SEC latest to launch conference network

May, 3, 2013
5/03/13
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The SEC Network will become the fourth conference network to launch when it goes on air in August 2014. With it will come the fourth model for creating a conference network on cable television.

The first conference network to launch on cable television was The Mtn., the now defunct channel for the Mountain West Conference, in 2006. The channel began as a seven-year deal between the conference and CSTV for the league’s television rights. Shortly after the announcement that the Mountain West would move from ESPN to CSTV, The Mtn. was born, with a plan to carry as many as 40 conference football games and up to 120 men’s and women’s basketball games per year. Between CSTV and The Mtn., virtually every conference football and basketball game would be televised.

The only problem was limited distribution. When the CSTV deal was announced, the network had only 8 million satellite and cable subscribers. The hope was to have over 40 million by the time the deal began in 2006. Comcast acquired a 50 percent stake in CSTV prior to the launch of The Mtn., which meant initial distribution increased into parts of Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, where the conference had members, but not in San Diego or Las Vegas.

In 2006, all 55 conference football games were televised, including eight games on Versus thanks to Comcast’s involvement. Versus had 72 million subscribers nationally at the time. In addition, 150 men’s and women’s basketball games were televised, quadruple the number in any previous year. Two hundred Olympic sports contests were carried on The Mtn., including conference championships.

Unfortunately, not that many people saw those games, as The Mtn. was available in approximately 1 million households at the time of launch. Despite Comcast’s buy-in, CSTV was available in only 15 million homes during the 2006 football season. To make matters worse, local telecasts of BYU and Utah, previously available in nearly all homes in the Salt Lake City market, ended because of the CSTV deal. Telecasts on The Mtn. reached 66 percent fewer people than the local telecasts had previously, and fans were forced to purchase a $45 cable package to get The Mtn.

Distribution improved after that first season, in part because of the success of TCU, Utah, BYU and Boise State on the football field. The addition of Boise State led Comcast to add The Mtn. to its lineup in a number of cities, increasing the distribution to 32 million. DirecTV signed on to carry the network in 2008, but Dish Network never did.

Unfortunately for The Mtn., some of the same schools that helped to increase distribution also led to the network’s demise. After TCU, Utah, Boise State and SDSU announced their intentions to leave the Mountain West and BYU decided to become independent, the network announced it would sign off the air May 31, 2012. According to a former director of licensing at a Mountain West institution, there was always a clause in The Mtn.’s contract that if BYU and Utah ever left the conference that the deal would end.

The next conference network to launch would be the Big Ten Network in 2007, which is a partnership with Fox. Initially, the network was owned 51 percent by the conference and 49 percent by Fox, but in 2011 those percentages flipped. Initially, the Big Ten Network would air at least 35 football games per season (with each team appearing at least twice), 105 regular-season men’s basketball games, 55 regular-season women’s basketball games, 170 Olympic sporting events, Big Ten championship events, coaches shows and other content.

The Big Ten Network launched in 17-18 million households but reached 30 million in its first 30 days when it signed a deal with Dish Network after the network’s first game featured Appalachian State beating No. 5-ranked Michigan.

Despite that early success, the Big Ten Network couldn’t initially land a deal with Comcast, which had 5.7 million customers within the Big Ten’s footprint. Comcast was also the provider on the University of Minnesota's campus, meaning the school’s own students couldn’t watch the network. In Columbus, residents had the same problem when the Big Ten Network didn’t initially have a deal with Time Warner, which served more than 40 percent of the homes in the area.

By 2009, however, the Big Ten Network had deals with Comcast and Time Warner and had achieved full distribution within its footprint. Currently, the Big Ten Network is available in 80 million households on the 10 largest cable, satellite and telco providers.

Pac-12 Networks launched in 2012 with a different model. Alongside the main network, the conference would launch six regional networks simultaneously. In addition, the conference would not partner with anyone but would instead go at this venture alone.

Several of the nation’s largest cable providers, Comcast, Time Warner, Cox and BrightHouse, had all signed on prior to the launch. With those deals, Pac-12 Networks were available in 48 million homes, although not all were initially offering the channel outside the Pac-12 footprint.

The secret to getting those early distribution deals? The conference held back 36 football games annually from its deal with ESPN and Fox. In addition, the conference negotiated for the right to choose the best game of the week a couple of weeks each season, choosing second or third behind ESPN and Fox in other weeks. The initial plan was to carry 350 conference events nationally and 500 on the local channels, including approximately 100 men’s basketball games and 40 women’s basketball games.

At launch, Pac-12 Networks was unavailable on DirecTV, Dish Network, Verizon and AT&T. However, a deal has since been reached with Dish Network. The satellite provider was estimated to have 14 million subscribers when the deal was inked.

In August 2014, the fourth conference network will launch when the SEC Network hits the airwaves in a partnership between the conference and ESPN.

“What's unique and never been done before is partnering with our primary rights holder, which will allow us to move events and contents seamlessly between various platforms,” said SEC commissioner Mike Slive at Thursday's news conference to announce the launch of the network.

SEC Network has already reached a distribution agreement with AT&T U-Verse, described by ESPN’s senior vice president of programming for college sports networks Justin Connolly as “the fastest growing multichannel provider in the U.S.” AT&T U-Verse’s latest release on company statistics indicates the provider has 4.5 million subscribers.

Connolly is optimistic about increasing distribution in the 16 months leading up to the network’s launch.

“We feel good about the opportunities that exist on that horizon, and we're literally just getting into those conversations and discussions right now,” he said.

The SEC Network will feature 1,000 live sporting events each year, including 450 televised on the network, with the rest distributed digitally. Approximately three SEC football games will air every week for 13 weeks, with CBS having given up exclusivity for the 3:30 p.m. ET time slot on Saturdays. Additionally, the network will carry more than 100 men’s basketball games, 60 women’s basketball games, 75 baseball games and championship games and events from the conference’s 21 sports, along with other original content.

Kristi Dosh

Sports Business
Dosh covers sports business for ESPN. She is an attorney, founder of BusinessOfCollegeSports.com, and joined ESPN in October 2011.
Author of "Saturday Millionaires: How winning football builds winning colleges."

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