SBJ/Oct. 7-13, 2013/Media

ESPN builds SEC Network infrastructure

More than 10 months out from the launch of the SEC Network, ESPN’s focus has been more on building the infrastructure for the channel than attracting talent.

The Charlotte offices that currently house ESPN Regional Television and ESPNU will soon become the home to the ESPN-run SEC Network, and that means 110 to 120 new employees. They’ll need desks. And studio space.

The SEC is home to nine of the top 10 markets for college football TV ratings.
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With the incremental growth in heads and the need for additional studios, ESPN has begun looking into ways to expand its footprint in the Ballantyne business park in south Charlotte. The channel plans to lease extra space across the street from its current location and reconfigure the studio space it already has.

ESPN also has been busy making sure that each of the conference’s 14 campuses are set up to produce games in high definition for the channel. ESPN executives already have visited the campuses to inspect their production capabilities and make recommendations. For example, Mississippi State Athletic Director Scott Stricklin said the school is purchasing a more powerful TV camera with a longer lens and an upgraded replay machine, based on ESPN’s suggestions.

It’s in the schools’ best interests to get up to speed because the network’s TV and digital platforms will broadcast just about any live event the schools can produce.

“We’re going to rely heavily on the campuses executing these productions,” said Justin Connolly, ESPN’s senior vice president of college programming who will oversee the SEC Network. “Schools like Alabama and Florida could do full productions tomorrow. Other schools need some work.”

Like other startups, perhaps the biggest challenge will be to persuade distributors to carry the channel. These negotiations are being led out of ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Conn., by David Preschlack.

Connolly is working closely with SEC Commissioner Mike Slive, who recently appointed Charlie Hussey from the conference office to be the day-to-day contact with ESPN. Hussey, an Ole Miss graduate who has been with the SEC since 2000, has the new title of associate commissioner, SEC Network relations.

Slive, too, stays in touch with the network’s progress on a daily basis. “There isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not involved one way or another,” Slive said. “It’s a top priority. Whatever time is needed to move the ball, I get to it.”

The network already has established an ambitious goal of broadcasting more than 1,000 live events during the 2014-15 academic year, including 450 on linear TV and 550-plus on the digital site. There are plans for an SEC-themed “SportsCenter” and college football “GameDay” show that will visit each campus over the course of the season.

Paul Finebaum’s radio show will simulcast on the SEC Network during weekday afternoons, just as “Mike and Mike” currently airs on ESPN2 in the mornings. As someone who will be an almost daily fixture on the network and a commentator offering strong opinions on weekends, Finebaum with his strong roots in the South could emerge as the face of the network. He has relocated to Charlotte, where his radio show now originates from.

“Paul is a nationally known commentator with a following. That adds an element of interest during the day,” Slive said. “But I think it’s very premature to say that any particular person will be the face of the network.”

Marketers who have seen early pitches for the SEC Network say the sales approach seems similar to ESPN’s other college properties, where sponsorships are tied to heavy, seasonlong advertising buys.

In addition to the ESPN ad sales team, the network has hired Birmingham-based Ben May to look after the league’s corporate partner program. May was doing the same job previously for IMG College when IMG had those rights. ESPN took over the corporate partner program during the summer.

ESPN also will control the digital rights beginning next summer to coincide with the network’s launch.

An early look at the channel’s program lineup shows how certain games will help the overall affiliate effort. The SEC Network opens with a Texas A&M-South Carolina football game. Both campuses are in Time Warner Cable-rich territories in their home states. Texas A&M also can affect Houston, about 90 minutes away and a Comcast-dominated area.

Time Warner Cable has been at the center of a number of public disputes recently with channels. It held out from carrying Longhorn Network for two years before finally reaching an agreement in August.

The SEC’s largest markets have proved to be strong TV markets for college football, Connolly said. Nine of the top 10 markets for college football TV ratings reside in SEC territory.

“We’re encouraged by looking at how the SEC markets deliver,” he said. “We’re trying to create a schedule where we get people excited about the robust live events.”

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