Wiedmer: Vols both excited over, wary of SEC Network

Wiedmer: Vols both excited over, wary of SEC Network

August 15th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

SEC Network

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - At Vanderbilt, the new SEC Network cameras were supposed to visit a women's soccer game Thursday evening. Kentucky's big moment for the network's launch will come at 1 p.m. today when its men's hoopsters (naturally) meet the Dominican Republic national team in the Bahamas.

Every other Southeastern Conference school is scheduled to introduce itself on the network's debut weekend in one form or another. (Rumor had it that Alabama and Auburn were strongly considering something football related.)

The University of Tennessee decided the best way to introduce itself was to stage a dinner Thursday night at its new Smokey's restaurant inside the giant football practice complex.

"We wanted to present One Tennessee," Jason Yellin, the school's assistant athletic director for media relations, said an hour before the dinner. "The football team, women's soccer team and volleyball team will all be there. We'd have had more, but those are the only teams on campus at the moment."

It may be months, even years, before a full-blown assessment of the importance of the SEC Network can be known. Will it change recruiting (not that the SEC needs much help in that area)? Will it help or hurt ticket sales long-term? Will it further strengthen the jealousy, envy and distrust for the league from the rest of college athletics (almost guaranteed)?

"When it comes to recruiting, it's all about exposure," said UT assistant football coach Tommy Thigpen. "What's the SEC Network going to be in, something like 90 million homes? It boggles the mind. There's no conference like this. When the football season starts, it's like the NFL. Even your worst teams are pretty good."

But Thigpen was also quick to bring up a potential negative point about the network. What if Alabama got more air time than anybody else during football season? What if the same holds true for Kentucky during basketball season?

For television networks it's all about ratings, about viewers, about the impact those viewers can have on advertising revenue. The mad men of Madison Avenue don't care so much about equality as economics. If leaning toward the Crimson Tide is good for the bottom line of ESPN -- the SEC Network's partner company -- at some point it will lean toward Bama. Especially with some estimates showing the network could make $800 million in carrier fees alone its first year. No wonder Tennessee spent $10 million to build a television studio for on-campus production.

But given all that, and the potential for each school to rake in as much $15 million a year from such largesse, it also stands to reason that coaches will feel more pressure to win, if only to keep their teams front and center on television.

"Man, that wouldn't be right," Thigpen argued. "We've got just as many bells and whistles as the other teams."

UT defensive backs coach Willie Martinez didn't say the Big Orange getting less exposure than Alabama, South Carolina or LSU wouldn't be right. But he does believe every school will monitor such discrepancies should they exist.

"I don't know that I'll be doing that," he said. "But I'm quite sure that Coach [Butch] Jones and his support staff will."

"We've already been told that the SEC Network is coming to record us," said redshirt junior defensive lineman Trevarris Saulsberry. "I'll definitely be mad if we don't get our fair share of air time. We're a program on the rise. We're the kind of team people should be getting to know."

Jones spent much of Thursday afternoon's media event attempting to soften that argument, telling reporters: "We've put a lot of expectations on this freshman class. We have to be realistic. And that starts with me. These are still 17- to 18-year-old kids playing against 22- to 23-year-old individuals."

He also said, "I'm as excited and encouraged as I've ever been, but it's going to take some patience."

And, "[Signing here] is a chance to be a part of something special when this thing gets going. Our recruits understand that greatness lies ahead."

The players don't disagree. Saulsberry spoke of how much closer this year's team is than last year's model. Asked to rate the reported improvement in athletic ability from last year's squad to this year on a scale of 1 to 10, senior defensive lineman Jordan Williams said, "An 8 or a 9." Asked the same question 20 minutes later, senior defensive back Justin Coleman replied, "An 8. Maybe a 9. We don't have the best talent or the best athletes, but we're getting better. Much better."

Maybe that will become the UT storyline -- Tennessee's rebuilding -- for the SEC Network, which will televise the Vols' first two games against Utah State and Arkansas State. Maybe what lies ahead, whenever that something special gets going, will be enough to drive viewership.

"My parents are always asking what's going on, how are we looking," said freshman Evan Berry, whose twin brother Elliott also will try to play as well for the Vols as their older brother Eric and father James did. "Now they'll just be able to turn on the SEC Network to find out."

And if the minutes may not precisely match those of the Crimson Tide, UT senior linebacker A.J. Johnson rightly encouraged the Big Orange Nation to take the high road.

"No matter how much they show us," he said, "it's really just a blessing to have a network at all."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com