SBJ/August 20 - 26, 2007/This Weeks News

Plot thickens on possible SEC network

Lincoln Financial Sports, which holds the Southeastern Conference’s syndicated TV rights through 2008-09, has emerged as a potential partner if the SEC decides to move forward with its own network. Lincoln’s role as a minority partner has raised speculation that the conference might launch a network next fall, a year earlier than planned.

The conference’s existing contracts
with CBS and ESPN end in 2008-09.

Lincoln’s willingness to turn over its syndicated rights a year early in exchange for a minority share in the network would be a critical piece to a 2008 launch.

If the SEC decides to form its own network — it has been closely monitoring the progress of the Big Ten Network, which launches Aug. 30 — it likely would need the programming inventory that now goes to Lincoln Financial, which broadcasts a football game of the week each Saturday and two to three basketball games a week, typically on Wednesday nights and Saturdays, through the season.

Adding to the speculation is the fact that Lincoln Financial is headquartered in the same Philadelphia building as Comcast, which has been considered one of the favorites to own an SEC channel. It already partly owns one college conference channel, the Mountain West Conference’s The mtn.

Comcast is the nation’s largest cable operator with more than 24 million subscribers, meaning it could offer immediate distribution solutions, especially in the SEC’s nine-state footprint — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee. Comcast doesn’t release specific regional subscriber information.

Comcast and Charter have discussed transforming their regional sports network, Comcast/Charter Sports Southeast, into an SEC channel. The channel has expanded basic distribution and reaches 5.7 million subscribers in 12 states.

The SEC also has been approached by Fox and several investment firms with an interest in being a primary partner. Comcast and Fox operate the only two college conference networks, Comcast with The mtn., and Fox with the Big Ten Network.

Lincoln Financial broadcasts an SEC football
game of the week each Saturday.

Both networks are experiencing distribution challenges. The mtn. has no deal with DirecTV or Time Warner Cable, the nation’s No. 2 operator, and several of the biggest cable operators — including both Comcast and Time Warner Cable — have said they will not launch the Big Ten Network on Aug. 30 unless it agrees to be placed on a sports tier.

The SEC’s current TV contracts with CBS and ESPN end in 2008-09, but the league has been in discussions with both networks and both partnerships are expected to continue. The contract with the league’s other broadcast partner, FSN, which televises a weekly magazine show, basketball and Olympic sports, ends after the 2007-08 season.

Industry insiders have said that the SEC would be a good candidate to start a channel because of its competitive depth, the heavy interest in football throughout the Southeast and improving basketball, evidenced by Florida’s back-to-back national championships.

If the league’s partnerships with CBS and ESPN continue in their current form, those networks would likely televise about 30 football games per season, depending on schedules and matchups, which leaves a healthy inventory of about 60 games for an SEC network.

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