ESPN and The SEC Network Dilemma

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If ESPN’s championing of the Southeastern Conference seemed overbearing before, just wait until next month when the much-anticipated SEC Network launches.

As you’re probably well aware, ESPN owns the forthcoming media property in a partnership much like the Worldwide Leader’s with the University of Texas via the Longhorn Network. Unlike the Longhorn Network, however, ESPN has been able to use its influence to broker an impressive rollout for the SEC Network. Most recently, Comcast announced it will carry the channel.

Because of its affiliation with ESPN, the SEC Network will debut in far more homes nationwide than the Big Ten and Pac-12 Networks, which are owned partially by News Corp. (BTN) and entirely by the conference in the Pac-12’s case.

ESPN succeeded in leveraging consumer demand, which it generated by scheduling important SEC games early in the season. To wit, an in-conference showdown between South Carolina and Texas A&M on the first full night of FBS action kicks off the SEC Network slate.

Aggies-Gamecocks is a matchup with national appeal, so it was likely more than just regional customers inundating their cable providers’ inboxes with emails to carry the SEC Network. To quote one Sean Carter, a.k.a. Jay-Z, can’t knock the hustle.

But with a media conglomerate so directly invested in one conference, ethical quandaries are bound to surface.

David Climer of The Tennessean published a thought-provoking report this week, examining the ESPN-SEC Network dynamic through a journalistic lens. Climer’s lead tidbit:

Less than a month before the Aug. 14 launch of the SEC Network, it’s fair to wonder whether this unprecedented wall-to-wall exposure will go beyond live events and puff pieces.

Indeed, ESPN’s coverage of major, newsworthy events in the SEC–say, a situation similar to the Cam Newton investigation in 2010–will assuredly draw scrutiny from media watchdogs such as Sports Illustrated‘s Richard Deitsch and AwfulAnnouncing.com.

Coverage of SEC football from all angles won’t stop, even if ESPN doesn’t take the lead. A bevy of local outlets like AL.com, The Times-Picayune, The Tennessean and Atlanta Journal-Constitution; websites such as Rocky Top Insider and TideSports.com; and various national outlets will continue to examine the conference from every angle.

The greater ethical dilemma the ESPN-SEC Network relationship poses is the possibility of ESPN using its vast reach and influence in college football to manipulate the landscape of the sport.

Climer’s column references Paul Finebaum, and with good reason. ESPN essentially knighted the longtime SEC journalist and media personality as the face of the SEC Network.

Finebaum is unabashed in his homerism of the SEC. A few days before the SEC Network launches, Finebaum’s book hits Amazon and brick-and-mortar stores. The title?
finebaum-cover
“My Conference Can Beat Your Conference.”

Such bravado is to be expected from Finebaum, the ringleader of college football’s greatest circus. But with Finebaum effectively operating as the face of the SEC Network, and “As Seen on ESPN” splashed across the cover of his book, the title could be construed as the tagline for the entire channel.

Of course, the SEC Network is going to trumpet the successes of the SEC. BTN celebrates the Big Ten and Pac-12 Networks proudly holds up the Pac-12. For the host networks to not tout their own conferences is stupid, for lack of a better term.

But the SEC Network pumping up the SEC means ESPN pumping up the SEC. ESPN has a vested interest in the conference’s success, which could pose an ethical quandary given how profoundly influential ESPN is elsewhere in the sport.

ESPN plays a key role in scheduling marquee nonconference games. It owns several bowl games. ESPN plays a huge part in the sport, as Alicia Jessop examined for Forbes last year.

ESPN’s role in the postseason expands further to its broadcasting of all but one bowl game, and each of the three contests in the forthcoming College Football Playoff.

With its financial stakes in both the College Football Playoff and the SEC, ESPN can essentially double-down by combining the two.

Now, it’s vital to note ESPN is not responsible for choosing the participants in the Playoff. But through its vast reach, the network is responsible for leading the discussion that plays a central role in the shaping of college football’s postseason.

The conference in which ESPN has staked the greatest financial interest landing in the Playoff is good for business. Landing two such teams is great for business. So what’s stopping the various ESPN channels–on television, radio or online–from essentially operating as PR wings for the SEC?

  • wmease

    This should be illegal.

  • yehonala04

    If the SEC is given two spots in the first playoff ;all credibility will be lost. The P5 already will have one not chosen . To have 3 not be picked would damn this process from the start. When 8 teams are the model then multiple teams from the same conference; not before . Will that insure an accurate and fair system ? No .

  • smoke195160

    yehonala04 Your comment seems to be aimed at the SEC and undue influence. Maybe and maybe not.
    If you remember a couple of years ago ND was put in the NC game which was a joke.
    ND is not in the SEC.
    There were several teams that year that were better than ND that year. Some of which were in the SEC. 
    If the SEC were so in control of everything then ND would not have been included in that NC game.
    On another point of the article they talk about Paul Finebaum. I am an SEC person and anyone in the know sees him as an Alabama mouthpiece . First for Bama, secondly for AU. And he hates Tennessee. Surprise Surprise. Also remember that Skip Bayless came to fame for his reporting of SMU before they got the death sentence from the ncaa.
    Self promoters have always been with us in all walks of life.
    What is fair or unfair is generally judged from a point of view. Yours and others. Of course yours ( the universal you ) is always the correct POV.

    • Notre Dame making the 2013 BCSCG is a really poor example. The Irish were the only unbeaten in FBS, with wins over 10 bowl teams including the Pac-12 champion and co-Big 12 champion. ND got by on the hairs of their chin several times that season, but they got by. No other team in the nation did so, and certainly none did so while playing 10 bowl teams and 2 BCS conference champions.

      They were completely overmatched by Alabama, obviously. And perhaps other teams were better. But others had the chance to prove it and lost a game, which ND avoided.