Justin Connolly believes he has momentum – not to mention Ole Miss and supporters of the conference’s other 13 schools – on the distribution and programming side of the ball ahead of the SEC Network’s upcoming debut.
ESPN's senior vice president of college networks is gearing up as the SEC Network -- ESPN's venture with the Southeastern Conference -- moves closer to its Aug. 14 kickoff. Over its freshman season, the network will televise 450 events and present another 550 digital-exclusive live conference contests on SECNetwork.com and WatchESPN.
“We have some real momentum as we move closer to launch. Things are really starting to heat up,” said Connolly during a recent phone interview from the service’s offices in Charlotte.
It’s true. ESPN last week inked a carriage contract for the SEC Network with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, which benefits from distribution negotiations from the nation’s No. 2 cable operator. Add top distributor Comcast, which has a presence in all 11 of the states home to the 14-school conference and earlier deals with Cox, Dish Network, charter affiliate AT&T U-verse, plus others, and SEC Network has commitments to launch in 60 million households in the footprint and throughout the country.
“We’re coming into this with significant distribution at this stage. We have the top three cable operators and leading satellite and telco distributors and are in conversations with everybody else,” said Connolly. “I’m confident we’re going to get more deals done, but until things are actually signed, a contract is just a piece of paper.”
Connolly, who moved his family to Charlotte and has made trips to all 14 SEC campuses, said conference fans, students and alumni are pumped. “Everywhere I go, people say, ‘You have to get a deal with…’ ‘Is that your provider?’ I ask. ‘That’s my provider.’ "
At this point, Connolly and the SEC Network’s targets remain DBS leader DirecTV, telco Verizon FiOS, which has a presence in SEC states Florida and Texas, and Charter, which operates in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.
Officials at DirecTV, Verizon and Charter all indicated that their companies continue to negotiate with ESPN for the SEC Network.
SEC Network also has yet to strike a master agreement with the National Cable Television Cooperative, many of whose members operate in the 11 SEC states.
Connolly and ESPN officials would not discuss the SEC Network's rate card. Published reports suggest that the channel is fetching a $1.40 monthly subscriber fee within the conference footprint and a quarter everywhere else.
Echoing ESPN president John Skipper's goal of attaining similar levels of carriage as broader collegiate service, ESPNU, Connolly said the SEC Network’s affiliate goals are aimed toward “the benchmark” of having the top level of penetration within the conference footprint and the second-level out of market.
“We seem to be getting that mix,” he said, while noting that there is a difference in “the carriage we have in Alabama, than in Oregon.”
Those receiving the network will witness a three-hour wraparound welcome party, starting at 5 p.m. (CT) on Aug. 14. Programming will emanate from Charlotte with cutaways to campus locations. Network talent from Brent Musburger and Tim Tebow to Greg McElroy and Paul Finebaum, and many others, will provide updates on conference happenings and what subscribers can expect to see.
“We want to give viewers a flavor for what the network will be about, and for those who don’t know, show them some of the reasons why the SEC is different,” said Connolly.
The network’s early days will also see previews of each of the teams from the nation’s preeminent collegiate pigskin circuit, and encores of 67 classic games from its past.
Connolly said the worldwide leader will also ramp up production on more SEC Storied documentaries, from the creators of the Peabody and Emmy Award-winning “30 for 30” franchise.
Four films are currently in the can, covering the iconic trio of Charles Barkley, Bo Jackson and Frank Thomas at Auburn University in the 1980s; South Carolina head football coach Steve Spurrier and his long history with the conference; the tragic story of Ole Miss defensive back Chucky Mullins and Vanderbilt running back Brad Gaines; and the devotion of 14 famous SEC fans.
The latter, The Stars Are Aligned, will air on premiere night at 9 p.m., as director Andy Billman shines the spotlight on such notables as Ashley Judd , Darius Rucker, James Carville and Governor Rick Perry as they profess their devotions to the SEC and their schools.
The output game plan, according to Connolly, calls for 10 SEC Storied entries annually. They will vary in length from 90-, 60- and 30-minutes, with some launching on ESPNU and others on SEC Network.
The network will also feature SEC Now, its version of SportsCenter five days a week, and SEC Nation, a two-hour version of GameDay, that will be making dedicated conference campus stops and setting the stage for football action.
“It’s hard to get away from the shadow of the great programming on ESPN,” explained Connolly.
Before the football season begins on Aug. 28 with Texas A&M Aggies visiting Spurrier’s Gamecocks in Columbia, South Carolina, subscribers can get an early read on Kentucky’s men’s basketball team. The 2014 NCAA Division I national runner up will engage in the Big Blue Bahamas tour, with contests scheduled against the Dominican Republic national team, the Puerto Rico national team reserves and French first-division club team Champagne Chalons-Reims Basket from Aug. 15-17, as part of a larger competition against those squads.
With its 45-game football slate, SEC Network will feature all of the conference’s squads during the first four weeks of the season. Each of the first two weeks features six games, before the network settles into tripleheader mode.
Connolly explained that the network will be home to top-level action. While SEC broadcast partner CBS gets first crack at the weekly schedule under the rights structure, “ESPN controls the rest of the inventory,” said Connolly. As such, matchups will be designated for exposure on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU and SEC Network over the course of the campaign.
SEC Network also plans to give viewers a chance to relive the glory of the past weekend, or lament what might have been with enhanced, film room recaps.
“We’re looking to get the coaches to break down some points of the games,” said Connolly.