ESPN, SEC alliance called 'Ferrari' of college programming

Scripps Howard News Service - Bret Bielema was in his second year as Wisconsin's head football coach when the Big Ten Conference Network began televising in August 2007.

"I was in a recruit's home in Fort Lauderdale," recalled Bielema, Arkansas' first-year coach, "and his dad said, 'I can't wait for my son to be on a network that I can see him play every week.' That's the true value of having your own network. It takes you everywhere."

Bielema already knows the positive effect of what the rest of his fellow Southeastern Conference coaches in all 21 sports are about to discover starting in August 2014 when the ESPN-operated SEC Network begins daily broadcasting.

At a recent news conference attended by more than 30 coaches including all 14 football coaches, SEC Commissioner Mike Slive announced that the league and ESPN signed an agreement through 2034 to create and operate a multiplatform network.

Slive would not disclose financial figures, but sports-business journalists previously said that such a contract, along with the league's CBS contract, could provide each league school as much as $28.5 million annually alone in just TV revenue.

The contract calls for ESPN and its various platforms to annually televise approximately 1,000 live events per year, including 450 on the network and 550 distributed digitally. Scheduled annually on the ESPN networks are 45 SEC football games, more than 100 men's basketball games, 60 women's basketball games and other events from all of the SEC sports.

"We in the SEC have an incredibly devoted fan base," Slive said. "Their passion, loyalty and commitment to their institutions and teams is at the heart of our decision to pursue the network. There will be something for every SEC fan all the time."

Justin Connolly, an ESPN vice president in sales and marketing, will oversee the network's day-to-day operations. He said the network has already signed AT&T U-verse as its first national distributor.

"Our journey is just beginning, as I take the tarp off this Ferrari," Connolly said.

ESPN President John Skipper said the SEC Network distribution will be heavier in the 11 SEC states, but has appeal from coast to coast.

"This is not a regional network," Skipper said. "This is a national network. There are a lot of SEC fans in California, Michigan, New York, Connecticut, Virginia and Nebraska. We expect to be in all those places."

Slive said CBS still has first shot at selecting the league's best football matchup each Saturday, but that ESPN will televise three SEC games every Saturday with an overlap against the CBS telecast.

Because ESPN is seeking better matchups to fill its live football slots, debate will be reopened at the SEC spring business meetings in Destin, Fla., at the end of the month whether the league should expand from an eight-game to a nine-game conference schedule.

"I was the only coach who spoke out for it last year at our meetings," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "I believe every player should have a chance to play every school in the SEC during his career, which doesn't happen now. I also think the more we play each other, the better chance you have to get a common ground for strength of schedule."

Kentucky men's basketball coach John Calipari said the 24/7 exposure of the ESPN network will raise the league's profile, and therefore boost recruiting, especially for teams that have traditionally finished in the back half of the league.

"From teams seven to 14, those teams now have a chance to recruit, because they will get fully exposed," Calipari said. "You recruit better players, which leads to better teams, which leads to a better-balanced conference. The great thing about basketball is that recruiting two good guys can change your program."

(Contact Ron Higgins of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., at www.commercialappeal.com.)

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