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The SEC Network at 5 Years Old

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The Good, the Bad and the Baldy

The first few seconds of the first ever SEC Network broadcast: An SECN+ broadcast of a soccer game between Arkansas and Creighton

At about 4 p.m. this afternoon, The SEC Network will have been on the air for five years. Launched in the dawn of the playoff era, the SEC Network was the third (or fourth if we’re counting Longhorn) college conference network to launch. It eschewed the P12’s complete in-house ownership model and also skipped the B1G’s half and half ownership model with Fox to go with ESPN in a deal where the broadcaster wholly owns the network and just pays the conference for rights.

Five years later, it’s about to be the only model of conference network that will be duplicated, as the ACC Network will launch with a similar rights deal in a little over a week from now. The SEC Network has generally been a great thing for both the schools and the fans, though it’s not without it’s blemishes. On this anniversary, I thought it a good time to celebrate the great things about the network and have an airing of grievances for the rest.

The Good

Accomplished Main Goals

At the very base level, behind all the platitudes and PR speak, the purpose of the SEC Network is singular and simple: To make the conference money. And by that metric, the only one that honestly matters at the end of the day, it’s accomplished that goal with flying colors. There’s so much money floating around this conference right now that Kentucky can spend $50 million dollars on a baseball stadium and it’s not even surprising.

If you want to look at it with a broader view from a fan perspective, The SEC Network also accomplished the goal of being the home for SEC Sports. Even given it’s problems, which I’ll get to later, there is no denying that the SEC Network, and in particular the SECN+ digital platform, has been great for fans of these teams, especially in the smaller sports. No longer are LSU fans paying for that often broken mess that was the Geaux Zone. No longer do people have to shell out $20 to Vandy to watch a weekend baseball series broadcast out of a literal broom closet. And while it couldn’t kill off the 11 am Jefferson Pilot time slot for football season, at least now you know you’ll always be able to watch it nationwide, instead of searching the dial for a UHF affiliate.

SEC Now

I have a lot of complaints about the things that air on SEC Network that aren’t live sports, but SEC Now isn’t one of them. It’s SEC Sportscenter and I mean that as the highest compliment. The set of hosts are great, the analysts that join the discussions are knowledgeable and usually fun. The show is also indispensable on the weekends. The SEC Now that airs overnight Saturday/Sunday morning during football season is almost required viewing and their coverage during softball and baseball season greatly eases the near impossible task of keeping up with the whole league. It’s just great.

(I liked the original set better though)

SECN+

Giving every school’s individual in-house streaming service a swift kick in the pants to replace it with ESPN’s streaming technology was reason enough to cheer for the birth of SEC Network+, but the mandate that all schools upgrade their production environments to a broadcast quality has been a real boon for the fans. So much more beyond football and basketball is now readily available to fans across the conference on a platform that’s already in your hand that you’ve already paid for. I’ve watched so much more soccer, softball, and gym in the last few years than I ever did, and the convenience is a huge reason why. Also, and I can only really say this for baseball because that’s what I know the most, you start to get used to the in-house announcer teams from each school. Some are better than others, to be sure, but the better ones show a bit of that local personality. Lyn Rollins feels like the defacto voice of LSU sports these days, even though he doesn’t do any radio, because you see him so often in the booth for SECN+.

Tournaments

One area where the SEC Network really shines is it’s coverage of the conference tournaments for Women’s/Men’s Basketball, Softball, and Baseball. Taking the whole show on the road, particularly for Hoover, is a great way to make the audience feel like they’re there. It must be a huge undertaking, broadcasting for 16 hours straight or more some days. It really helps create and build up the stories of a week long tournament, so that by the time Sunday rolls around, you know so much more about the teams and players in the final. And how else would we have learned about Chris Burke’s raptor arms?

SEC Saturday Night

CBS may still get first pick of games, but make no mistake, SEC Saturday Night is the premiere broadcast of SEC football every week. It’s not just the game, but also the pageantry. Having Brent Musberger on play-by-play to start was a good start there. SEC Saturday Night, in conjunction with a pregame version of SEC Now, does the rare thing of broadcasting the stadium experience of a Saturday night in the SEC, more than just the typical B-roll lip service you see on other game broadcasts. They also stick around for multiple live interviews in the postgame with coaches and players, which can do amazing things like make you root for Benny Snell. The whole presentation combined gives every game they do a Big Game feel, even if it is just UK vs Florida. It’ll never have the most important game of the day, even if the CBS deal ever goes away, but it always feels like you’re watching the most important game of the day.

Etc.

Not enough for sections on their own, but something else that the Network does really well are SEC Inside, their “Inside the NFL” - like show, and SEC Film Room. They are great shows every week, going behind the scenes of the biggest games and getting some of the most interesting minds in college football to show us a glimpse of their playbooks. They are sometimes hard to find in the schedule and don’t replay too often. Highly recommended for your DVR.

The Bad

Finebaum

Four hours a day, every weekday, all year long (with minor exceptions for conference tournaments). The SEC Network airs more than 1,000 hours of this garbage radio show live every year. More than Live Football. More than Live Basketball. More than Live Baseball. More than all of the live Women’s sports aired on the network combined. And very often relegating live women’s sports, like Volleyball and Soccer in the fall and Basketball and Softball in the spring, which all play many games in the early afternoons, onto the digital only platform so that this circus gets it’s airtime.

I was going to try and keep this complaint to be just about the numbers, as that should be enough to explain what a waste it is, but that wouldn’t be the full picture. After all, these are my complaints. Finebaum’s show is a slimy window into the life of yokels with nothing better to do on a weekday afternoon than yell into a telephone about college football. It’s an embarrassment that it is seen as this bizarre tastemaker for the conference and it’s been that way long before the SEC Network even existed. That ESPN decided not only to embrace this mess, but dedicate such a massive portion of the network every week to it remains the most baffling thing about the entire enterprise to me.

Isn’t the point of a sports network, above all else, to air live sports?

SEC Storied

Though the series started before the launch of the network, SEC Storied was supposed to become an extra jewel in the crown. Hot off ESPN’s excellent run of the 30-for-30 series (man, remember when those were always good?) the SEC was going to get a series of amazing documentaries just for themselves.

The reality was much less stellar. While I applaud the large variety of subject matter that these docs have covered over the years, the production quality for the majority of these docs (usually handled by the Nascar Media production arm) is far below the bar set by ESPN’s varied set of directors from the 30-for-30 series. Add to that the ubiquity of Ryan McGee appearances as apparently the only journalist who’s covered the SEC in the last 40 years, and many of the films have a very cookie cutter feel.

Don’t get me wrong, some of them are stellar. The Book of Manning in particular stands out as a great film. But most of them are just kinda meh. They also tend to air the same handful of them over and over again, especially when the network needs to fill time. I love Warren Morris and to this day would buy that man a drink at the drop of a hat, but I’m pretty sure I speak for the entire SEC Baseball fanbase when I say I could go my whole life without ever having to see The Walk Off or Thunder and Lightning during a rain delay again.

And I should not let this section pass without mentioning one of SEC Storied’s greatest under-achievements: After nearly 40 films, there’s only one that was about a Vanderbilt subject, and it wasn’t about a team, but instead Grantland Rice.

Lack of SECN+ Transfer

As mentioned above, SEC schools spent a ton of money upgrading their production facilities so that the quality of in-house broadcasts of events was brought to a higher standard across the board. One of the reasons for this was that The SEC Network wanted the ability to move any broadcast from the digital platform onto the linear cable channel as a way to deal with scheduling issues, especially in the spring, when rain plays havoc on multiple outdoor sports that get broadcast time during the season.

But, as far as I can tell, this has never been realized. As mentioned above, whenever there’s a rain delay for a baseball game, the SEC Network just re-airs one of it’s documentaries in either 30 minute or 1 hour blocks until they can go back to the game, even if there are 5 other baseball games going on that could, in theory, be switched to. I’m sure I’m wrong about this, but there’s only one time I can ever recall a game in-progress being picked up to air from SECN+ to the linear SEC Network, Jared Poche’s no-hitter in 2017.

The SEC is spending untold sums of money to produce hundreds of live events every year, the large majority of which never make it on to TV, even when there’s nothing airing on the network except reruns of documentaries, spring games, or that damned radio show.

Spring Game Repeats/lack of back catalog

Speaking of Spring Games, let’s talk about the second biggest waste of airtime on the SEC Network behind Finebaum. To be clear, I’m not talking about the actual live airing of the spring football games. That obviously has value and a big audience. No, my issue is that, in a given spring and summer period, Spring Games will air in repeat dozens and dozens of times, even when there are live games going on in the conference that are stuck airing on SECN+. Sure, I can understand re-airing a spring game a few times in case someone misses it, but 15 times in the month of June is a bit excessive.

Even when there’s not a spring game on, the SEC Network still has a bad tendency of re-airing the recent past, which I think is a huge mistake. College football fans are crazy about old games, so why does SECN rarely air them? And I’m not talking about SEC Rewind, which is a neat idea, but clearly takes too much effort to produce given that series’ limited output over the years. The fact is, we know there is a giant library of college football games in Bristol in the ESPN Classic tape library. You don’t have to even do anything to them. We know it’s in SD, it’s ok, just stick the tape in and hit play. How great would it be if they picked a week in the summer and said. “Okay, all this week we’re airing every tape we have from 1989.”

And I can already hear you: “You can find almost everything on Youtube, why are you asking for this?” I’m asking for this because I shouldn’t have to go to Youtube. ESPN owns these rights, I should legally be able to watch these games on their platform.

So what do you think of the SEC Network Five years on?

Poll

Is the SEC Network Good?

This poll is closed

  • 74%
    ESS-EEE-CEE
    (110 votes)
  • 25%
    PAWWWWWWWWL
    (37 votes)
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