By Jay Coulter
If we build it will they come? That's the question SEC officials are struggling with as they enter the final year of television contracts with CBS, ESPN and Raycom Sports. Conference schools can expect a huge raise next year when a new contract is agreed upon. The big question is whether the SEC is ready to launch its own sports network like the Big 10 and Mountain West.
The conference has been tight lipped about negotiations taking place now with network officials. It's believed that CBS and ESPN are both very interested in retaining their relationship with the premier conference in the country.
And why wouldn't they?
The SEC has produced the last two national champions in football, two of the last three men's basketball champions and the last two women's basketball champions. The conference knows it's a sellers market and they expect to cash in.
How would a new conference network affect football? It would likely mean the SEC would move away from its deal with Raycom Sports to carry the early Saturday game. The conference would never jeopardize its deal with the big boys - CBS and ESPN. There's simply too much money on the table and too much exposure to ever give a conference network a marquee game of the week.
The other benefits are obvious. There would be more football coverage in the fall, including coaching shows, weekly previews and SEC produced programs. Can you say Dave Neil all the time? It would also give the conference a venue to showcase non-revenue sports like softball, swimming, gymnastics and soccer.
So what's the downside? One word: Exposure.
The Big 10 has struggled mightily with cable providers since launching last year. These specialty channels tend to be expensive for cable companies and they often choose to ignore them. The Big 10 Network was unattainable for most conference viewers last year. The vast majority of cable companies didn't carry it. Those that did placed it with a high-end sports package that required more money from subscribers each month.
Big 10 fans were the big losers. Last year, Michigan and Appalachian State opened the season on the Big 10 Network. What was expected to be a blowout turned into perhaps the biggest upset in college football history. Most Wolverine fans listened on the radio - which is hindsight probably wasn't so bad. But you get my point.
The SEC will face the same issues and more. Because much of the South remains rural, there are viewers who will lose out if the SEC creates its own network. Many cable companies simply will not have the type of customers who will support it. As hard as it is to believe, there are still many fans that rely on over-the-air broadcasts using antennas to receive coverage - estimates range anywhere from 10 to 15 percent.
In the end it will come down to money and a new network would bring big time cash. It's a tough position to be in, but also a damn good one. Personally, I hope the SEC pulls the trigger and goes for it. Don't forget, if your cable company doesn't play, there's always satellite.