UK shoulders heavy load for promise of SEC Network riches

jsmith3@herald-leader.comJuly 12, 2014 

  • SEC Network facts

    Contract: The SEC and ESPN have signed a 20-year agreement through 2034 to operate the multiplatform network.

    What the network promises: The SEC Network will televise about 45 SEC football games, more than 100 men's basketball games, 60 women's basketball games, 75 baseball games, and events from across the league's 21 sports annually. Programming will also include studio shows, original content, spring football games, signing day and pro day coverage. Hundreds of additional live events from various sports will be offered on the digital platform.

    The bottom line: ESPN and the SEC have not released financial figures, but a recent Fox Sports report estimated the network could generate $366 million in revenue annually. After expenses, that would mean each school would receive about $13 million for the network rights on top of what it already receives from the league's existing deals with ESPN and CBS.

  • SEC ON TV

    SEC Network launch date: Aug. 14.

    Cable and satellite companies signed up to carry the SEC Network: Dish Network, Cox Communications, AT&T U-verse, Google Fiber. Comcast is reportedly finalizing a deal.

    Not yet on board: DirecTV, Time Warner, Charter.

    Contacting your provider: Go to Getsecnetwork.com.

Will University of Kentucky fans across the globe be able to see a game-winning play at the plate in super slow motion twice and from 17 different angles next spring?

With the SEC Network anything is possible.

But probably not right away, Kentucky officials cautioned as the countdown begins for the ESPN-partnered deal with the Southeastern Conference.

[Related story: A month before launch, major Kentucky providers not on board with SEC Network]

As a member of the SEC Network's content committee, UK's Mitch Barnhart heard wild speculation like that.

"And you're going, 'Ummm. Hold on. We're not quite that far along yet,'" the athletics director told the Herald-Leader.

"We had to temper everybody's thought process about what we're going to produce. That first broadcast could be a little rough, but I think we'll be fine."

In many ways, Barnhart has had to go from managing an athletics department to running his own production company.

Kentucky, like the other 13 schools in the SEC, has spent more than $1 million to get ready for the debut of the network on Aug. 14.

There are still a lot of crossed fingers that things go smoothly.

"This SEC Network thing — I'm the contact, so I know more than most people on campus know — but still it's an enigma and ever changing and exciting," said Deputy Athletics Director DeWayne Peevy, who is responsible for getting the network going at UK.

"The fans don't know enough about it because we still don't know enough about it. We don't know exactly what we have yet."

What Kentucky does know is that it will be responsible for producing high-quality broadcasts of games that can be shown on what's being called SEC Network Plus, the online platform for the network that will be similar to ESPN3.

ESPN and other networks will still be on campus plenty for broadcasts of major events like football and men's basketball games, as well as other sports. The quality of those events will go unchanged for the viewer.

UK's part will be to produce 80 (or more) events a year that are not picked up by the major networks but will be shown live in most cases on the SEC Network Plus platform.

At least 40 of those events will be funded by ESPN with a $3,500 reimbursement; then UK has the option of producing up to 40 more events with a partial reimbursement ($1,500) each season, Peevy explained.

Additionally, there will be "school elected" broadcasts that will be similar to the videos UK has shown previously on its own athletics website, but now with better quality for the network's new online platform.

'Completely new world'

Kentucky's part in the SEC Network has been such a big undertaking that it has required weekly meetings for the executive staff, Barnhart said.

And it's come at a cost.

With no revenue yet — even though the network is projected to make millions for conference schools — Kentucky and the others have had to shell out the startup cash.

"Mitch has been very adamant about it, 'Don't count on a dime, so that way anything we get, we're fine,'" Peevy explained.

The athletics director said the startup cost for UK could end up being between $1 million and $1.25 million, but it's been a lot steeper for other schools.

"There are some schools that were way, way, way far behind, and it will be a completely new world," Barnhart said.

Many schools will be going down to the wire with final pieces because of construction on campus and other roadblocks, SEC spokesman Charlie Hussey said.

After the deal was inked with the league office, ESPN visited each campus in the SEC and tried to give schools a blueprint for how to get going.

"ESPN said, 'Here's where you are, here's where you need to be,' and the commissioner made it clear that we're all to fill that gap," Barnhart said.

Each school is required to have at least one working HD control room ($400,000), which UK will house at Commonwealth Stadium in a room that helps run the video boards now, Peevy said.

Another mandate was a designated spot on campus for a satellite uplink center with a green screen and other amenities so coaches can do interviews for the various network platforms. UK's is located in the basement of Memorial Coliseum near the sports video department.

The steepest expense was fiber-optic cable, which has been run across campus at a cost of $750,000, which UK spread over two fiscal years, with $500,000 in the previous budget and $250,000 this year.

UK is hiring two new full-time positions (a producer/director and an engineer) in sports video to help with the extra workload.

The athletics department is still working through the logistics of scheduling and what happens if it needs to do two high-end broadcasts for games going on simultaneously.

To manage that, the school will need to add a secondary HD control room (a possibility mentioned in UK's new multimedia contract with JMI Sports) or purchase a fully outfitted truck that could cost more than $500,000. Truck rental is an option in the interim.

For the high-end web broadcasts, UK might need to hire as many as nine freelancers, which could cost $2,000 or more per event.

Kentucky is still deciding how many events it wants to do the first year.

The first broadcasts UK probably will produce on its own will be Aug. 29 when the volleyball team hosts Wichita State and the women's soccer team takes on Francis Marion.

"So our first day we have to do something we have two events, so we're going to be challenged right out of the gate," Peevy said.

Most of the scheduling for fall has been set, but there are questions about men's soccer, which doesn't play in the SEC.

The league will let UK and South Carolina — who both play in Conference-USA since the SEC doesn't have men's soccer — show games on the SEC Network Plus platform, but no production costs will be reimbursed.

Also, the SEC is still working to get broadcast rights from C-USA. As a "worst-case scenario" Kentucky could still show men's soccer games on its own athletics website, Peevy noted.

Lining up the on-air talent

There are still a lot of unanswered questions with the network's launch just a month away.

Some of the on-air talent has been announced for football, but many of the names for other sports will trickle out in the next few weeks, the SEC's spokesman said.

There have been discussions with some familiar faces and talent in Lexington, Peevy said, but he declined to name names.

"We haven't hired anybody or determined anything," he said.

Each school has submitted names to the SEC and the selection process is underway, Hussey said.

"We've got a nice roster of folks to choose from (for) all the different events we'll produce," he said. "You'll see a mix of new talent and some talent our fans already are accustomed to seeing."

Some schools might opt to bring in students as well, but for this inaugural voyage, Barnhart said he's going to "stick with professionals" to do the work behind the scenes and in front of the camera.

Even the grown-ups driving this early on will be taking baby steps in many ways.

Several sports will not be added until later.

"The only ones that won't right now are the ones that haven't in the past years," Peevy said. "We're probably not adding any to the fray right now."

The way fiber-optic cable was laid, it might be awhile before certain venues, such as the pool and tennis center, are broadcast-ready.

"Tennis might be in time for their season, but swimming isn't this fiscal year because we don't have (capabilities) out there," Peevy said.

The goal eventually is for every athletic event on campus to be broadcast on the network or elsewhere, Peevy said.

For now, UK says it's prepared for launch in August.

"There will be a growth curve, a learning curve, for sure," Barnhart said. "But it's going to be neat."

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com.

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service