They announced the new SEC Network at the Hyatt in downtown Atlanta. It would have been more honest to do it while backstroking through gold coins in Scrooge McDuck's vault.
The creation of the SEC Network, which launches in August 2014, means lots of things. It means your DVR will probably catch fire on football Saturdays. It means that an Ole Miss fan in Idaho can finally watch the Rebels' spring game in high-definition, after which he or she will never watch a spring game again. It means the rest of the country can watch in awe at SEC SPEED not just in football, but baseball and track and gymnastics and golf and equestrian. (Auburn just won the women's equestrian national championship. The SEC's horses are also better than your horses.)
Mostly, it means money.
ESPN and the SEC didn't announce terms, but they are comfortably in the kajillions, seeing as how ESPN also extended its existing contract with the SEC through 2034. You'll see at least three football games every weekend on the SEC Network or one of the ESPN channels, plus the SEC game of the week on CBS. This reflects two truths: One, the fourth-best SEC game is often better than what the rest of the country has to offer, and two, even if it's not, SEC fans will still watch.
The network will be based in Charlotte, where I live, and where ESPN already has a big studio space for ESPNU. They have a storage room with a football helmet from every college in the country. It's fantastic.
Here's an incomplete list of the people who are going to make money, directly or indirectly, off this thing: SEC officials, ESPN execs, universities, athletic directors, coaches, assistant coaches, athletic department employees, broadcasters, producers, studio hosts, camera operators, engineers, documentary filmmakers, and, oh yeah, advertisers.
Here's who is not going to make money off the SEC Network: the athletes.
I know. You're groaning. You're tired of hearing that a five-star recruit who gets a free scholarship (not to mention all the unofficial benefits of being a college football player) is somehow getting the bad end of the deal. We all need a rationalization or two to get us through the day. I'll be happy to push these thoughts to the back of my head when it's the fourth quarter of Alabama-LSU. But here in the coolness of spring, when there's some time for rational thought, let's all agree that this business model is not exactly capitalism at its finest.
I guess you could rationalize college sports as having the same economics as a reality show. Players volunteer their time and effort, hoping to win the big prize (the NFL draft!) but getting exposure and fame even if they lose. Except the contestants on "Chopped" rarely get concussions.
To their credit, some coaches at the big SEC Network event spoke up for paying players -- Steve Spurrier has been an advocate for years. What's interesting about the SEC Network is the scale of the thing, and what it says about sports other than football.
The SEC Network wants to be nationwide and probably will be. The volume of money that ought to come in from cable fees and advertising will be staggering over time. But with 168 hours a week of airtime to fill, they can't just show replays of old football games. (OK, they could, and many of us would gladly watch, but let's pretend for a second.)
The SEC Network is going to fill some of that airtime with football and basketball, and a lot of it with what they tend to call non-revenue sports: golf, tennis, swimming, diving, volleyball and so forth. And now those sports will be part of the gigantic package that the SEC sold to ESPN and will now be selling to advertisers. It seems like those athletes should share in the wealth, too.
When the SEC Network launches next year, it will no doubt vault into my top 10 channels. (We have the Big Ten and Pac-12 networks, but I don't watch them much, except on those lonely March nights when a man needs football and even Purdue-Northwestern will do.) My cable bill might tick up a little, and I might buy certain brands of corn chips for no apparent reason. (Advertising works.) But that's the way our system works: Somebody provides you a service, and you pay for it.
Because of that system, a lot of people at ESPN and the universities of the SEC are about to get richer. The only ones who won't are the athletes who make the SEC Network possible.
It's a mystery wrapped inside an enigma rolled over and crushed by an armored car full of cash.
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Questions? Comments? Challenges? Taunts? You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @tommytomlinson. My pick for the first SEC Network breakout show: "Noodlin' with Bret Bielema."