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SEC Network Sets Sights On Record Launch

Down South, college football is king.

And given ESPN’s success in inking affiliate pacts for the fledgling SEC Network, it may be in the North, West and East as well — en route to what is looking like the biggest launch in cable history.

Last Friday, The Walt Disney Co. announced a comprehensive, multiyear renewal pact with the National Cable Television Cooperative encompassing a host of advanced services, including the programmer’s “Watch” TV Everywhere platform, and its suite of channels, notably the SEC Network, which kicks off on Aug. 14.

It was the latest in a string of affiliate deals that at press time would put the SEC Network in front of 67 million subscribers — and counting.

During a July 31 earnings conference call with analysts, DirecTV CEO Mike White noted that the company is close to finalizing a deal with the SEC Network, saying it has agreed with ESPN on rates for the channel but has yet to set a launch date. Some reports suggest DirecTV may wait until Aug. 28, when Texas A&M meets South Carolina in the first of the service’s 45 conference football games.

Charter Communications last week said it is finalizing a distribution deal with ESPN and it “will have the SEC Network for its August 14 launch.”

Adding 20 million subscribers from DirecTV and more than 4 million video customers from Charter would push the SEC Network launch past the 90 million-subscriber mark.

With most expecting Verizon Communications to ink an affiliate accord for its FiOS TV as well — the telco said it is negotiating with ESPN — SEC Network could bow in more than 95 million homes to easily surpass Fox Sports 1, which was converted from Speed and debuted with some 90 million subscribers on Aug. 17, 2013, as the industry’s biggest launch.

ESPN said it doesn’t comment on ongoing negotiations.

Justin Connolly, ESPN’s senior vice president of college networks, maintained that stance in a recent interview, saying, “I’m confident we’re going to get more deals done, but until things are actually signed, a contract is just a piece of paper.”

In addition to the NCTC, ESPN, which owns the network along with the Southeastern Conference, already has deals with Comcast, Dish Network, Time Warner Cable, Bright House Networks and Cox Communications, and with smaller providers. It has been reportedly seeking distribution pacts carrying a monthly subscriber fee of $1.40 within the conference’s 11-state footprint, and 25 cents outside those boundaries.

Echoing ESPN president John Skipper’s goal of attaining similar levels of carriage as broader collegiate service ESPNU, Connolly said the SEC Network’s affiliate goals are aimed toward “the benchmark” of having the top level of penetration within the conference’s 11 states and the second-highest level out of market. “We seem to be getting that mix,” he said, while noting there is a difference in “the carriage we have in Alabama, than in Oregon.”

Over its freshman season, the network will televise 450 events and present another 550 digital-exclusive live conference contests on and WatchESPN.

DirecTV remains the only major provider lacking an accord to present WatchESPN, which is now available to some 75 million homes nationwide.