The first year was supposed to be about learning, easing into things and figuring out how the whole seemingly-complicated mess would work out.
It turned out, the SEC Network was the biggest cable launch in history, and after nine months online, the digital side has more than doubled its projection with the 14 Southeastern Conference schools producing and broadcasting over 1,000 events on SEC Network+.
And the most impressive part, to some, isn’t just the sheer amount of productions, but the fact that quality has somehow kept up with the quantity.
“I don’t know how other coaches in our league feel, but it’s actually dramatically better than what I thought it was going to be,” Mississippi State baseball coach John Cohen said. “When you have that much that you’re trying to cover as a network, you just assume that some of it is going to be a little sketchier. But it hasn’t been. The production has been phenomenal.”
The projections before the launch called for each school to have around 40 of its own broadcasts in year one, a strong but attainable goal. From August 2014 up to now, that number has doubled to an average of about 75 live events produced per school. MSU has produced over 100 when including games, press conferences and other live events.
Bennie Ashford, Assistant Athletic Director for Video Production at MSU, is the man tasked with the day-to-day operations of every production, lining up cameramen, directors, producers, talent and the like. It required more work for everyone involved, but Ashford said he wasn’t at all surprised the numbers went so far beyond expectations once people figured out how to do everything.
“The schools,” he said, “felt like, ‘Hey, this is a great platform. Let’s use it. Let’s just put every game we possibly can out there, and as long as you’ve got a budget to support it, do it.’”
At State, volleyball and soccer coaches saw how nice it was when Ashford’s crew began broadcasting their games online. Once the kinks were worked out of the productions, there was no reason not to show as many games as possible. Between volleyball, soccer, softball, baseball and men’s and women’s basketball – the sports with regular online broadcasts – only a handful of games were missed, an impressive juggling act by a group with only one control room.
Only able to broadcast one game at a time has caused at least a little bit of stress, especially during heavy months like November and February with so many teams in action, but Ashford’s crew managed.
However, reinforcements are on the way, according to Scott Wetherbee, MSU’s Senior Associate Director of Athletics for External Affairs. By next year, MSU will have two fully-operational control rooms located at Davis Wade Stadium in the plaza of the new north endzone. Up to now, MSU has kept its SEC Network budget under $1 million, though the needed upgrades will put the department’s tab into seven figures.
It will be worth it, however, and not just to broadcast a few more games. While pumping out an ESPN-quality broadcast, Ashford’s crew also has to run HD video boards for each of the games for the teams who have them. There may only be one “broadcast,” but every game is a dual-production when video boards are involved.
“Marketing people are concerned about what’s going on in the venue on the video board,” Ashford said, “and if you’re watching on the ESPN app, you want to see a ballgame with slo-mo replays and different camera angles. We’ve been able to co-exist throughout the year with one control room, but with two next year, it will be a lot cleaner.”
Part of the emphasis to be able to broadcast more and at a higher quality level has been for a both surprising and obvious reason – the people watching. ESPN, the SEC and all the schools certainly hoped their numbers would be good, but interest has, again, gone beyond even what they expected.
All 14 schools together, the average for baseball broadcasts this spring has been around 5,000 viewers per game, led by an overwhelming 20,000-plus for LSU’s baseball productions. At MSU, numbers finished around 7,000 per broadcast
Softball has been strong league-wide, as well, bringing in around 1,500 viewers per game. At MSU, those numbers have been even more impressive as the Bulldogs have averaged nearly 5,000 people tuning in to watch them on SEC Network+ each home outing.
“When you have those kinds of numbers watching softball,” Wetherbee said, “we’re doing everything we can to be on the air.”
One incidental impact the SEC Network has had is the change in scouting for SEC teams. Baseball and softball this spring, for example, have had easy access to game film from opponents.
So easy, in fact, that softball coach Vann Stuedeman says her staff has been able to send cut-up video of opponents straight to their players phones so they can prepare for the pitchers or batters they’ll face in their next game. Before, Stuedeman’s staff was typically working with weeks-old film and sometimes they’d even have to go back and pull video from previous seasons.
“Now, an opponent we’re going to play tomorrow,” she said, “we’re watching their game from the previous Sunday with better camera angles, better views.”
Of course, as Cohen pointed out, “Everybody else in the league has that availability, too,” but it’s still been a boon from nearly every point of view. League visibility has improved, scouting is easier and fans are enjoying the product.
One of the more subtle benefits has been the convenience for the parents of players in all the sports. With students coming in from across the country and even across the world, it’s not as easy for mom, dad and siblings to watch games as it was in high school when the stadium was just across town.
Alexis Silkwood, for example, is a sophomore pitcher on the softball team from Illinois – not exactly an easy afternoon drive. Ashford remembers the first time he met her, when her immediate response was to say how much her parents love being able to watch all of her games. They apparently enjoyed the quality of the broadcast, which is certainly a positive, as well.
It’s been an experiment in broadcasting that’s had a wealth of positives like that one, though that’s not say everything has been rosy. If nothing else, the time devoted and the stress induced for those like Ashford and Wetherbee has been strenuous, to say the least.
Wetherbee was charged with preparing MSU’s athletic department for the SEC Network from every possible angle, and he estimated at least two-thirds of his time every day was spent in Network preparations from April-December of 2014.
“It was a chore,” Ashford conceded, saying it’s been an every day job for him since the announcement in 2013. “It lasted, really, until now.”
Since that time, ESPN and the video coordinators from all 14 schools have had hour-long teleconferences every two weeks to review what’s been done, go over what was coming and feed off each other for ideas. It’s a unique situation, really, where those in charge act the opposite of all others across the conference. While the athletic teams are rivals on the field who intensely hide their secrets and methods from the competition, Ashford and his colleagues are open about everything, constantly giving each other tips, hints and inspiration.
“Everything we’re doing is all for one common goal – to publicize the league and to promote our athletes and athletic programs,” Ashford said. “The best way to do it is to work together.”
So they talk to each other. They study each other. Ashford and Wetherbee have spent hours on end watching other schools’ broadcasts to see what camera angles they use, what type of graphics packages they have, how their talent interacts with each other and anything else they can glean.
It’s been a lot of effort, a great deal of time and a ton of moving parts to put it all together, but they feel it’s been worth it. The much-anticipated check from the first year has yet to come in, so they don’t how much they’ll see from all the work, but it will assuredly cover the costs and much more.
At the very least, the fans of Mississippi State have been served, and ultimately, that’s the goal of everything happening in MSU’s athletic department.
“It’s worth it,” Ashford said of his time spent the last two years, “because it’s great for Mississippi State. It really is. We’re playing in the big leagues as it comes to television production. We’re getting our events out there so our fans, no matter where they are, can watch the games. That’s a big deal.”