SEC Network celebrates 5th anniversary as national champion of Power 5 media
On Aug. 28, 2014, only two short weeks into SEC Network’s existence, “SEC Nation” aired for the first time. The site was Gamecock Park just outside Williams-Brice Stadium.
“College GameDay” had long been established as a coast-to-coast institution for college football on Saturday mornings and the standard-bearer for traveling road shows, so “SEC Nation” simply narrowed the scope to a single conference and followed a similar format. No. 9 South Carolina was set to welcome No. 21 Texas A&M. Steve Spurrier and the ‘Cocks were 11-2 the year before, while Kevin Sumlin and the Aggies went 9-4.
Host Joe Tessitore was joined by Tim Tebow, Marcus Spears and Paul Finebaum. Tessitore, who had called everything from boxing to horse racing since joining ESPN in 2002, certainly knew his way around a panel of experts. But that wasn’t the case for Tebow or Spears, a couple of All-Americans at the collegiate level — the former a quarterback at Florida, the latter a defensive end at LSU — and first-round draft picks in the NFL. As for Finebaum, he had made a living writing newspaper columns and doing his daily radio show, not sitting in an analyst’s chair on TV.
The highly anticipated matchup turned into a rout, as Kenny Hill broke a single-game A&M record with 511 yards passing in a 52-28 beatdown of USC. That wasn’t the only history made in Columbia, though. Tessitore was as gregarious as ever. Both Tebow and Spears could talk almost as well as they could play. Finebaum’s encyclopedic knowledge helped keep the two ex-jocks balanced, as well.
The broadcast of the game itself proved to be a winner with Brent Musburger doing play-by-play and Jesse Palmer on color. More important, “SEC Nation” was the perfect backdrop for a unique brand of pregame pandemonium typically associated with this league.
“I was there with Joe, Tim and Marcus, and the game between A&M and South Carolina was about to kick,” Finebaum told Saturday Down South. “The fighter jets had just done the flyover, and I’m thinking the first football game on a Thursday night on the network is about to happen and everyone is watching. As we ended, Joe tossed it to Brent – and it was off. It was an amazing scene.”
The most successful launch that cable television had ever seen was officially underway, and the SEC was more relevant than ever.
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Today is the 5th anniversary of SEC Network, and although it wasn’t the first of its kind, it’s now unquestionably the leader among Power 5 conference channels.
It shows 160 basketball games, 75 baseball games, 50 softball games and a litany of other live events from the league’s 21 men’s and women’s sports yearly, not to mention 45 football games. When there’s no game to be played, “SEC Now” serves as its flagship news and information program, plus “The Paul Finebaum Show” is a 4-hour afternoon TV/radio simulcast that has essentially become the soundtrack of the SEC.
As for the rest of the Power 5, Big Ten Network was introduced in 2007 – a full 7 years before SEC Network – and for the most part has been a pillar of prosperity. It’s buoyed by what is basically a 50-50 partnership with FOX. The Pac-12 Networks, on the other hand, have been an unmitigated disaster operating on their own, as all kinds of cable, satellite (no contract with DirecTV, for example) and streaming gaps have shrunk potential viewership. The Big 12 has no standalone channel, aside from the all-Texas Longhorn Network, and is forced to rely on a newly expanded media rights fees deal with ESPN.
According to commissioner Greg Sankey, the SEC’s television presence in 60-plus million homes has been instrumental to the conference’s strength on so many fields of play.
“We believed we had the right partner with ESPN, which provided immediate distribution success, high-quality production and the presentation SEC fans expected,” Sankey said. “I think we all hoped for a successful launch, but the night of Aug. 14, 2014, became one the most memorable nights in the SEC’s history. SEC Network’s success has continued for the 5 years since that special night.”
ACC Network is launching next week. It remains to be seen if a new network helps the ACC rise to the level of the SEC and Big Ten or simply continues a brutal game of catch-me-if-you-can alongside the Big 12 and Pac-12. Like the SEC, partnering with ESPN offers the ACC a degree of brand recognition among sports enthusiasts that FOX hasn’t been able to replicate, plus the Pac-12 has dubiously shown that going solo is perhaps an irreparable mistake.
An argument can be made that the ACC is quite healthy even before its new channel goes live – it’s home to 3 of the past 6 national champions in football (Clemson in 2018 and 2016, Florida State in 2013), as opposed to just 2 for the SEC (Alabama in 2017 and 2015). On the basketball court, the ACC has captured 3 of the past 5 titles (Virginia in 2019, North Carolina in 2017, Duke in 2015). The SEC hasn’t cut down the nets since Kentucky in 2012. Sure, the SEC has dominated baseball with 6 of the past 11 champs, although the ACC won it all with Virginia in 2015.
However, ACC Network can only hope that it assimilates into the ever-changing TV market as well as SEC Network did. Waiting an extra 5 years has made those waters much murkier, though.
“We pay attention to the business dynamics of other conference networks,” Sankey said, “but our ongoing focus is fully on SEC Network.”
Supporters of other conferences love to mock the weekly “SEC!” chants that can be heard from Columbia (S.C.) to Columbia (Mo.), but the league’s gang-like presence has helped the channel become a must-watch for the fraternity on Saturdays in the fall. Even if Florida-Georgia is shown on CBS in the premier 3:30 time slot, fans of the Gators and Bulldogs will tune in for Vanderbilt-Arkansas on SEC Network beforehand at noon and then Tennessee-South Carolina afterward in prime time.
(They might even flip over to Kentucky-Missouri at 4:00 when the “Cocktail Party” is in a commercial break.)
As always, the answer to all of your questions is “money.” The SEC has been printing it the past half decade in particular. Sankey proudly announced in February that the conference generated a record $627.1 million in revenue for the 2017-18 fiscal year, which resulted in payouts of $43.1 million for each of its 14 schools. For 2012-13, only 5 years before the most recent data – before SEC Network came into the picture – those totals were $289.4 million and $20.7 million, respectively. The cash distributed to institutions has more than doubled since the channel debuted.
By comparison, for 2017-18, the ACC had a commendable double-digit rise in revenue for the fourth time in the last 5 years. But $464.7 million total and $29.5 million per member (part-time member Notre Dame received $7.9 million) still trail the SEC significantly.
“SEC Network is an incredibly successful endeavor, and we expect to remain the leading conference network and have no interest in being similar or comparable,” Sankey said. “We want to stand unique among our peers.”
Credit the Big Ten for handing out more than $50 million apiece, due in large part to its channel, but that figure is inflated. The conference just started collecting on new television agreements with multiple networks this past year, and those numbers do nothing but rise drastically every time parties meet at the negotiating table.
The channel-less Big 12 should be praised for pulling itself out of a downward spiral – fresh TV deals and recommitting to a football title game have helped – as the conference feared to be on the verge of extinction not too long ago. While $388 million in revenue sizably trails the rest of the Power 5, because the league only has 10 members, $38.8 million per school is respectable. The poor Pac-12 made $497 million overall but distributed just $29.5 million to each member. Both sums decreased from 2016-17.
Unlike SEC Network, which continues to get bigger and better, the Pac-12 Networks saw a dip in revenue last year. Various lingering problems share the blame.
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After originally being announced 3 years ago by commissioner John Swofford at Media Days, ACC Network is finally scheduled to hit the airwaves Aug. 22.
A part of the ESPN conglomerate and mostly operating out of its headquarters in Bristol, the channel is technically an 80-20 ownership split between the Walt Disney Company and Hearst Communications. The former is the most powerful entertainment company on the planet. The latter is a worldwide mass-media empire of newspapers, magazines, television channels and television stations.
There is every reason to believe ACC Network will be a smashing success right out of the gate – it certainly helps that conference superpower Clemson is the reigning national champion on the gridiron. Carriage agreements are in place with a lengthy list of cable, satellite and streaming providers on a local, regional and national scale. Each of the league’s 14 full-time member institutions has spent millions of dollars to build the kind of state-of-the-art production facilities expected of an ESPN property. At least 450 live events are set to be aired annually, including approximately 40 football games that can’t be seen anywhere else.
When Swofford unveiled his plan, some wondered if he was way too late to the party. Cord cutting and the like was drastically altering the way people consumed TV. But with a full digital platform in place alongside the traditional linear construct, making it just as easy for fans to watch on their smartphones as their flat screens, the ACC has put itself in position to command as many eyeballs (and as much revenue) as possible going forward.
Nevertheless, to paraphrase the late Rodney Dangerfield’s adversarial professor from the movie “Back to School”: No matter what it does, no matter what stunts it pulls, no matter how hard it tries, ACC Network will never, ever be SEC Network.
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In addition to seasoned media professionals like play-by-play men Dave O’Brien and Wes Durham, ACC Network has put together a strong stable of analysts: former Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel and one-time Miami coach Mark Richt to name a few.
However, the odds are relatively slim that any of them will enjoy the same level of rock-star treatment given to the on-air talent at SEC Network. Be it the aforementioned Finebaum, Peter Burns, Laura Rutledge, Greg McElroy or Tom Hart, all of them have seen their profiles rise considerably since being associated with the channel.
Finebaum – a graduate of Tennessee – was already a beloved radio host syndicated all over the Southeast, but now he’s pretty much the godfather of college football and a go-to voice for any ESPN telecast when the sport makes news. Once he agreed to relocate after 30-some years in Birmingham to SEC Network’s new headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., the direction of the enterprise started to take shape. Be it brilliant interviews with a murderer’s-row list of guests or half-baked tirades from an endless supply of kooky callers, the show is equal parts sublime and absurd.
Not even a veteran of Finebaum’s pedigree knew what to expect when SEC Network went live. After all, he had almost no legitimate experience in front of the camera.
“I knew I was a newspaper columnist-turned-radio host who knew absolutely nothing about television,” Finebaum said. “I could sense the producers were cringing at my lack of savvy, but I was hopeful the cornerstone of the show – the loyal callers – would overcome my own ineptitude and win the day.”
Burns, a native of Baton Rouge and lifelong LSU devotee, owned a local radio program in Denver before getting the gig with SEC Network. Like Finebaum, he didn’t know much about being a studio host. He employed a fake-it-till-you-make-it style at first, yet you’d never know it with his child-like enthusiasm and handsome-man charm.
“I think the biggest ‘Wow!’ moment that I had came even before we ever did the show,” Burns said. “We all kind of sat in our studio one day, and there was Booger McFarland. There was Marcus Spears. There was Tim Tebow. There were all these people that I grew up watching and being fans of. I was like, ‘I can’t believe I’m a part of this group.’ That was nuts.”
Rutledge, a Florida alumna and 2012 Miss America contestant, got into sports because that was the only opening at her campus radio station. Since leaving the San Diego market to join SEC Network as a reporter – she was covering the Padres and Chargers locally for FOX – her career has been on a straight trajectory upward. This will be her third season hosting “SEC Nation,” plus she’s spent time recently behind what is the be-all-end-all desk for ESPN personalities: “SportsCenter.”
“I couldn’t have imagined the success SEC Network would bring me personally in my wildest dreams,” Rutledge said. “I was so worried I wouldn’t make it long term at ESPN that I continued to freelance for CNN that whole first year in 2014. That meant I was waking up most weekdays at 2:30 a.m. and hosting international sports shows, then heading to an SEC football game every weekend.”
McElroy, a national title-winning QB at Alabama with no media credentials, joined SEC Network immediately after a short-lived stint in the NFL and quickly became one of the most likable analysts in the business.
“I was taken aback with how team-oriented ESPN was,” McElroy said. “I thought I would miss that aspect of playing. The locker-room camaraderie and the teamwork eventually became my favorite part about playing football, but it’s ever-present with every show that we produce. It was surprising to me to see just how many people truly care about the product and that it takes a village to make sure a show is done well.”
Hart, a product of Missouri’s highly acclaimed journalism school, had been calling football, basketball and baseball at myriad outlets for a decade and a half, although none of those duties was particularly prominent. Since coming to SEC Network, he now does play-by-play for prime-time football games and is also in the ESPN booth for baseball’s College World Series.
“I don’t know if it’s accurate to say my star has risen, but since I’ve been lucky to be a part of some great games, my work has been in front of more people,” Hart said. “While we strive to serve the viewer, growth in this industry can most accurately be measured by one’s assignments.”
If there’s a testament to the pigskin power of this conference and unflinching loyalty put on display by its fan bases, it’s the very existence of “SEC Nation.” Rationally speaking, there’s no need for it at all since “College GameDay” is one of ESPN’s most valuable possessions and promotes a tremendous amount of star power with Rece Davis, Desmond Howard, David Pollack, Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit and a weekly guest picker — Will Ferrell, Bill Murray and Katy Perry made especially memorable appearances. A rudimentary studio show would be a fraction of the cost (and a fraction of the headache), but we’re talking about SEC fans. It’s not a “rationally speaking” crowd.
“I think SEC Network will continue to grow,” Finebaum said. “The product is the league, and although there are many issues facing college athletics, the importance and influence of the Southeastern Conference is not one of them.”
“SEC Nation” offers a family feel that the more corporate “College GameDay” can’t match, which can be directly attributed to how accessible Finebaum, Tebow, Spears and Rutledge are before, during and after broadcasts.
“Paul, Tim and Marcus are SEC royalty, and one of my favorite things about the three of them is the time they spend with fans and the pictures they take with them,” Rutledge said. “Our priority on ‘SEC Nation’ is to make it a memorable experience for all fans there, and most of my favorite moments include interaction with the great people who visit our show.”
Even if football always has been and always will be the straw that stirs the drink in this league, there are long stretches on the calendar when there’s none to be seen. With SEC Network, more men’s and women’s basketball games are on TV than ever before. Baseball and softball, too.
“Another ‘Wow!’ moment for me,” Burns said, “I think it was just the first time I had people come up and say, ‘Thank you so much.’ The fans, the employees, just thanking us because it hadn’t been covered before the way that they wanted it covered. ESPN and other companies would cover the SEC, but the fact that we covered every single sport, not just football, I think people loved it.”
As stated, the SEC has taken the College World Series 6 of the past 11 years – 2 each for Vanderbilt and South Carolina, 1 for LSU and Florida – and sent a record-tying 4 schools to the 8-team tournament in June. Not only did Florida also capture consecutive Women’s College World Series titles in 2013-14, but all 13 conference programs (Vanderbilt doesn’t compete in softball) made the 64-team NCAA Tournament field last season. College baseball and softball are maybe more popular than ever before, at least as spectator sports. SEC Network’s expanded coverage is a definite reason why.
“I’m grateful that I get to do more every year and certainly hope there is more growth to come,” Hart said. “I don’t need to be recognized at the grocery store, but I always appreciate it when my bosses notice a job well done.”
Even with a multi-platform structure broadcasting more than 1,000 live events per year, there are still countless hours to fill for a 24-7-365 channel.
“I think the SEC is a bit unique because the league transcends fandom,” McElroy said. “It’s more than just the teams and schools. It’s quite literally a way of life and a sense of tremendous pride throughout the Southeast. I haven’t walked into a restaurant or a bar in the footprint during football season and not seen it on multiple televisions.”
With an enviable collection of talking heads at its disposal, from trained journalists to former players and coaches, SEC Network has a high batting average when making hiring decisions to the delight of viewers and critics alike. Finebaum, Burns, Rutledge, McElroy, Hart and others have seen increased opportunities come their way as a result.
“I am especially proud of watching Laura,” Finebaum said. “Seeing her take the medium by storm has been amazing. Her talent is immense, and her relatability with fans is so cool to watch.”
Tessitore and McFarland, who was a stud defensive tackle at LSU before being drafted in Round 1 by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, soon will be in Year 2 together on “Monday Night Football.” Maria Taylor, a decorated volleyball player at Georgia, graduated from “SEC Nation” and is now on “College GameDay.” Kaylee Hartung – like Burns, she’s from Baton Rouge – has been elevated even further up Mickey Mouse’s ladder. She’s a correspondent for ABC News.
“I hope to always be a part of SEC Network,” Rutledge said. “It’s incredibly special to me. The sky is the limit, and we have so many talented people behind the scenes working on new shows and cultivating ideas. I can’t wait for fans to see what we have up our sleeves.”
Considering his humble start and the cheat code he seemed to stumble upon to even make it to HQ, Burns could be steering the ship for the next 5 years and beyond.
“This is my dream job,” he said. “I don’t know if anyone champions the SEC more than I do, but until it’s been ingrained into your life as much as it has been mine, there’s no other thing that I would ever want to cover.”
To state the obvious, SEC Network’s focus will always be on actual sporting events. Most fans still prefer to watch them in real time (a must for deep-pocket advertisers) instead of via DVR or on demand. But a show like “SEC Storied,” created by the same minds behind ESPN’s acclaimed “30 for 30” documentary series, has produced some outstanding original programming highlighting Georgia’s Herschel Walker in football, Kentucky’s Sam Bowie in basketball, LSU’s Lolo Jones in track and dozens of other features.
“It may be unfair to expect ACC Network to replicate what SEC Network has done,” Hart said. “First of all, SEC Network was the most successful channel launch in cable television history. Secondly, the entertainment landscape continues to shift and is vastly different today than it was 5 years ago.”
While they’re not necessarily competing with each other – most ACC fans don’t have much interest in Auburn-Ole Miss, just like most SEC fans couldn’t care less about NC State-Boston College – ACC Network has a lot to live up to when viewed through the same lens as SEC Network. Needless to say, the ACC simply isn’t as riveting as the SEC in football, so it’s up to Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech to become nationally relevant once again. But if there’s one lesson to be learned, it’s that the people pontificating about the games are sometimes just as important as the games themselves.
“I fully expect ACC Network to overdeliver what’s expected of them,” McElroy said, “and I know the fans of the conference will find it appointment viewing throughout the year.”
Best wishes this coming season to Manuel and the rest of the ACC crew, but they’re not moving the needle like Tebow and Co. in the SEC.
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College football is ready to return. The SEC appears to be loaded yet again in 2019 with 6 teams in the Coaches Poll preseason Top 25, including 4 of the top 8: No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 Georgia, No. 6 LSU and No. 8 Florida.
“SEC Nation” has already announced that it will take over Nashville in Week 1 for Georgia-Vanderbilt. Rutledge is running point. Finebaum, Tebow and Spears are analyzing. Before the Commodores say hello to the Dawgs, SEC Network will also be airing Texas State-Texas A&M, Toledo-Kentucky and Portland State-Arkansas on an extra-long Labor Day weekend.
Naturally, the quality of games available upticks as the schedule gets into league play. But even before toe meets leather, the channel boasts a lengthy list of originals. While there were only three homegrown shows in 2014 (“SEC Now,” “SEC Nation” and “The Paul Finebaum Show”), this year there are more than 10. “SEC Film Room,” “SEC Inside,” “SEC This Morning,” “SEC Featured,” “Marty & McGee,” “Thinking Out Loud” and “TrueSouth” are part of a stacked lineup, plus “Saturdays in the South: A History of SEC Football” — a new 8-part series starting in September — will have interviews with more than 100 league legends past and present.
Is the SEC still the best conference in America? That’s debatable. In football, Clemson has topped Alabama in 2 of the past 3 national championship games. Basketball has its issues. Baseball and softball are intimidating yet not unbeatable. But what’s not up for debate is that SEC Network is the resident king of Power 5 channels in terms of both product on the screen and faces presenting said product.
And if, against all odds, there is indeed a world in which ACC Network becomes even more of a triumph than SEC Network, then Rodney Dangerfield’s character from “Back to School” has a suggestion where to find it: “How about Fantasyland?”