Earlier this week a production team from the SEC Network slipped quietly onto the campus of Mercer University in Macon, Georgia to film the opening shots for SEC Nation, the SEC Network's new tailgating show. Given ESPN's involvement with the network (the folks from Bristol have a deal to operate the SEC Network for the next 20 years) it's obviously not accurate to call this an "answer" to Game Day. But it will clearly be one of the most watched and analyzed programming items on the new network, the flagship show for the flagship sport, coverage of which will be the first real test for the fledgling collaboration between the Worldwide Leader in Sports and the worldwide leader in college football.
When it kicks off on August 28th, the entire operation will be quarterbacked by Producer Joe Disney, an Athens native who comes to the SEC Network from another ESPN venture, the Longhorn Network. It will fall to him to manage the story lines, the camera angles, and the information going to hosts and analysts like Joe Tessitore and Tim Tebow. During a break from production, Joe took a few minutes to talk about what fans can expect from the show that will go a long way toward defining the image of the SEC Network.
MD: Why Mercer University in Macon, Georgia when there are so many great campuses in the SEC?
Disney: The idea was to create kind of a tailgate scene, a party. That's the goal of SEC Nation is to kind of go to the party, to show off the great atmosphere and pageantry that you see in the conference rather than creating a scene. Plus it's a little unfair to go to one SEC school and not the other 13. So we wanted to identify a great spot to do it television-wise. Picturesque. Pretty. So we did a search around the Atlanta area because there are a lot of alumni and fans in the area. Then we saw this (gestures around Mercer's expansive Cruz Plaza, ringed by century-old oaks and brick buildings) and just fell in love with it instantly. It's a gorgeous location, close to Atlanta. We got three different scenes with different kinds of college flavor within a hundred yards here. So you really couldn't ask for more from a behind the scenes TV aspect.
MD: So it's pleasant and neutral, sort of the Switzerland of SEC country?
Disney: Haha yeah. Yeah but they have a good football team here (Editor's note: I like to think this was a burn on the Swiss soccer team. I really, hope that's what he meant). The goal in the end would be when you see this music video would won't be able to tell where it is. It just kind of feels like it could be any one of the SEC schools.
MD: I was talking to some of the guys from the band (Robert Randolph and the Family Band, who provided the theme music fro SEC Nation, and with whom we'll talk later this week) and it's interesting, as a Bulldog fan, we listen to a lot of those guys on Saturdays. It just feels like a natural choice. Was that a conscious decision, to go with a group who really gained a lot of their following touring the "SEC circuit?"
Disney: To be honest, with the band and the song, that happened before I jumped on. But the ESPN music department knew this was coming and had already picked some songs, gave them to our executives, they picked a bunch but liked this one the best. From there it was a collaboration because the lyrics were all custom, except for a couple of the choruses, to us and the show, with an SEC feel. Not only about the fourteen schools but about the conference and the SEC Championship, so it was a fun process to work directly with the band, guys calling me at 10:00 at night going over lyrics and music changes.
MD: What's one feature of this production and the intro that you're shooting today that's most cool?
Disney: We have one snare drummer from all fourteen schools here to form an All-SEC drumline. I thought it was pretty cool. It just shows the power of this conference, that these guys are out there and there are rivalries but they set it all aside and they're here working, learning, and hanging out being a part of this sort of music video. And you see the whole SEC drumline, all the colors (Editor's note: He ain't lying, I obviously can't show you yet but the finished product was pretty awesome).
MD: And just to be clear, these are not actors with SAG cards, these are actual drummers from the actual bands?
Disney: Yeah. These guys came into Macon from all the schools to be here. They're the real deal.
MD: This show, with its football focus, seems like it's going to be a centerpiece of SEC Network programming.
Disney: People can't get enough SEC football. And the network's going to cover everything, but when you kick off in the fall with college football that's what we're attacking. We'll be great with college basketball, baseball, softball. Gymnastics of course is huge in the SEC. All are going to get their due time and priority and excitement. But obviously it's the fall, and it's football season.
MD: One of the things a lot of folks have been impressed with with the network is that the on air talent not only has southern ties, but SEC ties. In some cases they've played SEC football, they've been around and covered SEC football for years. How important is that?
Disney: It's huge. Fans and viewers of the SEC want to hear those SEC alumni and players, who know the conference, who played it and lived it. They want to hear from people who've been in Athens, or the Swamp, or Neyland Stadium. There's just no one better to talk about those environments and the intensity than guys who have actually done it.
MD: Has there been any thought given to having Jesse Palmer and Josh Murray offer dating advise? It seems like the SEC is the clear leader in competitive dating.
Disney: Honestly, I hadn't thought about that before. May have to file that one away.
MD: The idea is all yours for a very reasonable royalty, my friend. What kind of focus is the show going to have? Is it going to cover things like music and tailgating, or is it all football all the time?
Disney: I think it's going to be everything that you want out of a Saturday morning tailgate. You're listening to music, having good food, so we're going to show off the music, the food, the sceneries, the RVs and elaborate tailgates that people have. But obviously it's football Saturday, so we're talking football. So it's about finding the right mix of it all. In the end you want to know why you're team's going to win or struggle and what the keys to the game are. We'll have features on some of the personalities in the conference. our little slogan is that "we want to go join the party." It's already going on, we just want to show it off.
MD: Is the show going to have more of a studio or an on-site focus?
Disney: SEC Nation will be on-site. It's going to be all about football Saturdays.
MD: Obviously that's your focus, but has there been any talk of importing this model over to basketball or baseball coverage? Obviously both of those are big at certain SEC schools as well.
Disney: Longterm we're obviously talking about it. But right now we're pretty singularly focused on football. (Editor's note: You and me both, brother). But we'll eventually show off all those sports in their different forms.
I came away from the interview, and my time on the set, with the feeling that ESPN is actually trying to produce a southern football show, rather than a show about football that will happen in the South. The distinction will be immediately obvious to SEC football fans. For example, my walk around the scene included a conversation with one member of the production team about legendary Tennessee quarterback Condredge Holloway. For the long term success of the project I think that kind of thing is critical.
The fans you'll see in the intro to SEC Nation are actual SEC fans. Really, I verified it. We talked Manziel and Auburn and Hutson Mason and barbecue, too. I spoke to a large contingent of Texas A&M fans, who easily outnumbered all other fan bases. A group of older Aggies from north Georgia brought their children and grandchildren after seeing on the ex-student website that ESPN needed extras (Texas A&M apparently has "ex-students"). There were also Aggies playing corn hole, Aggies smoking brisket in the parking lot behind Mercer's fraternity row, and Aggies drinking coffee because they'd been there since 7 a.m.
But I also met Bulldog, Gator, and LSU Tiger fans who found out about the shoot. My sense is that ESPN is taking seriously this task of integrating SEC Nation into the SEC football landscape, taking it to the party rather than trying to be the party and drawing everything to the show. If they play it right, that's going to help the show gain acceptance. And convincing SEC fan bases that SEC Nation is a big deal, something that they want to be a part of when it comes to town, will go a long way toward making sure the SEC Network is still around in 20 years.
I'll be back tomorrow to talk to the guys who made the music that will kick off your SEC Saturdays, and to share some more photos from behind the scenes of SEC Nation. Until later . . .