ESPN goes big on SEC football

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Chris Davis returns a missed field goal to help Auburn defeat Alabama. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)
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Alex Weprin

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The SEC Network, a new cable sports channel from partners ESPN and the Southeastern Conference, launches at 6 p.m. today a few weeks before kickoff of the NCAA Division I football season.

It is a debut distinct from other cable launches. While Fox Sports 1 premiered last year promising to bring “attitude” to TV sports, and other recent channels, like Al Jazeera America and Pivot, have aimed to appeal to core niches, the SEC Network is something of an outlier. It is a niche channel aiming to appeal to a mainstream audience.

The SEC, while a regional conference, has many of the biggest names in college sports—particularly football—including Texas A&M, the University of Alabama and the University of Florida. SEC schools have taken the top title in NCAA football in eight of the last 10 seasons.

“I think there is a feeling that SEC relevance means national relevance,” said Justin Connolly, senior V.P. of programming for ESPN’s college networks, including the SEC Network. “We know that the product translates nationally, particularly when you get a specific matchup, and yet at the same time we also know it will over-index in the southeast, but when you put on the [Texas] A&M-South Carolina game, you will draw viewers from every corner of the country.”

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ESPN and the SEC have been engaged in research, trying to figure out the market for the channel, which joins a college sports TV field that includes the Big 10 Network and The Longhorn network.

“I don’t have any hesitancy, I think that the SEC has the best chance as a network to make a national impact, more than anyone,” said Brent Musburger, the longtime sports broadcaster, who will serve as the channel’s lead commentator during college football games, alongside former New York Giant Jesse Palmer.

It is a launch unprecedented in scale for anything other than a sports channel. The channel will be available to over 91 million households at its start (it will automatically be available in 60-65 million, with the remainder of households having to upgrade to a digital cable package to get it).

Another, much more broadly minded, cable sports channel, Fox Sports 1, launched last year in 90 million households. For most new cable channels, a launch base of 40-50 million would be an enormous success. The power of live sports to drive viewership, combined with the SEC’s powerhouse schools and the distribution muscle of ESPN, is the reason for the large debut.

Of course, any new launch will have unanswered questions. The channel will be a partnership between ESPN and the SEC, which raises issues about its will or ability to cover serious issues that involve the athletic conference.

Last week, for example, a federal judge ruled in a case dubbed "O’Bannon vs. N.C.A.A." that that student athletes can be paid for having their likenesses used in merchandise, video games and on TV programming, like on sports channels. It directly affects the revenue models of the SEC and SEC Network, but it is also undoubtedly a major sports story that is worth covering.

“One area that we are trying to get our arms around is from the editorial side, how do we cover stories? And how we balance good news and bad news? Because it is going to happen, and how we report on it,” Connolly said. “We have said this from the beginning, we are not going to have the news infrastructure that ESPN has, we are not going to be working those stories, we aren’t going to be pushing the envelope, but we will be reporting what is reported elsewhere.”

Connolly said the network would cover the ruling.

“We would make reference to the decision, we would get a comment from the conference," he said.

“It depends on the issue, an issue like that is incredibly nuanced and challenged, I think people are still trying to figure out what it all means,” he added.

The channel will launch with its studio show, “SEC Now,” and will have correspondents—including some from ESPN—at each of the 14 schools in the conference. The first game will be Texas A&M-South Carolina on Aug. 28.

While the heart of the channel will be live sporting events (mostly football, basketball and baseball, though many other college sports will be represented) and studio shows, in the longer term the channel wants to add to its library, for when there aren’t games.

“We would like to get into the access show area in a bigger way down the line, so for us that is an important one,” Connolly said, citing the format made famous by HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” which profiles an N.F.L. team during training camp.

Other potential programming includes one-offs, like coverage of the University of Kentucky playing exhibition basketball games in the Bahamas.

“That is where I see our opportunity in expanding here, building coverage opportunities that haven’t existed in the past,” he said.

The channel has made a number of notable hires, including former University of Florida and New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow, Jesse Palmer and Musburger.

Palmer and Musburger haven’t yet worked together on a game, though they have been in meetings together, Musburger said.

“I certainly don’t have anything to prove at this point,” Musburger said, recalling an axiom his father told him when he was younger. “‘It is what you learn after you think you know it all that matters,’ and I kind of try to keep that in the back of my mind.”

The broadcasting legend, who started calling N.F.L. games for CBS Sports in 1973, and who spent 23 years at ABC and ESPN, said that helping launch the SEC Network is one of the more exciting challenges he has faced in his 40-plus-year career.

“People ask, what is your favorite event that you have been at, and I always say, I hope its the next one,” Musburger said.