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Post SEC TV? Good – but not great – idea

Tuesday June 27, 2006

With the Big 10’s announcement of their own TV network (wonder if it will be on channel 11), other conferences naturally have been asked their plans for television networks. The AJC reports that SEC-TV is “likely to become a reality”, and even Georgia has been approached about their own network. Of course the bottom line is viewership. Is there enough of an audience to support a 24/7 SEC or even UGA channel? Florida found that it could sustain such a channel, so the Sunshine network has become a nice outlet for local sports there.

As much as I would love a channel dedicated to SEC sports, a few concerns pop right to the front about this being an SEC venture.

I have a problem with the SEC or NCAA getting into the content distribution biz. This seems like a throwback to the days before Oklahoma and Georgia challenged the NCAA’s stranglehold on football broadcasts. Quasi-political organizations like the NCAA or the SEC must serve many masters, and the viewing public is way down on the list. Conference commish Mike Slive told the AJC, “One of the things that is attractive about (SEC-TV) is the potential for showing off so many of the other attributes of our institutions. Symphonies, convocations, major speeches — not just athletic events — could be shown to our fans.” Riiiiiiiiight. Sorry, Mike, SEC “fans” aren’t going to tune in for convocations. Bear Bryant’s observation that 50.000 people don’t show up to see a math exam applies here. They’d be more likely to watch the 1998 Alabama-Tennessee game.

But the conference must patronize the University presidents, and so its TV network would have plenty of token self-aggrandizing programming that is even more insipid than the endless “going pro in something other than sports” commercials. Fans will still subscribe because the one game they really do want to see makes it worth it, and they will suffer through the conference’s idea of well-rounded programming. Do us a favor, Mike. Conferences exist in their present form to serve athletics. The SEC is a powerful entity and marketable brand not because of its convocations but because of its first-class sports. It’s great the the conference has many members with outstanding academic reputations, but please don’t delude yourself that people will seek out SEC-TV for any reason other than sports programming.

In a region where conference membership is more or less homogenous, a conference network makes more sense. But in a region like the southeast, interests and rivalries are so interwoven among several conferences that a regional channel makes more sense than a conference network. For example, fans in Atlanta are probably more interested in UGA, Georgia Tech, and schools from Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, and the Carolinas. Fans in Memphis probably have different tastes and want to see teams from Mississippi, Memphis, Arkansas, Missouri, and so on. Instead of networks-by-conference, we need regional college networks. SportSouth before it got all Fox-ized was a good start, but drop the Braves and Hawks. Focus on college sports in the region. I believe, especially in the South, that demand exists to support such an idea.

I can see why the SEC might oppose a regional conference-neutral network. That network, done well, could become a virtual conference with quite a bit of clout of its own. So if we’re stuck with the idea of a conference network, ideally the SEC would lend its brand (for a nice royalty of course) to a private company that knows how to produce sports programming and then step aside. It’s how things work now among the individual sports. I’m just not looking forward to missing a good spring baseball game because SEC-TV has to show Kentucky’s graduation ceremony or missing a women’s hoops battle because the LSU wind symphony is in concert.

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