College Football Kickoff 2023: In 10th Season, SEC Network Continues To Travel Staple Shows With Week 1 Visit to Nashville
On Aug. 31, SEC Nation, Marty & McGee, Paul Finebaum Show were onsite for Missouri–South Dakota
There’s nothing quite like college football in the South. As the hub for all things Southeastern Conference (SEC) for the past decade, ESPN’s SEC Network will once again connect the conference’s 14 institutions with onsite productions of SEC Nation, Marty & McGee, and The Paul Finebaum Show every Friday and Saturday during the 2023 regular season.
“I don’t take each week for granted,” says Baron Miller, coordinating producer, SEC Network. “It never gets old watching Marty & McGee on a campus. I couldn’t be more excited about what we’re going to bring and surprise people with this year.”
Studio Team Descends on Nashville Prior to Tennessee-UVa at Nissan Stadium
To begin the new season, the SEC Network embarked on four productions — two of SEC Nation, two of Marty & McGee — in two separate locations in three days. On Thursday, Aug. 31, the team’s first official trip was to the campus of the University of Missouri in Columbia for its Week 1 tilt vs. the University of South Dakota. On SEC Nation’s first college-football Saturday, the team will be located at the heart of Nashville’s Lower Broadway between Fourth Avenue and Rep. John Lewis Way.
Since the turnaround time is extremely small, each site has a different host. Marty & McGee host Marty Smith pulled double duty as the host of SEC Nation in Missouri, and Laura Rutledge, in her seventh season hosting and eighth overall, will take the lead in Nashville on Saturday. Each will be joined by analysts Tim Tebow, Roman Harper, Jordan Rodgers, and Paul Finebaum.
Logistically, a big blowout in Nashville in Week 1 is easier to do since site surveys were done during the offseason. A lot of coordination with city officials was necessary to obtain the appropriate permits and spacing in Nashville, but the more run-and-gun style of deciding where to go each week is where the real challenges lie.
“I think where it gets tricky,” says Miller, “is those decisions when Team A gets blown out and we were planning on going there but Team B has a great game and now we really need to go there. On the other hand, the campuses know our footprint, and we know who to talk to.”
This stage of the process takes a lot of trust, planning, and communication between SEC Network Senior Operations Producer Brett Ward and the schools’ contacts in their respective facilities, security, and operations departments. As with live production, elements of a college campus change all the time. For example, the show’s usual location at the University of Kentucky is closed due to construction this season.
“The operations team and our director had to go out there during the summer,” says Miller. “Sometimes, there’s something going on that weekend and we can’t take up their parking spots. Obstacles pop up.”
As for production at each site, Thursday night’s show was produced via REMI from SEC Network’s headquarters in Charlotte, NC, with Coordinating Producer Pete Watters and Associate Director Jill Krebs at the helm. As for Saturday morning’s festivities in Music City, Live Media Group HDX-2 Lucie is at the center of efforts; in previous seasons, HDX-2 Gracie handled these shows. Working from the truck, Miller and Supervising Director Brian Hegner will handle SEC Nation, and Producer Randy Heritage and Hegner will handle Marty & McGee.
Major Priority: Keep Content Fresh for Fans in Attendance
The SEC has a deep and undying connection to the sport of football as well as to its individual campuses. Over the past three years, SEC Nation and Marty & McGee have captivated fanbases but face a major challenge: to not churn out the same content over and over. The goal is to give students reasons to wake up early on Saturday mornings to come out to the set.
“For us to ask a student or a family member to come out at 8:00 a.m., it’s very important that we entertain them and make it worth their while,” says Miller. “We’re putting out a lot of energy during our commercial breaks to get close to the fans, and that’s something that we want to do more of. We don’t take it lightly that we’re coming to a campus and expecting people to show up; we have to offer them something.”
The network’s on-campus impact can be seen on Fridays as well. During #FinebaumFridays, the onsite Friday edition of The Paul Finebaum Show, crowds show up for those shows as well. In addition, Finebaum also has student beat reporters join him on the show for a more localized take.
Two factors contribute significantly to SEC Network’s success: the on-air studio team interacts with the crowd, and the talent genuinely get along well. For a hyper-focused show dedicated to diehard college-football fans, it’s key that the talent know the game, but. more important, their chemistry makes each show authentic.
“You won’t find a group [of talent] that’s warmer to a production and operations crew,” notes Miller. “Decisions need to be made, but there isn’t a hierarchy on ideas or how we treat people. That’s not always the case on a lot of crews.”
Additional Broadcast Tech: Live Drone, LED Screen for Remote Interviews
If highlighting the diverse campuses of every SEC school weren’t enough, each show has a hefty arsenal of more than 10 broadcast cameras. Most weeks, 16 cameras are deployed, including RF handhelds, a Steadicam jib, and multiple POVs. In Nashville, the complement will be expanded to 18 with a live drone and a camera installed on the large spire outside Bridgestone Arena. Used in recent years on SEC Nation, the drone will take to the skies to capture cinematic shots of the surrounding area, including a flythrough of the crew on the set with the cheering fans in the background, various sites on each sprawling campus, and preparations taking place inside an empty stadium. The broadcast will also leverage shared resources, including two cameras that will be used for the University of Tennessee vs. University of Virginia game at Nissan Stadium and five inbound paths from games being shown on ESPN platforms.
New this year, talent on the set will have a brand-new LED screen. Dubbed the JoeTron, named after retired operations producer Joe Caricone, the massive monitor can serve multiple uses: for example, celebrities and other guests that aren’t onsite can be interviewed on the show, and analysts can break down big plays from previous weeks.
A Decade in the Biz: SEC Network Helps Prepare Next Generation of Pros
A lot can happen in 10 years, and the SEC Network has stood strong amidst many changes in college sports. Not only has it maintained its massive following through television viewership and attendance at the in-person studio shows, but it has also made the effort to educate up-and-coming professionals: team members — including Rutledge, Director/Associate Director Ashlee Perry, and Director, Public Relations, Amanda Brooks — have spoken to classes, and students have been allowed to visit the truck to understand aspects of a broadcast.
“I love ideas,” says Miller, “and no one has better perspective than the next generation of people who are going to be doing what we do. So we want them to be involved in the truck. We’re big on our talent, camera operators, and other areas of our broadcasts speaking to different groups because we want to be inclusive and diverse.”
As demonstrated throughout the nation over the past few weeks, constant change and conference re-alignment have become an inevitable part of the college-football landscape. The SEC has stayed the same since Texas A&M University and Mizzou joined in 2012, but, next year, the addition of University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma will stretch the conference to 16 programs, This final year of 14 schools, as well as the expansion of the College Football Playoff, will see a mixture of nostalgia for what was and anticipation for what’s to come.
“This is going to be the last season of college football as we know it,” adds Miller. “It’s going to be pretty cool to experience this season with the same group of talent, so we want to embrace it.”