ATLANTA — When the first game of the ACC tournament tips off this afternoon, as always, there will be two broadcast teams at center court, one from ESPN, one from the ACC Network.
It's been that way for years, with the ACC Network - formerly known as Raycom - carrying the game in ACC markets, and ESPN carrying the game nationally, with that broadcast blacked out in ACC territory.
Today, when Wake Forest takes on Maryland at noon, both broadcasts will be available in the Triangle: one on WRAL, the other on ESPNU. The same is true for the other 10 games of the tournament, right down to Sunday's championship game, pitting Dick Vitale and ESPN against the traditional home of ACC basketball in a battle for viewers for the first time in the Triangle and throughout ACC country.
"How many people will watch on which network, we still don't know," Raycom president and CEO Ken Haines said. "We should know at some point after the tournament. It's obviously good for the conference to have this type of exposure. It's probably the only conference that has this dual exposure of the same events."
For decades, going back to the earliest days of ACC basketball on television, the ACC sold its basketball rights to Raycom, which sold the national rights to ESPN. Those ESPN broadcasts were blacked out in Raycom territory.
That changed when ESPN came up with $1.86 billion in the conference's new television deal, which came into effect this year. At the ACC's insistence, Raycom was retained as a partner - rebranded as the ACC Network - but ESPN is now the alpha dog.
So while Raycom will continue to broadcast ACC tournament games on its affiliates, like WRAL in the Raleigh-Durham market, those same games will also be available on ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPNU in ACC markets for the first time.
"That's a terrific thing for our league, and for fans, I think," ACC commissioner John Swofford said. "We couldn't be more pleased, in terms of the relationship among the three entities, as well as the resulting exposure that our teams get because of that relationship. We're the biggest benefactor, the ACC and our fans."
In February, when Duke faced North Carolina in Chapel Hill, both ESPN and the ACC Network carried the game, but ESPN wasn't blacked out in ACC Network markets for the first time. Almost 310,000 households watched in the Raleigh-Durham market. WRAL averaged a 20.8 rating and ESPN a 6.6.
The rematch last weekend was available exclusively on ESPN, and underlines what's at stake: Nationally, the game's 3.1 rating was the best for a college basketball game since the March 2008 Duke-UNC game and had the fourth-most viewers since 1990. In the Triangle, it did a 20.9 - the highest since ESPN started keeping records in 2002. Those numbers translate into big money for broadcasters.
"We're kind of each doing our own thing," said Nick Dawson, ESPN's director of programming and acquisitions. "Certainly there's going to be some people that watch the game on our network and some that watch on theirs. It's sort of the nature of the beast with the coexist model.
"I don't look at it as competition. It's great to put the games on nationally, because that's the business we're in. And it's great for the fans. They have two ways to watch it and we'll let them pick which one."
Back to the '60s
Raycom, which is the direct descendent of the original, innovative C.D. Chesley broadcasts that put the ACC at the forefront of sports television in the '60s and '70s, did obtain the right to syndicate its games outside of ACC markets for the first time, adding about 50 affiliates as far away as California, Colorado and Iowa, in big markets like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Cleveland and New Orleans.
As for the longstanding regional affiliates, like Capitol Broadcasting's WRAL and WRAZ, any concern about the new competition from ESPN is tempered by faith in viewer loyalty that goes back decades.
"Viewers watch their hometown teams on their hometown station," WRAL station manager Jim Rothschild said. "WRAL has a tradition of being the Triangle's ACC station for decades."
Additionally, there are still the 11 percent of households that don't get cable or satellite. For them, over-the-air stations like WRAL are the only option. The same is true of Thursday's games for homes that have basic cable and don't get ESPNU.
A similar battle for viewers will be carried out online, where ESPN will feed content to its WatchESPN app and website and Raycom will do the same with its own ACC Network app and website. According to ESPN, the Feb. 8 Duke-UNC game was the most-watched college basketball game ever on that network's online platforms.
DeCock: (919) 829-8947 or twitter.com/LukeDeCock