SEC Network poised to make historic launch

With all the focus on Thursday’s debut of the SEC Network, ESPN’s Dan Margulis said the joke around the network studios in Charlotte, North Carolina, has been “What will we do Aug. 15?”

Of course, there is a plan. The SEC Network is no one-off media event, like a single game or a concert. Thursday merely marks the starting point for a 24/7 sports channel devoted to the Southeastern Conference, its constantly renewed future and its rich past.

Considering the estimates of what the SEC Network will be worth to the conference and its 14 member schools, the future looks pretty rich, too.

“It’s the beginning of a long life, we hope,” said Margulis, ESPN’s senior director of college sports programming.

“As we like to say, ‘It’s time to light the candle.’ ”

The SEC Network will be switched on at 5 p.m. CDT Thursday.

With its availability to 87 million homes, it will in an instant reportedly become the nation’s fourth-largest sports network in terms of viewership behind only ESPN, ESPN2 and Fox Sports 1. Its reach will eclipse established channels like the NFL Network, the Big Ten Network and ESPNU.

Unlike the Big Ten Network, which started in 2007, the SEC leaned on the marketing muscle of ESPN to distribute the network and produce virtually all of its programming bound for cable and satellite providers.

SEC schools will be responsible for producing virtually all of the events that can be viewed online and on mobile devices.

In its first year, the SEC Network is expected to have about 450 games on the television (or linear) network and a minimum of 550 events available online and through apps, though the latter number is quickly expected to grow.

Kevin Wagner, LSU’s assistant athletic director for television operations, said each school is required to produce a minimum of 40 games per year selected by the SEC Network. Each school may elect to produce up to 80 additional events, though the schools must bear most of the production costs.

“All of that will be live on ESPN3 or WatchESPN or on an app,” Wagner said.

The SEC Network will debut to the fanfare of an opening essay from famous athletic voices throughout the SEC’s history. They will include LSU basketball great Shaquille O’Neal, SEC quarterback legends Peyton, Eli and Archie Manning, 12-time Olympic swimming Dara Torres and Pro Football Hall of Famer Joe Namath.

That introduction will lead into a three hour-long show called “SEC Now,” which will be SEC Network’s version of “SportsCenter.”

The inaugural “SEC Now” will feature live reports from every SEC campus. LSU pitching great Ben McDonald and SEC Network announcer Peter Burns are set to go live from outside Mike the Tiger’s habitat near Tiger Stadium, with interviews with LSU football coach Les Miles and baseball coach Paul Mainieri.

Margulis said it’s important for the SEC Network to demonstrate a balance of coverage from the start among the SEC’s 14 member schools.

“You’ve got to be cognizant of it,” he said. “You want to cover the stories of national interest that may not involve all 14 schools, but at the same time you serve 14 schools and 14 audiences.

“The first 14 days of the network will have eight or nine hours each day dedicated to a different school, with football previews for each. There are some exciting realities for all the schools.”

After Thursday’s debut, the SEC’s next big milestone will be its Aug. 28 football doubleheader. Texas A&M plays at South Carolina at 5 p.m. that day, followed by Temple at Vanderbilt at 8:15 p.m.

In all, the SEC Network will carry 45 football games, fronted each Saturday by an on-campus “College Game Day” like program called “SEC Nation.” The show will visit every SEC campus, as will the network during the first few weeks of the season.

LSU’s first football game on the SEC Network will be its Sept. 6 home opener against Sam Houston State.

Additionally, the SEC Network will feature more than 100 men’s basketball games, 75 baseball games and 60 women’s basketball games.

All 21 SEC sports will receive some sort of coverage or feature, Margulis said, though just how much coverage many Olympic sports will receive remains to be determined.

Like a football team rolling toward a championship season, ESPN spent the spring and summer knocking off one distribution deal after another with providers such as Cox, AT&T U-Verse, Dish Network, Time Warner, and more recently DirecTV and Comcast. Hundreds of local and regional providers, such as EATEL in Ascension and Livingston parishes, negotiated collectively with ESPN to hammer out their contract.

“We talk about aggressive risk-taking and we think this fits that,” Margulis said of the SEC Network. “We’re fortunate to have a great partnership with the SEC.”

“I really applaud (SEC) Commissioner (Mike) Slive and the ESPN folks for the distribution we have to date,” LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva said. “I thought we would get distribution going well, but frankly I’m surprised. I thought it would take a year or two.”

The publication Sports Business Journal reported the fee for carrying the SEC Network will be about $1.40 per subscriber per month in the 11-state SEC footprint and 25 cents per subscriber elsewhere.

Despite these costs, spokespersons Sharon Bethea of Cox and Trae Russell of EATEL said their companies do not anticipate any rate increases for their customers at this time.

If the Sports Business Journal numbers are correct, it’s estimated that each SEC school’s share of SEC Network revenue could ultimately be about $14 million per year. SEC schools each received in $20.9 million in revenue from the conference this year, based largely on the championship events and TV network deals already has in place.

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.