HOOVER, Ala. – It's the third, fourth, sometimes fifth choice of games each week in the Southeastern Conference. The first two Saturdays this year offer barnburners such as Western Kentucky at Tennessee and Troy at Florida. This is the old, humble Jefferson Pilot/Lincoln Financial/Raycom "Game of the Week" that was often an insult to "the Week." It used to air across the nine states of the SEC.
Now ESPN, as part of its groundbreaking, mega-deal with the conference, is taking it national, stringing together enough over-the-air affiliates to reach 60 million homes each Saturday.
As recruiting advantages go, another TV game probably won't tilt the balance in the SEC's favor too much. Of course, in college football, there is no such thing as too little either.
So there was Mike Slive, the SEC commissioner, glowing as he announced the new deal. He already has ESPN/ESPN2 showing a couple games each week. ESPNU was adding a couple more. And now the new "SEC Network" will add to CBS' weekly coverage (an actual good game) to beam a second league contest over the air into strategic spots.
Like right at recruits in some of the biggest markets of the SEC's main competitors – Dallas, Houston and San Antonio (Big 12), Chicago, Detroit and Columbus (Big Ten), Los Angeles and Phoenix (Pac-10).
"It was an accident," Slive said with a facetious smile Wednesday at SEC media day.
The rest of the country may be tired of hearing that the SEC plays the best football, even if three consecutive BCS titles tends to mute many (but certainly not all) counterarguments. What can't be disputed is that the passion and competitiveness of the league is unmatched, and that it extends far beyond fans or coaches and right into the league brain trust.
Slive is too much a gentleman to gloat, but he absolutely loves that he's quickly expanding the league's reach far beyond its traditional roots. And he's simply giddy at increasingly taking the fight at competitors to the north and west.
It might not be much, but it says something when a league can get even its biggest garbage games on TV in the nation's biggest markets. It may not mean much to the Floridas and Alabamas, but increased national television is huge for the fortunes the Mississippi States and Kentuckys.
Less than two years after the SEC decided not to follow the Big Ten's lead and create its own television network, Slive is basking in making the Worldwide Leader its de facto distributor. The two even made their own SEC/ESPN logo.
"It's the first time we've co-branded," ESPN's Burke Magnus said.
Wednesday they detailed all the various networks, platforms and technologies that will boom out league action/discussion and propaganda.
The Big Ten may still have a comparable number of games on the main networks, but overall this is a partnership unlike any other in college sports. Even NBC doesn't give Notre Dame such complete support. And who knows what kind of SportsCenter "coverage" this will conveniently result in; ESPN is famous for promoting its own.
"The SEC will be the most widely distributed conference in the country," Slive said, before listing off the ways. "National network, national cable, over-the-air syndication, regional cable, Internet, broadband, and mobile TV phones."
It'd be easier to tell you when the league won't be on the air this fall.
It stands to reason that Slive's ego said he should match the Big Ten's move to create a league-wide channel. In the end though, he backed off, pulled a reported $3 billion out of CBS and ESPN and now wades into the recession with no headaches, guaranteed revenue and partners desperate to placate. The timing couldn't have been better considering the current state of the advertising market.
"I think there are many observers who feel we might not [get the same monetary deal today]," he said politely.
Innovation in media has turned college football from a mostly regional pursuit into a national obsession in less than two decades. The SEC has always had unrivaled passion, colorful characters and a level of play as good as anyone else. Now it's exporting the entertainment.
Half the league's schools expect to win a national championship, compared to two or three tops in places such as the Big Ten or Big 12. Just being good isn't enough down here and that results in a product television loves.
"We sat down and looked at the entire landscape and said, 'this is a conference we want to try to do this type of deal with,' " said John Wildhack, ESPN's vice president for programming.
Now Slive is taking the power of the pursuit down South and pushing it across the country. Heck, he wants the world. They were bragging about games and highlight shows being seen in the Middle East, Australia, even the Caribbean. He's going after the next generation of Usain Bolts or something.
And if the Big Ten wants to pull some of its games off broadcast airwaves and onto its fledgling in-house network, well, the South will rise to fill the gaps across the Midwest. Hello, Indy. Here we come, Cincinnati. Son, your parents back in Pennsylvania can watch you every week.
"How do you maintain this level of excellence on the field?" Slive said.
Well, this is it. The league has gone national now. More than half the coaches grew up outside the South. None played or coached under Bear Bryant. This isn't the old SEC. There's hardly a coach left who would castrate a bull (although Tim Tebow might circumcise one).
"We have become a national brand," Slive said.
If the nation was tired of these guys before, tired of everything SEC, well, you better get used to them. It seems they're just gaining steam – and television outlets.
- Mike Slive