SBJ/Jan. 6-12, 2014/Media

Five takeaways on the SEC Network and college sports rights

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John Ourand
The August launch of the SEC Network will be a significant story this year. The launch was the main topic during a year-end panel at SportsBusiness Journal/Daily’s annual college athletics conference. Here are five thoughts I took away from that discussion.

> Distribution battles will be tough.

Like the Big Ten Network and Pac-12 Networks before it, Southeastern Conference officials are preparing for distribution battles that will keep fans from watching SEC Network games.

“There will be angst,” said SEC consultant Chuck Gerber.

Managing that angst will be the hardest part of the SEC’s launch, just as it was the hardest part of the Big Ten Network’s launch in 2007.

“[Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany] told the schools up front that we don’t want blood in the streets, but there are going to be some tense times,” said Larry Jones, executive vice president of Fox Sports Media Group. “The only way to [manage the schools] is if you have that credibility.”

Mike Slive has that credibility with SEC schools. Still, expect a difficult job.

> SEC Network will cover news events.

Don’t expect an in-depth exposé on graduation rates or off-field transgressions, but the SEC Network is committed to news programming, regardless of whether stories put them in a bad light.

Gerber said he told the SEC presidents that they have to be prepared for some negative stories on the channel.

“If you are going to do a network and you’re going to have a news program, you have to have a news program,” he said. “You don’t necessarily have to give opinion or commentary — because I don’t think that’s our place. ESPN can do that. But on the network itself, if there is an issue with one of the institutions, we are going to report on it.”

Gerber said the SEC learned from the Big Ten Network, which was criticized for not covering the Penn State scandal thoroughly enough in 2011.

“They should have reported it right away and it took them three days,” he said.

> College sports rights still have room for growth.

People who talk of a sports bubble usually point to college sports, the area that has seen the biggest media rights increases. But each of the sports media panelists last month played down talk of a bubble.

“Despite the rise of college rights fees, particularly among the five power conferences … people will continue to compete over them,” said Dean Jordan, managing executive of global sports rights for Wasserman Media Group. “There’s still room for growth.”

> The football playoffs aren’t expanding.

I believed that the new college football playoffs would expand from four to eight teams in the next five years. But I’ve changed my mind because none of the executives on the panel agreed, including Gerber and Jordan, the media consultants who sold the playoff media rights to ESPN.

The main reason: They believe a playoff expansion will dilute the regular season.

“When a conference tells me that they are willing to take less money for their regular-season package for more money that they’re going to split with a bunch of people in the postseason is the day that I’ll tell you that there’s going to be an eight-team playoff,” Gerber said.

Jordan said a playoff expansion would not bring in as much money as some have suggested. “The majority of the value of the playoff is in three games — two semifinals and a championship,” he said. “You’re not creating any more of those when you expand the playoff.”

> The ACC is taking notes.

The ACC hasn’t decided whether it’s going to launch a channel. But Jordan, the conference’s media consultant, said it is keeping a close eye on the SEC Network’s launch. That’s because the ACC’s media deals are similar to the SEC’s, with ESPN set up as the primary rights partner.

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.

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