SBJ/April 30 - May 6, 2007/This Weeks News

SEC will look to Big Ten Net for a signal

Now that the Big 12 Conference has decided against launching its own network — for now — all eyes are on the Southeastern Conference, which will see its media rights agreements with CBS, ESPN, FSN and Lincoln Financial expire after the 2008-09 season.

But the SEC’s focus will be squarely on the Big Ten Conference, which is planning to launch the Big Ten Network in August and is about to become embroiled in a series of carriage negotiations with cable operators that have spent the past several years looking to keep their sports costs down.

SEC Commissioner Mike Slive said his conference already is exploring the possibility of creating its own network and plans to study how the Big Ten Network fares this year.

“It certainly remains an important part of our thinking as we move ahead with our long-term TV plans,” Slive said. “We have the advantage of watching the Big Ten Network launch and the development of The mtn. [collegiate sports network], and we’ll monitor their progress or lack of progress.”

The Big 12 Conference put its channel plans on hold when ESPN ponied up about $480 million in an eight-year deal that runs through 2015-16. During a conference call late last week, Big 12 officials repeatedly spoke about the financial growth and stability that came from the new deal.

“We continue to grow revenue for our member schools, and TV plays a significant part of that,” said Big 12 Commissioner Kevin Weiberg. “This agreement provides us the opportunity to expand the revenue we distribute to our schools.”

The SEC’s most likely scenario has the conference’s broadcast partners, CBS and ESPN, taking the best of the football and men’s and women’s basketball games. The remaining inventory, plus baseball, Olympic sports and other shoulder programming, would then be molded into a package for regional partners or potentially an SEC network.

For its part, ESPN plans to emphasize the exposure, breadth and depth of its platforms to convince the SEC to follow the lead of the Big 12 and Big East conferences, which decided against launching their own channels.

“With the platforms of ESPN and ABC and what we bring to the table, we can make a presentation that can convince conferences to go with us,” said Chuck Gerber, ESPN’s executive vice president of collegiate sports.

Industry watchers said they were not surprised by the Big 12’s decision to forgo launching its own channel.

First, the conference’s media rights are scattered and weren’t all ending at the same time. Fox Sports Net holds the cable rights to the conference’s football games through 2011-12.

Secondly, the Big 12 Conference is not located in big population areas, and there’s a perception that its fans are not as fervent as the Big Ten or SEC, which saw 92,000-plus fans show up for Alabama’s spring football game two weeks ago. More than 6.5 million fans attended SEC football games in 2006, marking nine straight seasons the league has led the nation in attendance.

The SEC’s markets are not much bigger than the Big 12, but the difference is that many of its schools are in markets and states that face less competition from professional sports.

“One of the reasons for looking at an SEC network is to provide those fans with as much SEC programming as possible, and that’s certainly a reason why we’re interested in creating a channel,” Slive said. “It might be very well-received.”

In order to launch its own channel, Slive said the SEC will focus on four areas: capital, content, management and distribution.

One of the major drivers in that decision will be the SEC’s potential partner. The Big Ten Conference opted for Fox Sports after considering Comcast and Time Warner. Slive said the SEC has had discussions with many possible partners, but added that those talks haven’t evolved into what he would term negotiations. Comcast, Time Warner and Cox all have significant distribution in the SEC’s footprint. Slive would not comment on specific candidates.

“By starting as early as we did, we have the luxury of the next year to put our plans together,” he said.

The Big 12 also strongly considered launching its own channel, and Weiberg said that enough rights are still available to launch one.

The exclusive negotiating window opened in early March, when the two sides first sat down in Charlotte — the home of ESPN’s regional offices.

During negotiations, Big 12 officials became increasingly enamored with all that ESPN had to offer, from its linear channels to its broadband sites to its syndication arm.  By the end of March, they had decided not to go the channel route.

Deal terms give ESPN the first selection to 95 men’s basketball games, which include a weekly Monday night game on ESPN and Wednesday night game on ESPN2. ESPNU and ESPN360 will offer 20 exclusive men’s basketball games. ESPN will carry the Phillips 66 Big 12 Men’s Basketball Championship.

In football, ABC holds the first pick of 19 Big 12 games per season and the Dr Pepper Big 12 Football Championship.

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