As the first-year basketball coach at Auburn, Bruce Pearl is the first to admit he needs all the help he can get in promoting his new program. And he believes he knows exactly where he can get a ton of exposure — for free.
When the SEC launches its SEC Network in August, Pearl and other conference coaches said the additional exposure could be a huge bonus in everything from national, in-depth exposure to all-important recruiting.
But there's one small problem. The conference may not get nearly as much national exposure as its coaches — and most fans — anticipated. At least not at the start.
When the league announced plans for the joint venture with ESPN last year, it was anticipated that demand from cable companies to carry the network would be great. But agreeing on a price the companies will pay for the network has been a challenge. The SEC and ESPN insist the network be carried as part of a main digital cable package rather than billed separately or bundled into an optional sports-channel tier. Their plan could generate tens of millions of dollars for member schools if the network gets wide distribution.
With a little more than a month before the network's scheduled launch, the Dish network is the only major nationwide carrier that has agreed to offer the network, which debuts Aug. 14. Time Warner — which negotiates deals for Bright House Networks — and Comcast, the two major carriers in SEC territory, have not signed on.
At the SEC meetings last month in Destin, SEC commissioner Mike Slive conceded that the 2014 sports season could kick off with many cable subscribers without the network. As of now, about 25 percent of the nation is scheduled to have access to the network.
"We're in quality conversations with all the other major distributors over the next few months, and we remain optimistic that at some point in time we'll have full distribution," Slive said. "I think it's unrealistic to think we'll have full distribution at the time we launch in August."
The league and ESPN also have agreements with AT&T U-verse and smaller carriers Google Fiber and National Rural Telecommunications Cooperatives.
Justin Connolly, ESPN senior vice president for college networks, said in May that network executives were in conversations with all major carriers and that negotiations were progressing.
He also said it's not necessarily unusual to have negotiations going on late in the process of a network launch. Once the SEC Network launches, pressure is likely to mount from cable subscribers who are missing games because their company hasn't agree to a deal.
"If you look back at not just conference networks but networks as a whole in terms of distribution, holes are filled toward the end," Connolly said. "Sometimes you launch with distribution holes.
We feel really good about having 25 percent of the country already on board (with the SEC Network) and ready to launch."
Distributors in the SEC's 11-state footprint will be asked to pay a rate of $1.30 per digital cable subscriber to carry the network, the Sports Business Journal said. The fee is what cable and satellite companies in that area would be required to pay ESPN, which owns the network. Outside SEC territory, the license fee is 25 cents, the Sports Business Journal said. For a comparison, the Big Ten Network charges about $1 for its 11-state footprint.
League coaches and athletic directors say that for now they aren't alarmed that distribution deals aren't done.
"Look, the SEC competes," Pearl said. "Commissioner Slive don't play. He knows what the Big Ten has. He knows what the Pac-12 did. And the SEC has now got their own network? Where do you think he's going to insist that thing be? Just like he does with everything across the board, it'll be better than anybody's. It'll be in more homes than anybody, and that's just how he rolls. That's what he requires and what he demands. So I have every confidence that we'll do that."
Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley told University Athletic Association Board members this month he has full confidence in ESPN and a lot is at stake for SEC schools.
"The network is not fully distributed yet, but we've met with the ESPN folks, and obviously they've got aggressive plans," Foley said. "They're as good a partner as you could ask for. Nobody knows this business better than they do. At some point in time, this network will get distributed, fully distributed, and it will be significant dollars to every school in this league."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Gators.