shows such as "The Best Damn Sports Show Period."
So in one sense, the Fox games increase the SEC's exposure... but in another, Fox's spacey programming decisions with the SEC games seem to occasionally infuriate loyal fans.
"Where you can sometimes pick up those other games is through ESPN's Full Court package," Womack pointed out. "Both the Jefferson-Pilot and the Fox games are made available to ESPN Full Court."
ESPN Full Court is a cable and satellite option which allows fans in far-flung areas around the country to see games from other markets. One of the greatest inventions ever for the displaced fan, it allows true college basketball fans to see scads of games from across the country.
Unfortunately, however, Full Court can't pick up every game made available to it due to a limited number of channels. Fans around the country who subscribed to Full Court have probably been terribly disappointed this season, as very few of Vandy's games have been picked up. Vandy-at-Arkansas, for example, was a game that might have been picked up, but wasn't.
"On a particular night they can only carry so many games from around the country on the Full Court plan," Womack said. "It's ESPN's decision." Sadly, Big Ten and ACC and even MAC games usually seem to get the nod over SEC games.
If a conference game is not scheduled for television on any of the above networks, the individual schools are permitted to market their games on their local network affiliate, according to Womack. (For instance, a couple of Vanderbilt's early-season games were televised on local cable by Comcast Cable's College Sports Southeast.) OK, but why aren't more of Vanderbilt's untelevised games picked up?
"The reason is that they can't violate any time-period exclusivities," he added. In other words, Vandy couldn't televise its home game on one station if CBS was carrying Kentucky-Florida in the same time period, or if Jefferson-Pilot was carrying Alabama-Tennessee. "It's getting more and more difficult to do."
Vanderbilt fans did get a nice bonus earlier this season when The Sunshine Network, a Florida-based cable channel which often picks up Florida's games, televised the Gators' game at Vanderbilt. That telecast (probably Vandy's best performance of the season) went out to Dish Network and DirecTV customers around the country.
The current contracts with CBS and ESPN come up for renewal after the 2008-09 season. The Fox package runs through the 2004-05 academic year, so there might be some hope for better exposure a little sooner there.
"I think it's a very good television package," Womack said. "I think it offers as much network exposure as any conference in the country. I think our syndicated package, especially our weekend syndicated package, is very strong.
"Our regional package... certainly we'd always like to have a little more exposure, maybe some more ESPN coverage, maybe broaden the package that the networks provide. We're certainly pleased with it, but there is room for improvement. We plan to try to make some steps forward in the future.
"[When the contracts come up for renewal] we will certainly look at things like the number of games that are carried, and the days of the week that those games are carried, and what schools are willing to do to make the schedule more competitive."
Does that mean moving more games off of the usual Saturdays and Wednesdays?
"We are traditionally a Saturday-and-Wednesday league," Womack said. "Some of the Wednesday games get moved to Tuesday night (a concession to ESPN). Sometimes Saturday games get moved to Sunday for CBS. We might go to a school sometimes and ask, are you willing to play on a Thursday night, or a Monday night, if we could provide you with television opportunities? From a coach's perspective, they might not want to play on a Saturday, a Monday, and then a Wednesday, based on what travel is involved.
"So there are those types of issues. But that's what we'll look at to increase our television opportunities."
"I doubt very many coaches would want to play Saturday and Sunday games back to back. Our old conference schedules used to have a Saturday-Monday schedule, where you're paired with one team, go on a road trip, play one game Saturday and another Monday. But I think the majority of our people still feel the Saturday-Wednesday package is advantageous, with a mix of games on Tuesday."