ESPN's ratings department has pushed a singular mantra when it comes to college football:
You can never have too much SEC.
To wit, ESPN's highest-rated college football markets in 2013 were Birmingham, Greenville, S.C., Knoxville, New Orleans and Nashville. (Memphis, Jacksonville and Atlanta were also in the Top 10.) With an endless thirst for all things SEC athletics in the states that house those schools, ESPN will debut the SEC Network next August featuring the 14 schools that make up Southeastern Conference. College football, of course, will be the biggest draw on the channel and that makes the SEC Network's upcoming Saturday morning college football pregame show one of its most important properties.
Where do things stand with that show? The program already has a name ("SEC Nation"), a timeslot (10-noon ET) and a debut date (August 28). In an interview with SI.com last week, ESPN's vice president of College Networks Stephanie Druley said that SEC Nation will travel to as many SEC football sites as it can during the 2014 college season. The show debuts on the night (Thursday) of Aug. 28 at Columbia, S.C., for the South Carolina-Texas A&M game on the SEC Network, the debut game on the new network. Two days later, SEC Nation will broadcast from Auburn before the Auburn-Arkansas game. They have not chosen locations beyond that.
Unlike GameDay, SEC Nation will announce its schedule a couple of weeks in advance and will not necessarily be at games airing on the SEC Network that day. Druley said the show will be heavy on atmosphere and there will be a food segment given some of the great SEC cuisine traditions. Obviously, the main part of the show will be analysis of the SEC football games that weekend. "We'll examine the matchups but we will also look at the environment around the games, too," she said.
"I would seriously consider trying to do something that looks and feels different than College GameDay," said ESPN's Lee Fitting, who produces College GameDay. "The SEC fans are so passionate that I really do think there will be a healthy appetite to be part of a live show, but it takes time to build that following. I can guarantee you that Stephanie and her crew will do it the right way. There are a lot of smart people involved with this project. I'd be really intrigued with the idea of doing the show from inside a stadium leading up to kickoff -- that provides guaranteed buzz and urgency to the show."
On the issue of stealing audience from its own network, Druley called College GameDay "magic" and did not see SEC Nation taking audience away. ESPN officials will aim to have SEC Nation at a different site from College GameDay but circumstances might align (such as the SEC Championship) where both shows will broadcast from the same site.
"We'd like to be a complement and just a different place to go for SEC fans who want wall to wall SEC," Druley said. "I wish I had the luxury of matching wits against them but I don't think I can. We have to strive to be different in content, talent and what we do at the location. Everyone comes to them -- GameDay is a magnet. I don't know that we will be that. I don't have Lee Corso putting a mascot head on. I don't know what I have yet, honestly. We will try to give you what it is like to be at a pregame in the SEC."
Added Fitting, "I'm not concerned at all with losing any audience — I just don't get caught up in that. I heard people wasting a lot of time worrying about the potential of GameDay losing audience this season, too. It makes more sense for me to use my time to try and figure out how to make the next show as good as possible. And when viewers do flip from GameDay to SEC Nation, which will happen, it's a win for ESPN."
SEC Nation has already announced its first on-air hire. Veteran college football announcer Joe Tessitore will host the show, playing the role that Chris Fowler does on GameDay. Druley said she had been thinking about possible names for the host and heard that Tessitore was interested. Once they talked, it felt right.
"Once you hear you can get Joe Tessitore, you don't have to go down the list very far," Druley said. "I think Joe is really good at getting analysts in and out and leading conversations while at the same time putting his own bent on the conversation. He's the whole package."
Druley said that viewers should look for additional staffers to be announced sometime after the BCS title game and that it was important to have a former coach or player who competed in the SEC. She said she favors four people on a set and plans on hiring an executive producer and line producer -- key production positions -- for the show in the next couple of months.
"ESPN College GameDay has had a nice fit with four [people on set] and I've had a lot of success with both three and four," Tessitore said. " I think it's more important who the other broadcasters are rather than how many there are. It's about good chemistry more than the correct number. I want authentic and opinionated partners who will breathe it all in seven days a week. I don't care if it's three or four on the set as much as I want the three or four who share my passion for covering the SEC. My vision is a group of great friends and colleagues who talk SEC football all week long -- laughing, debating and enjoying it all. That two-hour conversation on Saturday morning for SEC Nation should just be like any other two hours of our week together. But the atmosphere of the SEC game we are at will always be the biggest broadcaster on the show. So if we are saying it's a four-person set, then it's actually five because that energy of an SEC game day will be the star.
Asked specifically if she was interested in Tim Tebow as an studio analyst for SEC Nation -- the former quarterback has grabbed the services of a CAA broadcast agent who represents an armada of ESPN-ers including Tessitore and Paul Finebaum (a strong candidate to be part of the show at some point) -- Druley said she was, though she has not yet spoken with the former Florida quarterback.
"I believe he still wants to play and pursue the NFL but if he decides to stop, we'd love to talk to him," Druley said.
The Noise Report
SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week.
1. The NFL beat has never been more all-encompassing than it is today, given the multiple platforms for content and the intense competition both locally and nationally. To give readers some insight into the job, I empaneled five respected NFL writers for an MMQB.com roundtable discussion on the business. The panel included John Keim (ESPN.com NFL Nation Redskins reporter), Mike Klis (NFL/Broncos writer for the Denver Post), Jeff McLane (Eagles beat writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer), Jane McManus (Jets writer for ESPNNewYork.com and an espnW columnist), and Armando Salguero (NFL columnist for the Miami Herald). Those interested in the NFL I think will find it insightful.
1a. Fox's Joe Buck and former Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman were excellent in the fourth quarter of Dallas's epic collapse against Green Bay on Sunday. Dallas Morning News writer Barry Horn documents how the broadcaster did not sugarcoat what went down at AT&T Stadium.
1b. The dysfunction of the Redskins is easy fodder for pregame shows, and nearly every staffer paid six or seven figures by the football-airing networks offered up an opinion on quarterback Robert Griffin III. A quick recap.
- ESPN's Mike Ditka said RGIII should be playing; colleague Cris Carter disagreed.
- Fox NFL analyst Jimmy Johnson said Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan has the right to bench the entire team; colleague Howie Long said Griffin should play if healthy.
- NFL Network analyst Steve Mariucci said Shanahan was correct ("As tough as it is to swallow right now, this might be the best thing for [Robert Griffin III] to make sure that he doesn't get hurt on a 3-10 team that's going nowhere fast") while guest analyst Joe Theismann disagreed ("The worst thing you can do to an athlete who is healthy is sit him down and not allow him to play on Sunday.")
- CBS NFL Today analysts Bill Cowher and Dan Marino said Griffin should play because he needs the experience. Shannon Sharpe, who played for Shanahan in Denver, disagreed with that take and delivered what I thought were the most interesting thoughts for viewers. The NFL Today video is here.
1c. CBS said its NFL coverage through 13 weeks of the season had averaged 18.8 million viewers, a six percent increase over last year and the highest number of average viewers for the first 13 weeks of the season for the AFC television package in 26 years.
1d. The Bears-Cowboys game was the highest-rated and most-viewed Monday Night Football game of the 2013 NFL season with 16,192,000 viewers. It was also the most-watched NFL game ever on nationally broadcast Spanish-language television, averaging 174,000 Hispanic viewers on ESPN Deportes.
1e. Last week's Chargers-Broncos game drew 8.9 million viewers on the NFL Network, the fifth most-watched Thursday Night Football game ever.
1f. Awful Announcing reported -- and Fox Sports PR confirmed -- that NFL broadcasters Kevin Burkhardt and John Lynch will call one of Fox's divisional round playoff games in January.
1g. Updated NFL pregame ratings through Saturday:
- Fox NFL Sunday: 4.733 million viewers vs. 4.553 million in 2012 -- up four percent from last year.
- CBS'S The NFL Today: 3.258 million vs. 3.337 million -- down two percent from last year.
- ESPN's NFL Countdown: 2.162 million versus 2.062 million -- up five percent from last year.
2. Will Fox Sports bid on the television rights to the NBA? I asked Fox Sports president Eric Shanks. "I think you would love to be involved in the NBA and we already are very big at a regional level," Shanks said. "We love our relationship with the NBA at a regional level and obviously we will take a look at it. It's going to be competitive."
Asked specifically if he thinks the NBA will open up a third television package to include a partner such as Fox while retaining incumbents EPN and Turner, Shanks said he did not know. "I think a lot of things can happen between now and when the incumbents really get into their discussions with the league," Shanks said. "I honestly could not handicap it."
3. ESPN released its end of the year ratings for college football and there were some interesting results. Between ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU and ESPN3, the network broadcast 310 regular-season FBS games exclusively -- 217 more than every other national network (CBS, FOX, FS1, NBC, NBC Sports Network and CBS Sports Network) combined. The games involved teams from all 10 conferences, plus independents Notre Dame, BYU, Navy and Army.
3a. Individually, ABC's college football games averaged 4.777 million viewers, slightly down from its 2012 numbers. ESPN averaged 2.644 million viewers, an increase of three percent over last season. ESPN2 averaged 1.108 million viewers, an eight percent increase, and ESPNU averaged 400,000 viewers, an increase of four percent.
3b. The four most-viewed metered markets for ESPN's game telecasts in 2013 were the same as in 2012, with Birmingham coming on top for a 13th consecutive season. The Top 10: Birmingham, Greenville, Knoxville, New Orleans, Nashville, Memphis, Columbus, Jacksonville, Louisville and Atlanta.
3c. CBS said its SEC package was up 15 percent over last year in household ratings and was the highest average rating for a full season of SEC football on CBS since the network began airing primarily an SEC-only schedule in 2001.
3d. The SEC Championship game on Dec 7 averaged 14.4 million viewers, making it the most-watched college football game of the 2013 regular-season.
3e. CBS had the top three highest-rated college football telecasts of the 2013 regular-season. The SEC Championship and Alabama-Texas A&M tied for the top with Auburn beating Alabama coming in third.
3f. Fox's coverage of the Big Ten Championship game drew 13.9 million viewers, a big number for that network and the seventh most-watched CFB on FOX in the network's history. The network's most-viewed game remains the 2007 National Championship between Ohio State and Florida, which drew 28.8 million viewers.
3g. ABC's Saturday Night Football averaged 5,750,000 viewers this season.
4. The final numbers for the Saturday college football pregame shows were a blowout. ESPN's College GameDay averaged 1,830,000 viewers while Fox College Saturday averaged 73,000. ESPN said GameDay's least-viewed episodes had more viewers than all but three of FS1's game telecasts. With SEC Nation entering the marketplace next year, Fox College Saturday is going to struggle to find viewers if it maintains the same editorial ethos. The show opened with 107,000 viewers and sank to 44,000 viewers on Nov. 23.
4a. Fitting also agreed that Finebaum is destined for SEC Nation. "I'd venture a guess to say that is highly likely Paul will appear on SEC Nation in some form," Fitting said. "He's been a great addition to ESPN and over the past few months - we got him in a good spot in terms of how he performs on TV."
5. Alabama football coach Nick Saban has agreed to work as a guest studio analyst for ESPN for its coverage of the BCS title game (Jan. 6) in Pasadena.
6. Sports Business Journal put out its 2013 Most Influential People in Sports Business list. The Top 5: 1. Randy Freer and Eric Shanks (Fox Sports); 2. Roger Goodell (NFL); 3. John Skipper (ESPN); 4. David Stern and Adam Silver (NBA); and 5. Bud Selig (Major League Baseball).
7. This week's sports pieces of note:
• Grantland's Thomas Golianopoulos on the mysterious death of two Buffalo Bills fans.
• Amy K. Nelson tracked down Jeff Gillolly, the former husband of Tonya Harding and one of those behind the attack on Nancy Kerrigan.
• SI's S.L. Price wrote a heartbreaking story on six-year-old Jack Pinto, a huge sports fan who died one year ago at Sandy Hook Elementary School:
• Richard Sandomir of The New York Times profiled soccer broadcaster Ray Hudson.
• CBS Sports college football columnist Bruce Feldman examined Butch Davis in the aftermath of the North Carolina scandal.
It was an incredible week for non sports pieces of note:
• This New York Times series on an 11-year-old homeless girl -- the series was reported and written by Andrea Elliott and photographed by Ruth Fremson-- is one of the finest pieces of journalism this year. Sobering.
• This AP piece about a now-missing American in Iran working on an unapproved CIA mission is must reading.
• The Guardian picks the best and worst selfies of 2013.
• Alan Schwarz of the New York Times investigates the selling of Attention Deficit Disorder.
• A map of where countries prohibit homosexuality.
• Not an easy read: A Live-In Love Triangle Ends in a Beating Death.
• A Godzilla Christmas tree at a Tokyo mall.
• The Wall Street Journal, on the U.S. government lobotomizing some 2,000 veterans.
• The Washington Post continued its excellent Guns In America series.
• Via The LA Times: The Manhunt For Christopher Dorner.
• Longreads selected its Best of 2013.
8. Your weekly Outside The Lines-has-been-buried-by-ESPN management update: The show (which this column refers to as District 12 in honor of the district in The Hunger Games that gets the short shrift) averaged 287,000 viewers on Sunday on ESPN2, an impressive number given it airs at 8 a.m. on Sunday morning on a network that draws less than 50 percent of ESPN. When the NFL season ends, here's hoping ESPN management does the right thing and moves OTL back to ESPN.
9. Did ESPN pull Jeff Van Gundy from a Knicks broadcast, as USA Today reported last week? Said an ESPN spokesperson on Sunday: "It's not a rarity for commentator assignments to be tweaked. And, in this particular case, Jeff was not announced as the analyst for the Knicks game."
9a. NBA TV's Greg Anthony on the rising star of Pacers forward Paul George: "Last year LeBron James was head and shoulders above Paul George as a player. He's probably just a head above Paul George now. That is a real concern. When the Bulls three-peated, there was Michael Jordan and there wasn't really a close number two in terms of a guy who could look across from him physically and almost be comparable. When the Lakers did it with Kobe and Shaq, you didn't have anybody who individually could match up. We might be seeing the maturation of Paul George as a player who we look at on the same level as a LeBron James. That's how special he's been this year."
9b. NBA TV had its most-watched ever broadcast last week when a telecast of the Heat-Pacers drew an average of 920,000 viewers. The previous NBA TV best was the opening night of the NBA regular season last year when the Lakers-Trail Blazers drew 868,000 total viewers.
10. Sports Business Journal released its annual story on the gifts the college bowls provide members of the competing football teams.
10a. The World Cup draw averaged a healthy 489,000 viewers on ESPN. The top five rated markets were Las Vegas. Baltimore, Miami, Cincinnati and Orlando.
10b. HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel wraps up its 19th season with a special roundtable review of 2013 on December 17 (10:00-11:00 p.m. ET/PT).
10c. ESPN Films will debut a 30 for 30 documentary on Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan on Jan. 16 at 9 p.m. The film (The Price of Gold) is directed by award-winning filmmaker Nanette Burstein (The Kid Stays in the Picture), who spoke with this column last May about the project. The doc features interviews with Harding and Kerrigan's husband/manager Jerry Solomon, but not Kerrigan, who declined to be interviewed by ESPN. The connective tissue is NBC Sports announced in July that Kerrigan had agreed to an exclusive interview with the network as part of an upcoming documentary on Kerrigan and Tonya Harding that will air on NBC during the Sochi Olympics. Both documentaries are timed to the 20th anniversary of the skaters' dramatic showdown at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics. Kerrigan will be interviewed by Mary Carillo, who will narrate the NBC documentary.
10d. Charles Barkley, appearing on CNN's Unguarded with Rachel Nichols, talked about his strained relationship with Michael Jordan: "You know, Michael is somebody I really like as a person, and for some reason we just hit it off," Barkley said. "It's frustrating for me right now because we're not where we used to be. You know, I think he took some things I said about the Bobcats personally, and it's put a wedge between our friendship, and that's been disheartening for me -- very disheartening. 'Cause one minute we're close and now -- it's strained."
10e. Fox officially announced that it has extended its Champions League package through 2018.
10f. The book "League of Denial" might be coming to a theater new you.
10g. The Rich Eisen Podcast interviewed Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan. Check it out.
10h. Good hands here by Fox NFL analyst Brian Billick.
10i. Here are 2014 sports media predictions from Jesse Karangu, the writer of the JMan's Media Zone blog.
10j. Golf blogger Geoff Shackelford reported that ESPN and NBC Sports exchanged Day One rights for the 2014 Ryder Cup in exchange for improved rights access to Premier League highlights for shows such as Sportscenter.
10k. Did a local sportscaster in Kansas City say "Gayhawks" or "Jayhawks"?