August kicks off not just football but some football programming deals too, as DirecTV announced it would be the latest of many pay-TV providers to carry the SEC Network. The sports net will feature dozens of exclusive games from the football-mad Southeastern Conference, generally considered the country’s best collection of college teams, when it launches in 10 days.
DirecTV might not have had much choice in whether to pass on this particular sports-programming deal: While the SEC’s 14 schools may be a long way from many major TV markets, its corporate parent is ESPN, which has been running interference for the SEC Network like a Hall of Fame pulling guard. That’s in marked contrast to other regional sports channels, which have signed big rights deals with teams and conferences but don’t have the leverage to get distribution deals done that can justify those fat payouts.
“Our agreement with DirecTV continues to push the SEC Network towards one of the most successful network launches when it debuts August 14,” said Sean Breen, SVP Affiliate Sales for Disney and ESPN Media Networks.
And the conference was cheering, too: “With opening day firmly in sight, we are happy to count DirecTV, the country’s largest satellite provider, among our many distributors,” said conference Commissioner Mike Slive. “The SEC is home to the most passionate fans in college sports, and I am pleased to have such a wide distribution by launch date for the benefit of SEC fans everywhere.”
As of last week, the channel already was being carried by cable providers passing 75 million homes, enough by one calculation to put it at No. 5 among the most lucrative sports outlets, behind only two ESPN channels, Fox Sports 1 and that other pro football channel, NFL Network. And that was before DirecTV joined the team, and ensured that hard-core fans could get the network basically anywhere in the country with a roof, a clear view to a satellite and some electricity.
That’s what happens when ESPN comes calling about its newest offering. Pay-TV providers that want to keep sports fans happy have extra motivation to make sure they keep ESPN happy. But the announcement still leaves other regional sports networks on the sidelines, waiting for the coach to send them in.
That includes Time Warner Cable‘s SportsNet LA, which carries the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball games and has been getting batted around lately for its inability to sell the channel to other distributors. Just last week, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler sent a nastygram asking TWC to explain what it was doing to ensure that everyone gets to see the Dodger games. Then DirecTV piled on, and even invoked many of its competitors, to say that TWC’s approach on the Dodgers — wanting to be on a basic tier that was part of all customers’ cable bills — was striking out everywhere.
“We agree with Congressman (Brad) Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) that any loyal Dodger fans deserve the opportunity to see games,” DirecTV said, “yet not at the expense of the millions of other AT&T U-verse, Charter Communications, Cox Communications, DIRECTV, Dish Network, Mediacom, Suddenlink Communications, Verizon FiOS and other families who have little or no interest in paying for Time Warner Cable’s excess. Rather than force everyone to bail Time Warner Cable out, the simplest solution is to enable only those who want to pay to see the remaining Dodgers games to do so at the price Time Warner Cable wants to set.”