Expansion has, for the foreseeable future, run its course. While college athletics is entering a period of widespread and uncertain change, the ACC has achieved stability. The biggest question facing the conference now is a simple one.
Has the time come for an ACC Network, an actual channel dedicated to the conference?
The easy answer is yes. There has never been a better time to start a sports network of any kind. Live sports moves the broadcast needle like nothing else. Demand among advertisers has never been higher. The increasingly astronomic rights fees broadcasters are paying reflect that.
Yet there are other considerations for the ACC, which is why the conference has taken a surprisingly equivocal tone about its television future – which will be decided alongside ESPN, which holds the conference’s rights through 2027, and could take another two or three years to shake out.
“You really have to look at it strategically from a business standpoint to determine whether it makes the most sense long term, because it’s a long-term decision,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said in an interview Sunday.
“It’s not something you get into and get out of real quickly. We want to be diligent. And by we, I’m talking about us, the league, but also ESPN. You don’t take that step unless you feel pretty confident it will be a successful business venture for both entities.”
The Big Ten was the first conference to launch its own network, in partnership with Fox, and turned the per-subscriber fee it charged cable and satellite providers into a revenue stream lucrative enough to coax Maryland out of the ACC. Four years ago, the ACC decided to stick with a mix of ESPN and its traditional Raycom syndication rather than pursue its own network, but the landscape continues to change.
With the addition of Louisville, the ACC has more television households and population in its geographic footprint than any other conference. Meanwhile, the market is booming, even if it turns out to be a bubble in the long term. Now appears to be the time to strike.
“I made a speech in 1985 where I said I think we’ve reached the end of our ability to pay rights fees,” said Neal Pilson, a former president of CBS Sports. “That didn’t prove to be the case. The value of sports programming, relative to other types of programming, has escalated, has increased, because of the live nature of it and the loyalty of the American public toward players and teams.”
Not everyone has cashed in. Start-up costs are astronomical. The University of Texas’ Longhorn Network has struggled. The Pac-12 Network is not widely available. And the ACC would have to buy back the rights to games ESPN has sublicensed to Raycom and Fox Sports.
Even a successful conference-specific channel always requires a tradeoff between exposure (on ESPN and other mass-market networks) and money (subscriber fees). For the ACC, that means weighing the reach of the so-called ACC Network, the rebranded Raycom syndication, against the financial benefits of an actual ACC Network. The relative success of ESPN’s newly launched SEC Network will have a lot to say about the direction the ACC goes.
“Time will tell,” Swofford said. “There’s at least a belief right now by what you see happening that a devoted conference channel is the way people seem to be going. We’re all a little different. From our standpoint, you don’t want to go down that road simply because it’s the fad or the sexy thing to be doing. You want to go down the road because you strongly believe it’s in the best interests of your conference.”
For now, the ACC will watch and wait. The decision about whether to start its own network is a big one. It’s one the ACC has to get right. Nothing the ACC does will have as much to say about the long-term future of the conference.