In recent years at the ACC spring meetings, league commissioner John Swofford and athletic directors from member schools have deftly danced around questions about conference expansion and/or realignment and the status of the ACC Network. During the past seven or eight springs, those topics dominated talk surrounding the meetings, if not the actual meetings themselves.
And this year? Well, this year it’s going to be a little bit different.
The conference convenes on Monday at the Amelia Island Ritz-Carlton, and for the first time in a good while – more than 10 years, perhaps – neither conference expansion nor the prospect of a television channel will be among the main attractions. In fact, it’s difficult to even ponder what the headliner of these meetings might be.
Here’s a look, though, at potential talking points over the next few days:
1. The state of the ACC Network given ESPN’s continued (relative) struggles.
At these same meetings last year, ACC officials and ESPN executives arranged a covert-ops-like rendezvous at the Ritz, where over several secret meetings-within-the-meetings, they wrapped up a deal to at least announce the creation of the ACC Network, which will launch in 2019.
We know the network is coming in a few years. Swofford, after all, recently sent a statement to each of the league’s 15 schools to reassure them that the channel will in fact launch, despite ESPN’s continued troubles. Even so, ESPN’s troubles are real and are perhaps growing.
The network recently laid off approximately 100 employees, many of them high-profile television personalities and/or writers with whom ESPN’s audience had long grown familiar. To many in the sports journalism industry, the news and sight of those layoffs provided a cold reality that there is no safe haven – not even ESPN – in today’s rapidly changing media world.
The layoffs, which came after years of declining revenue while ESPN continues to lose subscribers as consumers cut their cable packages, raise questions about ESPN’s future, its business model and how it will continue to cover what it covers. As it relates to the ACC, we know the ESPN-backed ACC Network is coming in 2019.
Beyond that, we don’t know much about how such a channel will work, what it will be filled with (aside from the obvious) and how the ACC and ESPN plan to position it for maximum success in a digital world that’s evolving by the day. We’re only a couple of years away from 2019, but the way the public consumes live sports could change dramatically between now and then – and that will continue to change.
2. Is the college sports bubble about to burst?
The fact that these meetings are held annually at the Ritz – where you, too, can reserve a room tonight for, oh, $509 – tells you all you need to know about the health of major college sports. Business continues to boom while the money continues to roll in (and even if it wasn’t all too rosy, these meetings would likely go on at the Ritz, anyway, as has become the tradition).
There are signs, though, that the college sports bubble is about to burst. Wall Street 2008 this is not. And remember: the ACC’s deal with ESPN is set for nearly the next 20 years – through 2036. But if college sports were a stock right now, would anyone be buying? Or has the financial growth reached such a massive high that the only place to go is down?
As we’ve learned recently, not even ESPN is immune to difficult financial realities, and the vitality of the network gives life to its broadcast partners. For a while now, life has been good. Television revenues have continued to grow, and that growth has created wealth in college sports that might have been unimaginable a decade ago.
But now there isn’t as much growth. ESPN is trying to figure things out. The money tree that has been ever-growing rights fees is attempting to stay upright in a storm that’s likely to only become more fierce. The media landscape is changing dramatically, and when your business model is built on profiting from huge media rights deals, that’s problematic.
The question is where any of this goes from here, and that’s a question that’s impossible to answer. For now, at least, it appears as though the days of massive, skyrocketing revenue growth are over. And that could lead to an uncomfortable reality for people so accustomed to their business simply printing money.
3. The state of college basketball in an evolving media world.
The recent layoffs at ESPN educated us about a lot of realities in sports media these days and one of them was this: the network cares less and less about college basketball coverage. There’s simply no other way to spin it, based on the people the network decided to let go.
ESPN laid off the core of its college basketball reporting team. Sure, the network is still going to cover games. It will still promo the North Carolina-Duke rivalry endlessly when it’s time to do that, and it’ll still broadcast championship week from tiny gyms around the country. But it’s clear, too, that ESPN won’t emphasize college basketball coverage the way it has in the past.
Maybe that’s a problem for the ACC and maybe it isn’t. This is a league, though, that was built on college basketball – and one that has attempted to stay true to those roots as much as possible in this football-first world. The moves ESPN made have to be of concern for the league’s basketball coaches, especially for those who aren’t as high-profile, perhaps, as Roy Williams or Mike Krzyzewski.
Those guys would probably be OK with less of a media spotlight. There are others, though, who embrace coverage and depend on it, to a degree, because their programs need the attention. Now there are several fewer national college writers and reporters to provide it and, beyond that, ESPN’s personnel decisions show that day-to-day college basketball coverage isn’t a priority.
That’s bad news for a sport that has already become a distant afterthought to football.
4. How to capitalize on the league’s football emergence.
You can make an argument that the ACC is the best football conference in the country. Five years ago that would have been a laughable assertion to make. About seven or eight years ago, when the league was struggling to win prominent bowl games, you could have more reasonably argued the conference was on the brink of collapse (though those arguments were always silly, as well).
The question now is how the ACC further strengthens itself in football. The most important part of that equation can only happen on the field. There are other things the league can do, though, to help. David Teel reported the league this week will likely discuss enhancing the Week 1 football schedule in effort to provide a more enticing product in time for the launch of the ACC Network.
Speaking of scheduling, I’d take this a step further: The ACC should follow an SEC-like scheduling model in which some of the games are played year after the year at the same point in the schedule. Florida and Tennessee, for example, always play on the third Saturday in September. Alabama and LSU usually always play during the first week of November. In time such familiarity breeds tradition.
The ACC also has to figure out a way for cross-divisional teams to play more often. The league didn’t discuss this at the spring meetings last year, and might not this year, but the lack of cross-divisional action – outside of the designated rivalry game – hurts the ACC’s ability to develop compelling conference games.
Take UNC’s dramatic victory at Florida State last season, for instance. It was thrilling, captivating theater, with Nick Weiler making a 54-yard field goal as time expired. When the kick sailed through the uprights, Weiler tomahawk-chopped his way around the field while his teammates chased him. Undoubtedly the Seminoles will have that on their minds during the rematch in … 2021.