FAYETTEVILLE — The space was nothing more than a storage area a year ago, crammed with a collection of unusual artifacts and junk. Mostly junk.
Mike Waddell, Arkansas’ senior associate athletic director for external relations, reeled off some of the findings in Bud Walton Arena. There were old desks and chairs, filing cabinets, tubas, and even an old bag phone straight out of the 1990s.
It didn’t really matter what was in the room, though. It was perfect for what Arkansas needed to create – a state of the art studio and control room.
"We took 13,000 square feet down there, finished off about 6,000 or 6,500 and turned it into, more or less, ESPN Fayetteville," said Waddell, who was named the senior associate athletic director at Illinois on Tuesday.
Arkansas is confident the work — as well as the financial investment of roughly $7 million — will begin to pay off tonight, when the SEC Network flips the switch to make its long-awaited debut at 5 p.m. It’s just the beginning for a network that will be available to roughly 90 million households, promises to provide more than 1,000 live events from every sport across 14 SEC campuses this year, and is expected to increase revenue for all conference schools.
Arkansas will have a significant role in the opening hours, too. Tonight’s Arkansas-Creighton women’s soccer exhibition will be the first sporting event available for streaming across the SEC Network’s digital platform. The SEC Network also is expected to provide live look-ins from the match, which begins at 7 p.m.
Waddell said the program is proud to be part of the historic moment.
"We now become the answer to a trivia question in 10, 20 years," Waddell said. "What was the first game ever seen — look-in or otherwise — on the SEC Network?"
Preparing has been an expensive process. Like every other SEC school, Arkansas pumped out millions to upgrade equipment, increase staff size, build control rooms and put together a studio to fit ESPN and the SEC Network’s needs.
The biggest expense, according to Waddell, was installing fiber optic lines that connected all of Arkansas’ sports venues to the control room in Bud Walton Arena. He said it was a "massive deal," but a technological improvement Arkansas needed.
"We hadn’t really invested in a lot of technology over a significant period of time," Waddell said. "So we’re basically going from maybe a step right above the VHS tape into state of the art digital. That’s just the best way to put it."
SEC Network content for both digital and linear platforms will be produced in the control rooms along with what Waddell called other "in-house" events. He estimated that roughly 200 special events — approximately 120 for the SEC Network and 80 for in-house purposes — will be produced at Arkansas this year.
The cost of the upgrades has been covered, according to Waddell. It wasn’t cheap, but Arkansas isn’t alone. Tennessee is building a $10 million studio, while Auburn has shelled out $5 million on upgrades, according to The Associated Press.
"We’ve done it smart," Waddell said of Arkansas’ work. "We didn’t overspend."
"SEC Now" will be the first program on the SEC Network tonight. The three-hour show begins at 5 p.m., will feature all 14 schools and the conference’s 21 sports. It is expected to include the live look-ins from the Arkansas soccer game.
There is other Arkansas-related content scheduled for the first two weeks as well.
A Razorbacks football preview is scheduled for Aug. 22 at 10:30 p.m., while a "best of" Arkansas block begins at midnight on Aug. 24. The "best of" block includes the SEC Storied feature on former basketball coach Nolan Richardson and football games against LSU (2007), Tennessee (2006), South Carolina (2007) and LSU (2010). A 30-minute, all-access show on Arkansas football will be scheduled as well.
Arkansas first two football games — at Auburn on Aug. 30 and against Nicholls State on Sept. 6 — have been scheduled for SEC Network broadcasts. Meanwhile, two more Arkansas soccer (Utah State on Aug. 22 and Oklahoma State on Aug. 24) and volleyball (Tennessee State on Aug. 29 and Michigan on Aug. 30) matches will be available for streaming on the digital network this month.
"Live events will be the focus of the network," SEC commissioner Mike Slive said at SEC Media Days last month. "We’re talking about football and it’s football season, but football is just one of the sports the network will cover."
Waddell — who credited a 10-person staff that includes Michelle Glover, director of broadcast services — said tonight’s debut will be "everything that makes being in this side of the business great." There will be some tense moments in the production room, of course, but celebration after the first live event ends.
It won’t last long. There’s much more coming on the SEC Network.
"Get ready because there’s another broadcast in eight days," Waddell said.