Schools invest millions preparing for SEC Network
The Southeastern Conference's new network debuts Thursday, promising more than 1,000 live events this year and a reach that includes most major television providers in the South.
The network will be welcomed by millions of fans of who can't get enough coverage of the most powerful conference in college sports, and SEC officials think it will increase revenue. Getting the network off the ground - with operations at 14 different campuses - wasn't easy or inexpensive.
Some schools needed to build professional studios, hire a video staff and upgrade stadium and arena TV facilities to accommodate the network, created as a partnership between the SEC and ESPN.
''Each school is in a little different spot coming into this,'' SEC associate commissioner for network relations Charlie Hussey said. ''A lot of our schools had done a good amount of work already in the infrastructure for this, while others had a little further along to go.
''But we'll be ready for launch day.''
Tennessee is constructing a $10 million studio in the first floor of its Brenda Lawson Athletic Center. Athletic department spokesman Jimmy Stanton said the studio is privately funded and will have other university uses beyond the SEC Network, such as training students in television production.
The studio's glass windows will allow viewing opportunities for fans walking past the building on their way to football and basketball games.
''Those fans will be able to literally look through the windows, almost like a New York City environment, and see our coaches being interviewed, our student-athletes being interviewed,'' Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart said. ''... It's one more opportunity for us to create a fan-friendly environment on game day.''
Each of the 14 SEC representatives must have some sort of studio in place for live interviews that the SEC Network can access from its home base in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The schools also need the necessary equipment for visual production for games, some of which will be televised, others which will be broadcast online.
Auburn's athletic department had to use $5 million from its financial reserves, partly to add two control rooms after deciding its one control room at Jordan-Hare Stadium wasn't sufficient. The school also hired nine people in April to form an internal video department.
''Some of the schools already had digital studios and those types of things,'' Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs said. ''We had one in the stadium, but we evaluated that and said, `You know, if we're going to do this, we're representing Auburn and the SEC, let's go ahead and do it. So we're building two production buildings, a state-of-the-art facility. It's probably just catching us up with a few schools.''
Auburn associate athletic director Cassie Arner said multiple control rooms were necessary for overlapping coverage that could allow two live events to be broadcast at the same time.
Other schools like Mississippi, Mississippi State and Florida already had substantial video departments because of previous investments. Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork said his school spent about $750,000 - mostly on fiber optic cable to connect all facilities with the studio.
All that equipment makes it easier for schools to broadcast events themselves, and the SEC Network already has guaranteed it will air at least 40 events per school digitally. For example, South Carolina plans to broadcast about 120 home games of men's and women's soccer, volleyball, men's and women's basketball, baseball and sand volleyball this year.
LSU assistant athletic director Kevin Wagner said his school is spending over $3 million on cables to connect all of its game venues to a pair of rebuilt control rooms in the athletic administration building. Eventually, the school also will have to pay for crew members to handle broadcasts on game days.
Schools say they're comfortable making that investment because of the money and the visibility they're getting from the new network.
''Our coaches are excited about this because it does give them added visibility nationwide and in some cases internationally,'' Wagner said. ''It is a recruiting aid for our coaches for sure.''
Tennessee officials believe prospects will be impressed when they visit campus and see players and coaches being interviewed in a state-of-the-art studio. It's just the latest example of how SEC schools continue to compete with one another in trying to build the best facilities and attract the best recruits.
''Everyone's continuing to evolve,'' Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. ''Everyone's continuing to look into the vision of how they can elevate and grow their program and the facilities.
''In the SEC, no one stands still.''
AP Sports Writers John Zenor, Brett Martel, Pete Iacobelli, Mark Long and Teresa Walker contributed to this story.