ESPN Executive Vice President of Programming and Original Content Burke Magnus and Southeastern Conference (SEC) Commissioner Greg Sankey spoke with media members today via Zoom, discussing ESPN’s and the SEC’s new 10-year agreement which begins in 2024-25.
The full release from today’s ESPN/SEC announcement can be found here.
A transcript of the call is available below.
Quotes from today’s SEC Network segment featuring Sankey, Magnus and on-air commentators Laura Rutledge, Kirk Herbstreit, Maria Taylor and Rece Davis are also below.
GREG SANKEY: Thank you, everyone, for joining us. There are any number of big days in the history of the Southeastern Conference. Today is added to those big days as we announce a landmark 10-year agreement with ESPN that will help shape the future of the SEC.
That future includes our universities, their campuses, our athletics programs, over 7,000 student-athletes annually who participate in the Southeastern Conference.
We had a great deal of interest in the SEC’s first tier rights. We know our sustained success, as I walk every day by a trophy case that recognizes the achievements of our student-athletes. It’s important to our future to have been thinking strategically.
The reality of media opportunities has meant to us we have to look at broadcast, traditional cable, satellite, the new digital world. ESPN, under the Disney heading, brings that to us in a unique way.
It’s also a relationship that we’ve experienced for over two decades and have a collegiate network, a conference network, that has been as successful as any launch in the history of cable television.
Our Saturday afternoon package has consistently been the highest-rated college football package. We think from the SEC perspective that’s unique because of how special the Southeastern Conference is on Saturday afternoon. Just seeing that video, thinking to when we get back to the special experiences with stadiums full of fans, brings the future opportunities to the forefront of our mind.
In addition, from a strategic standpoint, we had to think about how we schedule our games. Bringing all of our content under one umbrella provides us the opportunity to let fans know for about half of our games in the summertime the windows in which those games will be scheduled allowing advanced planning that we’ve never experienced.
I’m sure we’ll have some six-day and 12-day announcements, but with limited shifting between broadcast windows, particularly for early games which will still take place, fans will know during the summer when their team will be in one of those on-campus early games.
We appreciate the opportunity that is now in front of us. Again, seeing those images of student-athletes competing at the highest levels in front of full stadiums and full arenas in football and men’s basketball just brings to mind as we look forward how important this opportunity was as we prepared for today. And now that we’ve made this announcement, begin to look forward, beginning in 2024 with our full package, but even some adjustments for the 2021 football season through ESPN+, how special it will be moving forward.
Thank you for your interest. I look forward to the questions.
I’ll turn to Burke and say to both Jimmy and Burke how much we appreciate their diligence and work to bring us to this moment.
BURKE MAGNUS: Thank you very much, Commissioner. Appreciate that.
Let me start right there as well with a few thank yous. To Greg, obviously as the leader of the conference, such a wonderful partner to us for so many years. Really proud to call him a friend and a partner. Without his vision here, this wouldn’t have been possible.
I’d like to thank also all the presidents and chancellors of each of the SEC institutions for their trust in our company, our ability to deliver upon the vision. Again, it requires a lot of people to kind of be of the same mind to let something like this come to pass. I appreciate their trust.
To Alan Gold and Nick Khan of the CAA and Evolution Media, trusted advisers to the SEC on media issues and good friends and partners of ours on other business. Their trust and vision in us important as well.
Two particular members of the staff who we deal with quite regularly, critically important in the ongoing day-to-day business relationship with our company and the Southeastern Conference, Charlie Hussey and Mark Womack.
I want to start with some thank yous to all of those folks and many more who contributed to making this day possible.
We just couldn’t be any more excited about this. This is the missing piece for us. We really feel like this is a one plus one equals three circumstance where pairing this package with the other rights that we partner with the conference on will be to the tremendous benefit not just of our company from a business perspective but obviously to the conference, to the member institutions, to the student-athletes.
It fits perfectly with our overall company priorities. We are on the hunt constantly for the best sports content that exists in the world. Without question in the intercollegiate athletic category, the SEC is at the top of the heap.
Whether it’s the ESPN networks, now the critically important broadcast component through ABC, the new streaming component through ESPN Plus, obviously the ESPN networks and the SEC Network, the flexibility and the opportunity to maximize audience and put the biggest games on the biggest stages for the most people to watch is really what we’re excited about.
I’m sure there’s a lot of questions. We’re really excited to add this piece and grow this relationship to our already incredible portfolio of intercollegiate rights.
With that I’ll turn it back for questions and be happy to answer anything you guys have on your minds.
Burke, do you anticipate ESPN buying CBS out of the remaining three years of its agreement with the SEC?
BURKE MAGNUS: That’s not a decision that’s within our control whatsoever. I think we’re open to that possibility, but obviously it would have to be a circumstance that works for all involved. But it’s not really for me to comment because it’s an existing relationship that we’re perfectly comfortable waiting for it to run its course. We know what we got into here from a timing perspective. There’s certain things we can activate on immediately, and there are certain things that will come in 2024. We’ll have to see where that goes.
GREG SANKEY: I’ll answer as well. CBS is an important partner, it has been, and remains an important relationship. We have three more years on that agreement, as shown through the experience of 2020 how important that relationship is for the Southeastern Conference. Our focus today is on what lies ahead. We’ll continue to work well through our CBS partnership over those next three seasons.
Night games are very important with the LSU fans in particular. Could you explain, Burke, a little bit more about the ability with this deal to set games more in the future, how that might work. What can fans look forward to in trying to anticipate when games will be played?
BURKE MAGNUS: I’m sure you’re very familiar with the way the process works now. Given the first pick dynamic, a lot of the process has to wait for that to happen along certain timelines which does really two things:
One, it delays certain things that we feel like could be easily confirmed much further in advance. So, there will be an aspect of doing that which will allow fans to plan accordingly. I think it will be a very fan-friendly circumstance in terms of certainty with much more notice.
The exclusivity of the afternoon window will not exist any more. In other words, with all the territory and all the games under one roof, so to speak, we’ll be able to schedule games on any network in any of the windows which will allow for flexibility in that regard vis-à-vis teams that would prefer to be at night or teams that would prefer to be in the afternoon. It cuts in every direction.
The last thing is that there was a specific limitation on CBS in terms of how often they could go into primetime. No such limit really exists any more. In addition to the 3:30 window on ABC weekly, we anticipate there will be a lot of games many times where the SEC game will be the Saturday night football game in primetime on ABC. You heard it alluded to it in the video. All of that cobbled together allows for tremendous flexibility and takes sort of all the antiquated barriers away from the process perspective which will be I think to the tremendous benefit of both the schools and the fans.
Games like Georgia-Florida that have traditionally been in the afternoon, I guess the institutions have made known they would like it to stay there, how do you balance the value of putting something like that at night from a broadcast perspective and meet the institutions’ desires? On out-of-conference games, will y’all start looking at moving those games to Friday now that you have both of them under one agreement, you can broadcast them all under the Disney umbrella?
GREG SANKEY: The ability to have everything under one umbrella and accommodate institutional preferences is enhanced. The game played in Jacksonville between the University of Georgia and the University of Florida, or the reverse depending on your affiliation, who goes first, is one we can accommodate in the afternoon. We’ll still have a 3:30 weekly window, 3:30 p.m. eastern time. As Burke alluded to, the addition of broadcast coverage potentially in the evenings as well was an important part of the conversation for the SEC. We don’t commonly play on Fridays. We do have a Friday after Thanksgiving accommodation that’s limited, but we’ve not been a conference that’s migrated into Friday games, particularly out of respect for high school football in our region. That philosophy will continue with that one noted exception.
BURKE MAGNUS: Nothing to add there. No anticipation there would be Friday under this agreement.
Are you saying there will be weeks where there’s both a 3:30 and a primetime SEC game on ABC?
BURKE MAGNUS: Yes. I think that will definitely happen from time to time.
GREG SANKEY: As we looked at additional broadcast opportunities, that was an important consideration for the Southeastern Conference.
The ESPN Plus component that was announced that could start next season, is it restricted to non-conference only for the duration of the deal or could there eventually be in-conference games on ESPN Plus?
BURKE MAGNUS: It’s non-conference games within the constrict of the agreement. It’s no more than one per school. Everybody will be represented or could be represented potentially. Other considerations come into play that would be more in the context of year-to-year conversations. The agreement calls for only non-conference games at this point.
Commissioner, the pandemic has shown us how tenuous the financial situations of athletic departments can be. Can you give us an idea of what this deal means for your individual institutions?
GREG SANKEY: The deal is forward looking. I’ve said relative to the impact of the pandemic, during a time like this, there’s no place I’d rather be, whether it’s as a commissioner, member of our staff, on a campus or in an athletic program, coach, staff member, student-athlete, than in the Southeastern Conference. That’s because of our responsible decision making over time. Looking forward, this opportunity really helps secure our future. We know that there will be lingering effects given what we’ve experienced since March of ’20. We don’t have a finish line for the pandemic. We certainly have rays of hope relative to a vaccine that would allow us to get back to what we knew as normal. Yet we’re still going to be responsible in our current decision making in focusing on this opportunity that is one of those rays of hope out in our future.
Burke, the addition of the 2:30 central window for the SEC, is that to limit possibilities for other conferences in that window? Greg, is there any concern about the loss of the nationwide exclusivity that you had on CBS during that 2:30 central window?
BURKE MAGNUS: No, we have the other windows both on ABC and ESPN to populate with other conferences that we have arrangements with. It was actually quite an easy exercise for us to put that aside for the SEC in this instance. Like I said before, it allows them to participate in Saturday night football, which previously wasn’t possible. Continue to have games in primetime and in the afternoon on ESPN networks, a full triple-header on the SEC Network. This agreement actually is a scheduler’s dream frankly in terms of just lifting some of the barriers to flexible scheduling that existed in the old construct will present a ton of opportunity for the SEC obviously, but will also allow us to maximize and raise the level of quality in our college football schedule overall by a huge degree. Every way we look, it’s positive for us.
GREG SANKEY: My response is that probably one of the first points of dialogue we had is the importance of that regular viewing window at 3:30 p.m. nationally. This would be through ABC. We have that as part of our agreement. The great news for the Southeastern Conference is we’ve not lost what we’ve experienced. We’ve added through this new relationship, including that national 3:30 p.m. distribution.
BURKE MAGNUS: I do want to add to that, it just dawned on me, hopefully not, but there may be some confusion on that. All of these games on ABC and otherwise will be nationally distributed. We’re not talking about regionalization here. We’re talking about a national game at 3:30 on ABC. When they play in primetime, obviously nationally as well.
Commissioner Sankey, in the current agreement the SEC is to provide two conference games on Thursday nights per year. Will that continue or is there an opportunity for more Thursday night games?
GREG SANKEY: We have one, I believe, now. That’s the extent moving forward. I think I have that right, Burke. My days of the week get confused. We actually worked through that. There was a time when it was two. We reduced that to one opportunity on Thursday evening. That opportunity is available to us going forward is what my memory provides.
BURKE MAGNUS: I think that’s right. We’ve done Thanksgiving from time to time. Either way it’s a single game. I mean, we look at that the same way we look at the rest of the schedule, which is we want to collectively do together what’s best for the conference, what brings the most viewers to the table. In certain years that may be a Thursday game, in other years we might decide not to do that. We do everything in concert with each other, in collaboration with each other. That’s that.
Greg, the new deal, your conference is going to be getting significantly more money a year? CBS was paying you $55 million a year. Would you say…
GREG SANKEY: Once you got through the suggestion of numbers, I cut you off.
Would you say you’ve more than doubled the $55 million?
GREG SANKEY: I haven’t disclosed our financial terms, whether they be current, past or future. We worked hard to maximize the opportunity for the Southeastern Conference, our universities, through this relationship.
Burke, it’s set in 2024 there’s going to be the 3:30 game every Saturday, SEC game, and there’s going to be several in primetime. You think half a dozen? How many primetime? Can you make an educated guess?
BURKE MAGNUS: Yeah, I think that’s in the realm there. I think we all know that there’s many weeks where there’s several high-quality games from the conference slate available. By the way, I should also sort of underscore the flexibility applies to the game quality as well. I mean, we’re not making draft picks anymore, so to speak, under this model, right? The best game could just as easily be at 3:30 as in primetime. Oftentimes it’s hard to determine what the best game is because you’re picking among several high-quality games. I think more often we’ll be making decisions based on where we think the best audience opportunity is to maximize exposure for us and for the conference. But I would put that as a fair estimate. There’s no way to know because it would vary year to year based on really just the quality of the particular matchups. I have no doubt that the SEC will deliver on that aspect of it.
Burke, a slightly goofy question for you. Is there any way you guys would be interested in trying to purchase the rights to the CBS theme music for college football, which has been around since the late ’80s?
BURKE MAGNUS: I think this has come up on every interview, so it’s apparently not that goofy a question (smiling). Again, I have tremendous respect for CBS. The coverage they’ve provided the conference for so many years has been outstanding. That theme music is part of it. I’m as big a college football fan as anybody. I enjoy it the same way other fans do. It’s iconic. I’m not in the music business. I don’t even know, like, what’s possible necessarily or who owns it. I do understand the special place it holds among SEC fans. Who knows. I’m quite confident we’ll come up with a really awesome, innovative presentation of the highest caliber and the highest quality for the SEC on our networks, including ABC. You guys all know the roster of talent that we employ. You know there’s so many people under our roof that have an SEC pedigree. Just look at the video that rolled at the beginning of this press conference. The conference, it’s in our blood, despite the fact we’re Yankees up here in Connecticut. But we’re going to do a great job at the highest caliber and highest quality for our presentation, I have no doubt about that.
Quotes from today’s SEC Network segment featuring Sankey, Magnus and on-air commentators Laura Rutledge, Kirk Herbstreit, Maria Taylor and Rece Davis:
On what this means to the SEC
Sankey: Our athletic programs are embedded in our university campuses and really, there are three parts of the support that is derived on those university campuses. We have had science buildings, scholarships funded, faculty positions supported within those athletics programs, even though we’re focused with this agreement on football and men’s basketball.
Right now, I walk out of my office and I see seven national championship trophies with football and baseball as part of it, but I see cross country too, and that support is very important. And then that flows to our student athletes to support that success, more and more is expected of us and of intercollegiate athletics, and so the ability to meet the challenges of mental wellness support of adapting learning opportunities in a new environment, of supporting the overall physical health of young people helping them make career transition, all of that is derived from the support. Some of it tied to our media rights and the ability to know what our future will look like, with that Disney logo next to the SEC logo is really a special moment for me knowing what it means for our future.
On what this means for ESPN and Disney
Magnus: This is great for The Walt Disney Company. It’s great for ESPN. This is really a 1+1=3 deal. Everybody’s going to benefit and Greg named some of the constituents. Obviously ESPN from a business perspective and SEC from an exposure perspective, with student-athletes getting in front of as many people as possible. And the institutions for advancing their mission. So we’re really excited at the prospect of having all the SEC content in one place. And now, including ABC on the broadcast network side and ESPN+ on our emerging direct-to-consumer business, to be able to be flexible with scheduling to advantage maximum exposure, but also fan convenience is really some of the key elements to this. 2000 events annually now in the combined agreements, and lest I forget there’s the SEC Network, which is the full-time, 24/7/365 home for SEC content, which is critically important as well. Having it all in one place will advantage all of us to advance the cause of the SEC and their institutions.
Why the SEC went with ESPN
Sankey: The lead up to this moment is years in the making, and a lot of that thought directed us towards the approach of our fans and the ability to be consistent across platforms under Disney, having ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN+ now, and SEC Network. It allows us to set some things in advance for our fans to know. For instance, during the summertime, right around half of our kickoff times [are announced and] that helps bring people into our venues, which helps make those games more intense and exciting. For us, the ability to present an entire day across platforms, moving away from some of the exclusivity we’ve experienced in our current agreements, was an asset also knowing that it’s not simply broadcast TV or cable or satellite TV or even this new digital experience that we all enjoy. None of those are exclusive silos. We have to be attached to a sophisticated company that has all of those assets and will be presenting SEC content through all of those assets. In fact, for us, this was an opportunity to actually have more presentation of SEC football games and men’s basketball games via broadcast network, ABC in this case. And all of that helps us engage our fans in a modern era and actually present our games in very much a seamless fashion moving forward.
About scheduling flexibility
Magnus: For us, it’s about maximizing exposure, putting the biggest games and the best matchups in the best places to maximize audience. But there’s a fan component to it as well. Greg referenced it, in the previous setup, the entire process in football has to work around that first selection, which delays timing and contains some exclusivities that now get stripped away. And frankly, being able to lock in kick times on a much earlier timeframe is advantageous to fans. And being able to react as best we can to institutions who would prefer playing in primetime or playing in the afternoon, depending on the circumstance to be respectful of campus traditions as much as possible. But at the end of day for us, it’s about getting as many eyeballs and expanding the audience for SEC content and being able to do that in a seamless fashion across the assets of one company. The thing that excites us, like I said, it’s a sort of a win-win-win and 1+1=3. It’s going to be a boon for SEC fans, then the institutions, the student-athletes and also from a business perspective.
“I just cannot believe what a big deal and big opportunity this is for ESPN and ABC. We’ve been lucky; I’ve been doing that Saturday Night Football package now for 15 years, starting back in 2006 and we’ve had a lot of huge moments and great moments. But I’ll be very honest, College GameDay travels to so many big games in the SEC: LSU, Alabama, the Iron Bowl, the SEC Championship. Just so many marquee matchups that you’re in there for the morning and then you fly off to go to another site. To have an opportunity to call some of these games in the conference that I’ve always had so much respect for, I can’t even really put it into words what a huge opportunity this is for our company. I know everyone is incredibly excited and appreciative of this relationship that we’ve already had, but just kind of taking it to a whole different level.”
“It just reminds me that the SEC, to me, is so much more than just competition, it’s really about opportunities. I know being a former student-athlete of the SEC, that I’m able to do the job that I do today because I went to the University of Georgia, because I was able to be a part of the SEC Network that launched in 2014. That’s going to mean a lot to these college students who we have seen have a very big impact. We’ve seen what they’ve been able to do as we’re looking at the currents of change and their voices are going to continue to be amplified, as well as the play that we’ve come to know and expect from the SEC. So I’m really excited. As an SEC alum, to continue to see that that partnership growing between the place that I work and the place that I feel like I grew up and matured to become the person I am today, it’s just such a fun and exciting announcement to hear and look forward to in the coming years.”
“I think you look at the SEC, you look at the dominance that they’ve had in the last decade and a half and winning national championships and that is largely a product of the passion and the environment, and the importance that all of the institutions put on excellence in all aspects, but particularly in football. So we couldn’t be more excited. I think it’s a great partnership, a great opportunity for us to use a lot of synergy, to be able to tell stories throughout the day that covers from the very start of the morning on College GameDay all the way through the final game being played that night on one of the ESPN platforms. For us personally, when you go to an event where you are covering the entire thing, there’s just a real different type of energy; there are more opportunities. And there aren’t more places in the country where they love football more than they do in the SEC. And for College GameDay to be able to start in the morning at all of these great venues, to have the huge games and all of the rivalry games in the SEC, and to be able to carry it through the day whether it’s on ESPN, ESPN2, SEC Network, or any of our platforms [like] ESPN+, it’s a really exciting opportunity for us. And I’m really fired up about making sure that we’re at those great rivalry games every year.”
“It gives me chills, just to think about what this all is going to look like. It’s an incredibly special day for ESPN; this storied partnership continues in an even bigger way and as an SEC alum myself, I’m so incredibly thrilled to show the passion of this great conference right here on ESPN.”