Mark Story: How UK fans will be affected by launch of SEC Network

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 2, 2013 

Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari yelled positive encouragement to Kentucky Wildcats forward Alex Poythress (22) after he scored as the University of Kentucky played Auburn University in the Auburn Arena in Auburn, Al., Saturday, January 19, 2013. This is second half action. UK won 75-53. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff

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The biggest change for Lexington-area Kentucky Wildcats fans as a result of Thursday's announcement that the Southeastern Conference and ESPN will launch a new SEC Network cable channel next year is this:

There will be fewer UK game broadcasts on WKYT-TV, and more Cats contests on the ESPN family of networks.

As a result of the new deal, starting in the fall of 2014 there will be no more UK games broadcast by the locally produced Big Blue Network. The SEC's syndicated package — the 12:30 Saturday afternoon football and Wednesday night men's basketball games, among other programming — will also be no more.

Instead, all those games will be distributed over an ESPN property, either the current Worldwide Leader channels or the new SEC Network cable channel.

Bottom line: As long as one has access to cable TV programming over some platform, there will be more Southeastern Conference sports product available for viewing than ever before. Yet if one is solely reliant on free over-the-air television, there will be fewer UK games to view.

For those dependent on traditional TV, at least CBS still has first choice each week to televise the best SEC football game and some regular-season men's basketball contests.

"There will still be CBS games and a lot of stuff on over the air," Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said late Thursday afternoon. "But what is really cool about what (the SEC and ESPN) are doing (with the SEC Network) is we are adding 1,000 hours of live programming and we'll be doing it over multiple platforms that will allow people to access the games in the way that works for them."

The particulars of the new SEC Network were unveiled Thursday in Atlanta in a star-packed rollout. Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier and the UK trio of John Calipari, Mark Stoops and Matthew Mitchell were among Southeastern Conference head coaches gathered on stage as Commissioner Mike Slive announced plans for the new cable channel devoted exclusively to SEC sports.

Once up and running, the SEC Network will annually show 45 live Southeastern Conference football games, 100 men's basketball, 60 women's hoops and 75 baseball games, as well as other league events.

Justin Connolly, who will run the SEC Network, said in Atlanta that in the 11 states that have SEC schools, ESPN will seek the same distribution for the new network that ESPN and ESPN2 now enjoy. In the rest of the nation, Connolly said ESPN hoped to have the SEC Network distributed in the same bundle that ESPNU is.

As with most things in major-college sports, money is a big part of the motivation behind the launch of the SEC Network. While Southeastern Conference football teams are in the midst of an unprecedented seven BCS national titles in a row, the league actually seems to be leaving some money on the table.

Earlier this year, when Forbes Magazine rated the most valuable college conferences as measured by annual revenues, the SEC was fourth ($270 million). The top two, the Big Ten ($310 million) and Pac-12 ($303 million), both already have their own dedicated cable TV channels.

Last school year, the Big Ten distributed $24.6 million to its member schools, while the SEC doled out "only" $20.1 million to its members. Of the Big Ten's total, some $7.2 million a school came from the Big Ten Network.

The general expectation is that the SEC, the best football conference with, arguably, the most passionate fan base taken on a league-wide basis, should be able to field the most lucrative cable TV network.

"We'll just have to see on that once we get into it," Barnhart said. "Obviously, we would not be doing this if we didn't think it made good business sense."

For other conferences, getting cable systems and satellite services to carry their networks have, initially, been big challenges.

Time Warner is the largest cable provider in Kentucky with Lexington, Louisville and Northern Kentucky among its markets.

"We are having ongoing discussions with ESPN about a number of business relationships, and those include the SEC Network," said Jon Herrera, senior director of communications for Time Warner.

The 2014 launch of the SEC Network does not appear to be good news for WKYT, which has long been the UK sports rights holder in Lexington. Chris Mossman, general manager at Channel 27, said Thursday afternoon that the station had not had contact yet with either UK or the SEC.

"We certainly hope we will still be able to broadcast as much UK-sports-related programming as we possibly can," he said.

Barnhart said he thinks Big Blue Madness, the pep rally that starts each Kentucky basketball season, would probably shift to the SEC Network. The Kentucky AD said he believes that UK coaches' shows can still be broadcast on local, over-the-air TV.

For those who decry the ever-escalating commercialization of big-time college sports, Thursday was a bad day. If you love the Kentucky Wildcats but don't have access to cable TV programming, it was also bad.

If you are thrilled by the prospect of the SEC athletics departments raking in even more cold cash, and what that can mean in terms of even greater dominance by the league, the announcement of the new SEC Network could be a game-changer.

"This has a chance to be really, really special," Barnhart said, "for our league."

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com Twitter: @markcstory Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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