When Justin Connolly met with the media during SEC Media Days last month, his ESPN network had an agreement with just two major carriers, Dish Network and Cox Communications.
In less than a month, three other major carriers —DirectTV, Time Warner/Bright House and Comcast — agreed to carry the SEC Network. Bright House said it doesn't plan an immediate increase in subscriber fees.
Verizon FIOS, which serves parts of the bay area, does not have an agreement to carry the network, which is run by ESPN.
But when it launches at 6 p.m. today, the SEC Network, based in Charlotte, N.C., will be available in more than 90 million homes and eight of the top 10 nationwide cable distributors covering 90 percent of all U.S. cable homes. It is expected to generate tens of millions in revenue for SEC schools.
Connolly, ESPN senior vice president for college networks, said the ability to come to an agreement with so many carriers speaks to the power of the league and its rabid fan base.
"SEC fans are the inspiration for the network," Connolly said. "They are a current and future source of constructive critiques and feedback. I can tell you, as you know well, they are a most vigilant group. … We want to bring the passion and excellence of the SEC on screen and serve SEC fans any time, anywhere."
So, what's the deal?
The SEC and ESPN have a 20-year agreement through 2034. The new network, along with its digital platform, will carry SEC content 24/7, including more than 1,000 events in its inaugural year.
Included are 45 SEC football games, more than 100 men's basketball games, 60 women's basketball games, 75 baseball games and 50 softball games. The fall schedule also has 25 soccer and 45 volleyball matches. Programming also will include in-studio shows, daily news and information, original content such as the feature-driven SEC Storied and spring football games.
Florida Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Tim Tebow joins the network as one of the primary analysts on SEC Nation, a traveling pregame show similar to ESPN's College Game Day that will only air from SEC schools.
Tebow will make his debut in Gainesville today reporting live from UF's campus, where he is scheduled to interview quarterback Jeff Driskel.
Count former Florida offensive coordinator and current Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen among those who are excited about having Tebow as a member of the SEC Network: "Tim's such a great guy, such a beloved figure in the college football world."
But one of the concerns with Tebow as an analyst is whether he can be critical. Mullen said he has no doubt Tebow can put aside his squeaky-clean image and critique players and coaches if necessary — even his former coach.
"(Criticizing) me? Absolutely," Mullen said. "We spent just about every day together for 3½ years. When you spend that much time you don't always see eye to eye. I think Tim would be very professional in doing his job. He knows … the respect we have for each other, everything would be done in a manner that I know that respect for each other would never change."
"Tim will be a featured player on SEC Nation, which will be our two-hour pregame show on Saturdays and we'll use him generally as an analyst on football," Justin Connolly, ESPN senior vice president for college networks, said. "He'll provide his expertise having played in the conference and arguably the most-decorated football player ever in the conference. We love having him."
The network's on-air talent will include former players who have been highly successful on the field. Among them: two Super Bowl rings, two Heisman Trophies, four national championships, five NFL first-round picks, six first-team All-Americans, six SEC football championships and eight All-SEC first-team honors.
Bring on football
The SEC Network will kick off its football coverage on Aug. 28 with a doubleheader. The first-ever game will be Texas A&M at South Carolina at 6 p.m., followed by Temple at Vanderbilt at 9:15 p.m. Florida will debut on the network at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 13 when it hosts Kentucky.
And what about the bad news?
Let's face it. For all its sports superlatives, there's a lot that goes wrong among athletes and teams in the SEC. So what will be the network's role in letting SEC fans know when their schools find themselves in trouble?
"We've spent a lot of time talking about that,'' ESPN's Connolly said. "As I've said before, we're not going to have the news infrastructure that ESPN has, and we're not going to do a whole lot of investigative journalism. We are going to report when something happens and let fans know. I think that's critical if we're to maintain editorial integrity and credibility with fans out there."
The launch hasn't been easy — or cheap. While Florida and Georgia are among a few schools that had the infrastructure in place that's required to produce shows and events for the network, many had to upgrade. According to the Associated Press, Tennessee is building a $10 million studio, Auburn spent $5 million to upgrade (and added a nine-person video department), LSU spent $3 million and Mississippi spent about $750,000 to upgrade its facilities. Apparently it's a small price to pay for around the clock, year-around exposure.