clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Florida's 48 for 2014, No. 32: Hope, fear, and the SEC Network

New, 15 comments

The SEC Network is going to be a good thing for Florida. But it could be a really good thing and a good thing, or a good thing and a bad thing.

Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

The SEC Network is good for Florida because it's good for the SEC, and as tautological as that sounds, it's really all you need to know if you don't care about details.

The slightly more detailed explanation is that the SEC will make more money and distribute more of it to its member schools with the SEC Network, and ESPN's bright lights will give SEC schools more exposure than they previously had. And if money is the grease in the gears of the college sports industry, "exposure" is a substitute for money that is often worth money, too. (And, yes, college athletics exists to make people money by taking it from people who want to be entertained, like every other entertainment industry that has ever existed.)

But there are differences in quality of entertainment, just like there are differences between Mountain West football (sorry) and SEC football, or between First Take and Outside the Lines. There are good things a broadcast network can say about an organization it partners with, and there are ... well, there was this:

I embed this tweet from Mississippi State SID Kyle Niblett — a former Florida SID and Gator — turning what an ESPN host said into a "story" not because I'm trying to make fun of him, but because this illustrates what the SEC Network is going to be at its worst: A house organ. It will produce "content" in the form of statements of opinion that require defending or response and spin "stories" out of whole cloth.

This is what ESPN does very well.

I have been worried about this before, and wrote at length about my concerns about in-house coverage as they related to Florida hiring Scott Carter (and later Chris Harry) as a senior writer for GatorZone, and tasking him with covering the Gators while also being paid by the University Athletic Association. And, to be fair, I think Carter and Harry have both generally been pretty good about doing more than carrying water for their employer, though reasonable minds may differ.

But that's a small operation compared to ESPN's "content" machine — and so the SEC's own army of apparatchiks, who have successfully sold an SEC supremacy narrative for years now, is only going to grow. People within that army will be empowered — if, like Paul Finebaum, they're in ESPN's fold — to say and do more outlandish things in the name of making "content." People outside it, like Clay Travis (whose ascent has been based on hewing to an "SEC + Bill Simmons" formula), or the folks from Saturday Down South (who built a brand in part on advertising themselves as @SECfootball on Twitter, deftly blurring the lines between cheerleading and coverage), can position themselves as truth-tellers separate from the ESPN machine, and can go as far over the line in attacking its "content" as they would like.

The "content" isn't going to be "Dak Prescott is the best QB in the SEC" every time, or even on that level. And it won't be important every time. But I think it will be important enough at least once this year to give us pause.

And that's a shame, because ESPN running the SEC Network could produce something that shows a way forward for media, too.

ESPN does a fair few things well, but the best thing it has done of late is develop a robust documentary program, and the SEC Storied series that ESPN started last year and will continue on the SEC Network will use as promises to be excellent for as long as it runs. That should be a while: There's plenty of SEC history to cover, and ESPN's previously shown that it won't run from stories that aren't entirely kind to the league, so we can hope that "unflinching" is an adjective that we'll be able to apply for the forseeable future. (And ESPN should absolutely lean on history when possible: Running the SEC Network as an ESPN Classic for SEC fans and simply re-running old games, as it will for much of the next two weeks, should produce double after double.)

The regional focus of the SEC Network should also allow ESPN to drill down and provide depth without having to care about breadth. SEC fans will read about things the average person would never think about if those things impact their teams, and ESPN should take advantage of that by giving those fans relevant and edifying information; stocking its team of analysts with guys like Marcus Spears, Greg McElroy, and, yes, Tim Tebow should help in that regard, not least because these analysts are newer to ESPN, and haven't had as much time to be Bristol-washed.

And, in a somewhat separate vein, the SEC Network should absolutely serve as a way to get college students (and student-athletes) involved in the telling of their own stories. Had the SEC Network existed last year, one of its easiest programming decisions in the spring would have been giving Patric Young a camera and a mic, or allowing him to do what he did in his GatorZone video series for a national audience. There will be other capable students who can do similar things, and, as younger audiences continue to gravitate to content made for them and by them, it would be foolish not to experiment in this regard.

My fears are that the SEC Network is going to be an imprint of all of the worst things about ESPN, but my hope is that the tabula rasa it presents will allow ESPN to do new and exciting things with it.

And y'all know me: I lean toward hope.