With all the excitement around the state as we approach the game for the future of the hearts and minds of all Kentuckians (see I watched too much of the convention last night), it is important that we dont lose sight of what will end up being potentially the most important story of the year for Kentucky athletics. The SEC deal with ESPN is a HUGE positive for the future of UK sports and will have an impact (particularly in basketball) for years to come. The SEC signed a 15 year deal with ESPN to essentially give the cable network’s family of channel “second choice” on all major SEC collegiate sports programming and to become the official home of virtually everything that matters in SEC athletics. In so doing, the SEC gave up the dream of an SEC network, but in my view, moved itself to the front of the line in terms of conference supremacy.
In order to understand its importance, you first have to understand what the SEC picked up. I listened in (and even asked a question) on the SEC teleconference announcing the deal and most of the talk focused on football. And the deal is great for football. Essentially, ESPN will host all the SEC games and all out-of-conference SEC home games, outside of the one a week picked by CBS. For a team like Kentucky, what that means is that all SEC games will find their way onto some channel, be it ESPN, ESPN 2, ESPNU (which soon will be announced to be in significantly more homes in Kentucky) or the ESPN regional network. That network will essentially operate as Raycom did, giving local channels (like WKYT) a regional feed of the telecast. The good news is that SEC games against second tier schools (like Vandy, Mississippi State) will find their way on television and there will be no Kentucky games that are unwatchable….an improvement over the past.
But in my view, the bigger news for Kentucky is in basketball. ESPN has committed to putting a conference game on Tuesday on ESPN, a game on Thursday on ESPN and a regional game on either the network or ESPN 2 on Wednesday. Add to that the two games on ESPN or ESPN 2 on Saturday (in addition to the one game on CBS) and essentially the top 3 SEC games of each part of the schedule will be on NATIONAL television! Since UK is still the largest draw in the SEC and likely will always draw the highest numbers, that basically means that Kentucky will play every conference game on national television. That is simply huge. Whereas before, only one game during the week and one on the weekend found national coverage (and Kentucky still had half of their conference games on national tv), now the top 3 are on and the Cats will become like the Duke and UNC of the SEC…..with EVERY game on either the CBS or ESPN network.
For recruiting then, ESPN can and likely will, have the financial incentive to market the Kentucky program. For many years, UK fans have complained about ESPN ACC bias, and said it reflected some desire for the ACC to be the best. To whatever extent that existed (and I think it was slightly overblown), it existed primarily because the ACC contract with ESPN gave them a financial incentive to promote their games. Now that incentive exists WITH THE SEC….and in the SEC, basketball is Kentucky. If every Kentucky SEC game will be on national television, ESPN will have the incentive to promote the Cats as they do Duke and UNC….a change that is reflective of a new financial reality that benefits the Cats.
After looking over the new deal, I think this was a smart move for the SEC. The conference takes its strongest asset, football, and makes sure that it remains with a national network contract and at least two weekend games on ESPN…..meaning more national coverage for its conference over every other. For basketball, all schools get added exposure and the top schools see every game on national television. Plus, ESPN now has the incentive to use its Sportscenter platforms to promote the league in ways not done before. Add to that the fact that you dont have the regionalism that has plagued the Big Ten network and caused it to not be picked up through the rest of the country, and you have what I think was a brilliant move.
Much will be made of what happens on Sunday at the Pizza field. But win, lose or draw, the big news of the week happened outside of the playing field. The SEC has become the top media conference in America based on its deals with CBS and ESPN over the last few weeks…..and in so doing, the University of Kentucky, especially its basketball program, will benefit for years to come.