DESTIN, Fla. — Overshadowed by the clashing egos and thunderous debate over football scheduling at this year’s Southeastern Conference Spring Meeting, an unassuming young man slips from meeting room to meeting room at the Sandestin Hilton, holding in his hands what is essentially a lottery ticket for the league and its 14 member schools.
His name is Justin Connolly, ESPN’s senior vice-president, programming for college networks. It will be his job to oversee the SEC Network as it goes from concept to high definition over the next 14 months, a concept that some media observers say will eventually be worth an additional $14 million per year to SEC schools.
Connolly met with reporters Wednesday to discuss where preparations for the network are now and where they are going in advance of its August 2014 launch (no specific date has been given).
In addition, LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva voiced some of his concerns and expectations about the network and what it means for his school:
Where do you go from here?
Connolly: We feel really good about where we are right now. AT&T U-Verse is already on board, and we’re in conversations with what I would call the top-10 distributors. These are long conversations, and they take a long time, but our launch isn’t imminent.
When we launch, we’d like to have all the distributors aboard, but we feel pretty good we’ll have a critical mass of distributors and availability with them.
Are you concerned about distribution?
Alleva: If we weren’t associated with ESPN, I would be worried, but I think ESPN will do a great job distributing it for us.
What are the pressing issues at this time?
Connolly: We have three or four tent poles. One is distribution. Two is programming. We have a lot of work to do with athletic directors, (senior women’s administrators) and coaches to create live event windows. We will have 8,700 hours here.
The last piece is digital. We will take over oversight of the SEC website. To take that to a new level, it will have to be an extension of the network, with rich video, timely and accurate scores and data. It will be one front door, along with WatchESPN. It (the SEC Network) will be built into that platform.
Will I still be able to watch LSU games on TigerVision, Cox Sports Television or the Geaux Zone on LSUSports.net?
Alleva: All those are going away.
Is there a chance people will see less live streaming video, especially in terms of baseball where the majority of games are streamed live on the Geaux Zone?
Alleva: I can’t let that happen, so we’ll probably have to produce some of those games so people can see them.
Sports like volleyball, tennis and track will get more exposure. But the one sport I’m worried about is baseball. We’ve exposed it so much. I’ve got to make sure we don’t go backward on that one.
Will ESPN press for a nine-game SEC football schedule to give the network a bigger inventory of games?
Connolly: We will leave that totally in the conference’s hands. We feel good at eight games and nine games. Eight games, if you look at the schedule, you’ve still got some pretty incredible depth week to week.
Talk about the hiring of controversial talk show host Paul Finebaum to put his show on the SEC Network.
Connolly: We certainly provided a heads up to the SEC that we were going to make this move. At the end of the day, we wanted to differentiate the network, not just fill our days with re-airs of live event content. Paul brings some appointment TV, some ‘wow’ factor. We want Paul to be Paul.
How important is it to differentiate the SEC Network from the two existing conference networks, the Big Ten and Pac-12, which are both run in house?
Connolly: Each of the networks brings a slightly different angle. We’re trying to bring the passion, the feel, the connection of the 14 schools that make up the SEC to the screen. Part of doing that is bringing someone like Paul on board. Paul doesn’t have the same following across all 14 schools, but it’s certainly growing.
We don’t want this to be ESPN4 or the “Ocho.” We want this to be the SEC Network.
What are your plans for football recruiting and spring football?
Connolly: It (recruiting coverage) is going to be big, but we have to be careful. The NCAA has outlined parameters as to how conference and school networks cover recruiting. At the same time, this is a fan base that loves it. We’re going to try to build up some staples that we’ve seen success in. (National) signing day is a big one, to the extent we can blow that out and create more lead up to it. That would be great.
The other amazing thing to me is the spring football games. That’s another one on this network we can absolutely blow out.
It’s sort of an embarrassment of riches in this conference. There are nine teams in the (NCAA baseball tournament). It’s the fifth time they’ve had nine teams. That’s nuts to be able to have that depth in any single sport, and they seem to have it across (the board) in every single sport they participate in.