De facto TV network will push SEC even further ahead of competitors

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This fall, the conference that's captured the past three national championships will begin an unprecedented assault on our nation's television sets. The 2009 season marks the beginning of a new 15-year, $2.25 billion contract with ESPN, which coincides with a 15-year, $825 million deal with CBS. At the SEC's preseason Media Days in Hoover, Ala., this week, league and ESPN officials unveiled the details of their new arrangement, and this much is clear: Whether you're in Alabama or Arizona, Michigan or Mississippi, you're about experience a deluge of SEC football.

Over the first four days of the season alone (Thursday-Monday, Sept. 3-6), seven games featuring SEC teams will air on either ABC (Alabama-Virginia Tech and Georgia-Oklahoma State), ESPN (LSU-Washington and Ole Miss-Memphis) or ESPNU (Kentucky-Miami Ohio, Mississippi State-Jackson State and Auburn-Louisiana Tech). In most cases, a customized "SEC ESPN" on-screen logo will not so subtly remind fans which conference they're watching.

But that's just the start. As part of the deal, ESPN also picked up rights to the syndicated league games previously held by Raycom, most notably the old Jefferson Pilot Game of the Week that traditionally aired at 12:30 p.m. ET on local affiliates across the South. In the past, SEC alums living outside the region needed a satellite package to view those games.MANDEL: TV deal details, by conference

However, ESPN Regional Television has launched a new syndicated package that will place those games in a reported 58 percent of homes across the country, including major markets such as Los Angeles, Washington, Dallas, Detroit and Philadelphia. Even Columbus, Ohio, signed on. The first such contest, Tennessee versus Western Kentucky on Sept. 5, will be available in nearly twice as many homes nationally (66 million) as the Penn State-Akron game being aired in the same noon ET time slot on the Big Ten Network (35 million). The ESPNU games will reach 45 million homes.

"At the core of our agreement is the fact that every SEC-controlled football game will be available to SEC fans throughout the conference territory, and indeed the country, via an ESPN platform or through our partners," said John Wildhack, ESPN's executive vice president for programming acquisition and strategy.

The SEC's new deals carry significant implications across college football. For all the discussion lately about the financial inequities of the BCS, schools are still far more reliant on regular-season TV revenue than bowl revenue. To that end, the SEC will now tower over most competitors, with each school earning roughly $17 million a year from the new deals. ACC teams, by comparison, currently split a pot nearly two-thirds smaller (an average of $6.1 million per school).

At a time when most schools and conferences are slashing budgets due to the poor economy, SEC programs suddenly have more resources at their disposal. Defending national champion Florida is adding $5.9 million to its athletic budget next year and still had enough left over to kick in $6 million to the university's general fund.

Meanwhile, there's no quantifying the potential recruiting exposure gained nationally. While teams like Florida, Alabama, LSU and Georgia can stock their rosters largely with the talent in their own backyard, less-visible teams such as Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Mississippi State can now tell a recruit in, say, Houston to tune in to its game Saturday -- even if it's not on CBS or ESPN.

"It's a hugely important exposure for the SEC," said TV sports consultant Neal Pilson, the former president of CBS Sports. "ESPN has made the business judgment, which is probably correct, that SEC football is a very exciting product that will find a market in non-traditional SEC cities."

For more than a year prior to reaching the new agreements, SEC officials seriously considered following the Big Ten's lead and creating their own 24-hour sports channel. After some initial difficulties reaching cable agreements, the two-year-old Big Ten Network (which airs approximately 35 football games annually) is now available on most major cable carriers. Last year the channel grossed $66 million in revenue for the league, which also has a 10-year, $1 billion deal with ABC/ESPN.

In the end, however, ESPN execs put a hard sell on SEC commissioner Mike Slive, promising to provide the conference a de facto network of its own. So far, they seem to be backing up their word. The name of the league's new syndicated package? The SEC Network.

"The SEC is king," Wildhack told the Orlando Sentinel. "This deal gives us an opportunity to associate ourselves with the preeminent athletic conference in the country. With all due respect to other conferences, there's a passion and a fervor here that is unique."

Pilson was at CBS in the mid-'90s when the network first acquired rights to the SEC. At the time, CBS regionalized many SEC and Big East games. It seemed inconceivable then that a league whose nine-state home turf comprises about 10 percent of the population would eventually establish a national television presence rivaling that of the Big Ten, whose home markets comprise a whopping 40 percent of the nation's TV homes.

For nearly two decades, Notre Dame has been the lone school that could boast every one of its games was on national television. Soon, Florida and LSU may be able to do the same.

"I didn't see [the SEC] becoming as big as it did," said Pilson. "Some of the credit goes to CBS, some of it goes to ESPN, and some of it goes to the quality of play in the SEC. It's fast, entertaining, high-quality football, and they have an influence now that goes well beyond the nine SEC states."

CBS will retain first choice of SEC football games beginning in mid-September. Meanwhile, fans in the South can watch even the lowest-rung SEC games if they so desire, with regional networks Fox Sports South (Florida-Charleston Southern) and CSS (Vanderbilt-Western Carolina) picking up rights to ESPN's other syndicated games opening weekend. Only Arkansas (facing Missouri State) will have to resort to locally produced pay-per-view that Saturday.

Meanwhile, ESPN will also be upping its SEC basketball coverage -- which in the past took a noticeable backseat to the ACC, Big East, Big Ten and Big 12 -- with the SEC Network package will include Wednesday and Saturday hoops games as well. Slive said ESPN will produce an average of 365 SEC events per year.

"We have been able to achieve [all of our] goals without the challenges associated with the development of a channel," said Slive.

Other conferences preparing for upcoming contract renegotiations are furiously strategizing the best way to keep pace. Earlier this week, Sports Business Journal reported the ACC (whose current deals expire in 2011), Pac-10 (2012) and Big 12 (2012/2016) have talked with various media entities about the possibility of a new channel that would combine programming from multiple conferences.

"The Big Ten set up the situation for the SEC," Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe -- who previously indicated his league will look into starting its own network -- told Sports Business Journal. "I'm not sure if that kind of deal will continue to be available for the rest of us with that kind of money."

The implications are obvious: The SEC, already considered by most the nation's strongest conference, has secured the resources to set itself even further apart from its competitors. It's only a matter of time before some of the competitors start grumbling.

Once upon a time, it was SEC fans and coaches who complained about ABC/ESPN's preferential treatment of other conferences. In 1997, Tennessee fans accused the networks of pushing Michigan's Charles Woodson for the Heisman over Peyton Manning, and in 2005, then Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, a year removed from his undefeated team's BCS title snub, bemoaned "ESPN has gotten so much power lately, it's kinda scary." (Ironically, Tuberville now works as an analyst for the network.)

ESPN's promotional powers are well known. With so much money invested in its SEC properties, the network will undoubtedly roll out a relentless marketing push to support them. It's easy to foresee a scenario where paranoid Texas or USC supporters raise similar concerns if their team winds up in a late-season national-title jumble that includes an SEC power.

There's really only one tangible form of recourse for rival teams and conferences worried about the SEC's potential stranglehold: win big. If TV deals were based solely on fan passion, the SEC would have secured its spot years ago. The biggest reason ESPN is rolling out the red carpet now is because of the league's recent on-field success -- three straight BCS titles and five in 11 years.

"We are witness to ... a period that someday may be called the SEC's Golden Age," said Slive.

He just cashed the golden ticket to prove it.