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Change Coming for UGA, SEC with New TV Deal

February 9, 2020

ATHENS - Officials at the SEC and at some institutions in the league were surprised when CBS pulled out of television negations last year. 

The longtime agreement between the SEC and CBS has benefited both sides since 1996. In the 23 years before the SEC’s agreement with CBS the league won five national titles. In the 23 years since it has lifted the trophy 14 times. 

The CBS-SEC agreement was was not the first network-exclusive agreement between a conference and broadcast network, but it has been the most successful... bay far. CBS’s backing away from the table after having such a good relationship for more than two decades with the league was unexpected. 

Some SEC insiders have whispered that CBS might not be done bidding on the package by saying quietly and off the record: “That could just be a negotiating tactic". 

But the network put out a public relations statement insisting they had pulled out of the running. 

“We made a strong and responsible bid. While we‘ve had success with the SEC on CBS, we are instead choosing to aggressively focus on other important strategic priorities moving forward,” their statement read. 

With CBS all but certainly out, Disney (with ABC, ESPN, ESPN, the SEC Network and ESPNU) is considered the heavy favorite to land the contract to broadcast all SEC football games. Disney already owns all rights to non-Tier-One broadcasts of SEC contests (anything from the second pick of the week for football all the way to softball, swimming and tennis). Tier one rights give broadcasters like CBS, FOX and ABC first pick of the conference’s football games of the week (or year depending on the agreement - for instance, the Big Ten has an agreement with Disney and FOX, but it is FOX that picks the first game of each season… going with Ohio State-Michigan each year so far). 

CBS has used that weekly SEC pick and the national success of the league to make the SEC the most-watched conference on television. The end-of-year SEC Championship Game is usually the most-viewed non-bowl game of the college football season.  

But a change to a possible Disney-owned TV package comes with ramifications for the league, and what it has grown used to since CBS took hold of the TV package in 1996. Night games have always been a big deal in the SEC, but afternoon games each week were the biggest. That will likely change moving forward. 

As Sports Business Daily’s John Ourand pointed out in his December 20, 2019 report regarding the ongoing negations: 

Dawg Post
ATHENS - A CBS cameraman during No. 3 Georgia's 23-17 win over No. 7 Notre Dame at Sanford Stadium on September 21, 2019. (Dean Legge/Dawg Post)

The decision to move away from CBS carries some risk for the SEC, especially considering that it has been college football’s most-viewed package for more than 10 years running. With ESPN owning all of the SEC’s football rights, it’s possible that more than one game will be produced for broadcast TV; more top-tier games can be moved to primetime; and the conference can schedule more late afternoon.”

The change would be seismic in the world of college football in terms of exposure, prestige and money. Saturday SEC triple headers on ABC are possible, but not common scenarios in the future. Still, like 2019’s week seven, viewers could tune in to ABC at noon for UGA-USC, and then Bama-A&M in the afternoon followed by LSU-Florida in primetime. 

But that’s just one aspect of things that could change. 

The most important probable move is that ABC, Disney’s broadcast arm, would use the SEC’s game of the week in primetime a lot. Primetime in broadcast lays waste to the rest of television. Consider that the most popular shows on cable TV are Hannity, Tucker Carlson Tonight and The Rachel Maddow Show. Those shows average between 3.1 and 3.5 million viewers a night. Their competition in the same time slots (8 PM and 9 PM) on broadcast TV average triple or quadruple those numbers depending on the night.

In the world of TV, Cable doesn’t have close to the audience that broadcast does. So the SEC’s ability to put two or three games a week on network television (let alone one of them being in primetime) should not be undersold. 

More exposure on network television matters a lot. 

2019’s Most-viewed regular season college football game by week

Week 1 - Auburn-Oregon - ABC - 6.86M
Week 2 - LSU at Texas - ABC - 8.63M
Week 3 - Alabama at South Carolina - CBS - 4.95M
Week 4 - Notre Dame at UGA - CBS - 9.29M
Week 5 - Ohio State at Nebraska - ABC - 6.14M
Week 6 - Michigan State at Ohio State - ABC - 6.68M
Week 7 - Oklahoma-Texas - FOX - 7.25M
Week 8 - Michigan at Penn State - ABC - 6.66M
Week 9 - Auburn at LSU - CBS - 7.18M
Week 10 - UGA-Florida - CBS - 6.98M
Week 11 - LSU at Alabama - CBS - 16.64M
Week 12 - Oklahoma at Baylor - ABC - 6.79M
Week 13 - Penn State at Ohio State - FOX - 9.43M
Week 14 - Ohio State at Michigan - FOX - 12.42M
Week 15 - LSU-UGA - CBS - 13.7M

The possible move to Disney means SEC teams like UGA, Alabama, LSU and the Gators would be permitted to play primetime games on broadcast television. As it currently stands, only one SEC school is only allowed to host a primetime broadcast game on CBS. Last year that was Notre Dame at UGA, but recently it has been LSU-Alabama. Georgia’s trip to Tuscaloosa could be the pick this fall from CBS.

There are a lot of reasons why NBC, FOX or ABC should get the biggest TV audiences for college football. One is, like CBS, they are broadcast to the entire nation. The other, and this is also very important, is the primetime factor. 

Primetime games on broadcast networks are typically well-watched games. Because CBS only has the rights to broadcast one primetime SEC game a year the we really can’t know how high ratings could be for so many huge SEC games. UGA-Florida, UGA-LSU, Florida-LSU, UGA-Auburn and other huge TV games - are broadcast at 3:30 - not at night, when audiences can grow exponentially because people are at home rather than at work or running weekend to-do lists. 

There are several big changes that could come along with the SEC moving to Disney and ABC. But the most notable change would be a move of huge games like the ones listed above to primetime. 

Consider that these games were not in primetime last year: Alabama-LSU, Auburn-A&M, Auburn-Florida, Alabama-A&M, UGA-Florida, LSU-Alabama, UGA-Auburn, A&M-UGA and Alabama-Auburn. All of those games pulled in 4 million viewers or more... and none in primetime. 

2019 College Football TV Partners

SEC - CBS (broadcast) and ESPN (cable)
Big 10 - ABC and FOX (broadcast) and ESPN and FS1 (cable)
Big 12 - ABC and FOX (broadcast), ESPN and FS1 (cable) and ESPN+
ACC - ABC (broadcast) and ESPN (cable)
Pac 12 - ABC and FOX (broadcast) and ESPN and FS1 (cable) 

ABC put these games in primetime last fall: Clemson-Syracuse (Alabama-South Carolina), Oklahoma State-Texas (Notre Dame-UGA), Penn State-Iowa (LSU-Florida), Notre Dame-Michigan (Auburn-LSU), SMU-Memphis (UGA-Florida), Clemson-NC State (LSU-Alabama), Oregon-Arizona (A&M-UGA) and Colorado-Utah (Alabama-Auburn). 

Those games would almost certainly be replaced by the SEC games that all pulled bigger audiences.

Games like SMU-Memphis, Oregon-Arizona and Colorado-Utah stand no chance in the future of being show on broadcast TV in primetime if the SEC is on ABC. Programs like Clemson would no longer have an easy path to two ABC primetime games a year… at least not with the ACC in its current state of disrepair. Two of ABC’s worst four primetime games in 2019 were the only two games featuring an ACC conference games. Not a great look.

Networks take note of that - and that’s why Disney is prepared to pay north of $300 million a year for 15 weeks of SEC games each fall - and they will want bang for their buck (more on that in a moment)

Networks take note of the power of the SEC on those weekends. The top two ABC primetime games of the season were games with SEC teams (LSU at Texas; Oregon-Auburn). The worst four ABC primetime games of 2019 Clemson-Syracuse, Clemson-NC State, SMU-Memphis, and Colorado-Utah barely outdrew one single SEC game - Alabama at Auburn. 

Most-viewed regular season college football games of 2019

1. LSU-Alabama - CBS - 16.6M
2. LSU-UGA - CBS - 13.7M
3. Ohio State-Wisconsin - FOX - 13.6M
4. Ohio State-Michigan - FOX - 12.4M
5. Alabama-Auburn - CBS - 11.4M
6. Penn State-Ohio State - FOX - 9.4M
7. Notre Dame-UGA - CBS - 9.3M
8. Oklahoma-Baylor (2) - ABC - 8.7M
9. LSU-Texas - ABC - 8.6M
10. Oklahoma-Texas - FOX - 7.3M

The SEC games that could have gone on in primetime if Disney had the SEC contract in 2019 would have had 30 million more viewers in those weeks alone.

30 million.

A new agreement with Disney means that the SEC would probably get even more exposure on cable, too. Disney would encourage (meaning demand) the marketing machine that is College Football Gameday to travel to more SEC games as it would be in Disney’s interest to do so - unlike situations occurring right now that often has ESPN promoting a CBS or even FOX game. 

Gameday has been the gold standard in Saturday morning watching for college football fans for decades. It reguarly pulls in over a million viewers... simply to listen to its panel talk about college football. ABC would take full advantage of the marketing capabilities it has with Gameday each Saturday morning in the fall. 

The problem for Disney has been that often the highest-rated games of the weekend involve SEC teams. And the bulk of the time SEC schools played those game on CBS - not on ESPN… and nearly never on ABC. That would change if Disney took over SEC broadcasting rights. 

Another dynamic at play here is that Disney would own the largest piece of inventory in college football. Currently, it is missing the biggest piece of the pie with the SEC at CBS. 

Half of the most-viewed games of the 2019 regular season in college football featured SEC teams. Four of the top 15 featured TV juggernaut Ohio State. With Disney likely soon in control of all of the SEC and ACC as well as about half of the Big 10, Big 12 and Pac 12, it will own the lion share of big games on TV. It wouldn’t control Texas-Oklahoma and Ohio State-Michigan, but it would control: Georgia-Florida, LSU-Alabama, Alabama-Auburn, Florida-FSU, FSU-Miami, UGA-Auburn and LSU-Florida, and those are the reasons networks pay huge rights fees - for huge games.

Disney could move games around to different time slots (and to different weekends) to make the most it the investment. If Disney wanted the season to end with Georgia facing off against Tennessee… that’s not out of the world of possibility (but unlikely for now).

The money Disney would pay the SEC for games would mean that company would be in near full control of kickoff times, and probably when some games are played. The SEC has already moved games like UGA-Auburn and Tennessee-UGA around in the schedule. That was a move to please TV. UGA playing Texas A&M on November 23, 2019 - seven days before a rivalry game with Tech - was about making CBS happy, and giving that network a decent game to put on TV rather than the trash that was featured in the rest of the league weekend. 

The SEC has decided to make itself as friendly to what TV wants as possible in hopes that the money will follow. While it is hard to image games like Georgia-Florida, Alabama-Auburn and LSU-Alabama moving weekends, it isn’t hard to imagine other games, like UGA-South Carolina, Alabama-A&M and LSU-Florida, being moved around the league calendar. 

Furthermore, Disney might be very interested in moving other games around in order to maximize viewership on particular weekends, or taking advantage of teams like UGA, Alabama, Florida or LSU playing on the road. 

Tech-UGA will probably always be at the end of the year, but if Disney, which would control broadcasting rights to that game each season rather than every other year could strongly suggest or make Clean Old Fashioned Hate move up by a few days or even a couple of months in the schedule in order to showcase UGA one more time.

Take a look at the slate of games the final weekend of the year. Keeping in mind that UGA is one of the top brand names in college football, and that Tech is not, Disney could very certainly ask that the Jackets and Dawgs move from Saturday to Friday or even ask them to star playing on Thanksgiving day again.

That game was played on Thanksgiving on ABC in the past, but some dynamics have changed (the NFL now plays three games on Thanksgiving). So moving the game to Friday rather than Thursday would do two things: keep one of the biggest brands in college football away from directly competing with the NFL, and give Disney a marquee name it can lean on for Black Friday. 

In 2019, Tech-UGA drew 2.35 million viewers at noon on ABC - that nearly topped ABC primetime Colorado-Utah’s 2.43 million. Several Friday games, Texas-Texas Tech, Washington-WSU and Virginia-VT beat out Saturday games in terms of total viewers. And none of those teams, outside of Texas, draws like the Dawgs. And to be clear, Texas doesn’t draw like UGA, either, but they are a bigger name. 

So Disney might wonder if it can pull off putting Tech-UGA at 3:30 on Friday instead of noon on Saturday. A national brand playing on Friday in the afternoon; then LSU-A&M kicking off Saturday afternoon; and an Auburn-Alabama primetime finale. 

Then again, Auburn-Alabama or LSU-A&M could get moved to that Friday as well. It is hard to imagine Disney wasting that spot on Missouri-Arkansas in the future when they could bury that game on ESPN2 on Saturday. 

One final thing to consider is the movement of regular, non-rivalry confernce games to Fridays. Each year of the Big Ten’s new TV agreement, Ohio State or Penn State (two of that conference’s biggest TV brands) have played conference road games on weekdays (2017 Ohio State at Indiana; 2018 Penn State at Illinois; 2019 Ohio State at Northwestern). Wisconsin will host Indiana, and Iowa will travel to Minnesota on a Friday in 2020. 

What the Big Ten has done is a leading indicator that games like UGA at Vandy, Alabama at State or LSU at Arkansas could very well get moved to Friday nights on ESPN in the fall, or perhaps on Thursdays to start the season off. Disney will want to put the SEC’s brand names (particularly TV magnets Alabama and UGA) on as often as they can - even if the games come against non-marquee foes.

The biggest thing to remember as the SEC’s biggest football games on TV are on the move is that change is coming... one way or another change is coming. 

That’s what the money is for: the change. 

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