The ACC Network launches this week, signaling a new era with new questions

During the weeks and months leading to the launch of the ACC Network, the people behind it have promoted both the scope of the coverage it promises and the breadth of its technical extravagance. There will be deeply-reported documentaries, they’ve said. And constant coverage of basketball. And, also, “robotic Vinten camera pedestals” and “26 2 LED lighting fixtures,” according to a recent jargon-filled release lauding the network’s new studio.

The ACC Network, created in partnership with ESPN, will soon become a reality. It launches on Aug. 22 at 7 p.m., broadcast from Studio G, a 2800-square foot space on the ESPN campus in Bristol, Conn. The debut will culminate a long-awaited moment of arrival that will help shape the future of the ACC, and define the legacy of John Swofford, the conference’s longtime commissioner who led the league through years of uncertainty.

The old questions, about whether the network would exist, have been replaced by ones about distribution, programming and, most central to the network’s unstated mission, long-term profitability. So goes the end of one journey and the start of a new one. And yet to understand the significance of the network’s arrival is to understand the context of its journey, which began a decade ago in a time when Swofford wondered who he could trust.

For years questions followed him, speculation about the potential demise of the ACC — “a lot of crazy stuff,” Swofford, the league’s commissioner since 1997, said recently. The rumors persisted throughout the late 2000s and early 2010s: Clemson and Florida State to the Big 12; maybe North Carolina and Virginia to the Big Ten; the specter that other conferences might plunder the ACC the same way the ACC did the old Big East.

When Maryland announced in 2012 that it was leaving the ACC for the Big Ten, it reinforced the perception of the ACC’s vulnerability. For Swofford, friendly faces turned into potential adversaries. The commissioners of major conferences form a small fraternity; their paths often cross. About a decade ago, amid the massive realignment that swept through college athletics, those commissioners all had reason to be wary of each other.

At the places where they gathered, Swofford tried to read his rivals. During a July interview he smiled at the memory. Now it was long in the past. In the moment, though, it was like poker, wondering if the player across the table held a flush or nothing at all. Swofford described the game like this:

“You’re sitting in meetings together and it’s like, ‘What’s this guy doing? What’s he up to?’

“It was very uncomfortable,” he said. “Because, while you pretty much thought you knew that most of it was not going to happen, there’s always that little doubt that, well, if the extreme comes about, there’s a really small possibility that it could happen.”

It was in that environment, in the middle of 2009, that Swofford first explored the possibility of a television channel devoted to the ACC. That summer, he called Dean Jordan, a Raleigh-based executive with the Wasserman Media Group. Jordan’s expertise was, and is, in sports media rights negotiations.

As Swofford recalled, he asked Jordan “to put together some financials,” and to provide an analysis of whether a network would be a worthwhile pursuit for the ACC. During a recent phone interview, Jordan remembered the discussion as “a general conversation that just kind of grew from there.”

Ten years after that casual talk, the network is here. One older question has lingered: What took so long?

Announcing the ACC network

During the early-to-mid 2010s, speculation about an ACC-dedicated television channel became a running joke between Swofford and reporters covering the league. Every year, during his state-of-the-ACC press conferences before football and basketball season, Swofford received questions about a TV channel. And every year, he provided the same vague non-answers that only hinted at the possibility.

Nonetheless, it seemed not a question of if the ACC would launch a channel, but when, and how. When the formal announcement came in the summer of 2016, the news felt anticlimactic. There was not so much a sense of surprise, but instead of inevitability — that this was expected all along.

One of the main questions, then, was what took so long. The Big Ten launched its network, in partnership with Fox Sports, in 2007. ESPN’s Longhorn Network, which focuses on the University of Texas athletics, began airing in 2011. The Pac-12 launched its network, which it owns and operates, in 2012. ESPN’s SEC Network launched in 2014.

The ACC, meanwhile, waited. In some ways, that wait became a running joke of its own, and a catalyst for criticism.

“There have been people who don’t quite understand the business who sometimes have been critical as to why the network hasn’t launched before now, and that’s so unfair because the climate wasn’t right,” Jordan said. “John (Swofford) just couldn’t force a network, you know, you had to have a partner that the timing was right for them.”

The process has taken as long as it has, Jordan said, because of a few reasons: for one, the ACC’s so-called “inventory” — its schools, and the games they play — weren’t as attractive a decade ago as they are now, especially in football. Clemson was not yet a national power. Florida State and Miami had regressed from their glory years of the 1980s and ‘90s.

The geography of the league was different, too. In the late 2000s, the ACC was a 12-team conference concentrated in the southeast, with a northeastern outpost of Boston College. Swofford approached the ACC’s next round of expansion, in the early 2010s, the same way he had approached the first one of his tenure, almost a decade earlier. Both times, the pursuit of television revenue drove expansion.

The difference, though, is that the idea of a network — and not simply the thought of more lucrative television rights deals — drove the second round. In 2011, the ACC announced the additions of Pittsburgh and Syracuse. They officially left the Big East to join the ACC in 2013.

In the fall of 2012, the ACC announced that Notre Dame was joining in all sports except for football, but that it would nonetheless play five football games per season against ACC schools. That, too, made the conference a more attractive television property.

Then, months after the Notre Dame announcement, came an unexpected disruption: the news of Maryland’s plan to join the Big Ten. It underscored a time of upheaval in college athletics, with moves that defied tradition and endless speculation about schools divorcing old conferences to join new ones.

Swofford acted quickly. A week after Maryland’s announcement, he lined up Louisville as a replacement. Not long after, in the spring of 2013, the ACC’s members agreed to a grant of media rights, which meant that a school could not leave the ACC without forfeiting the value of its media rights to the conference. Essentially, it bound the league’s 15 members to each other.

“And then that started the process,” Jordan said, speaking of the ACC Network. “That’s when it really started for good.”

North Carolina coach Roy Williams directs his team on defense during the first half against Auburn during their NCAA Sweet 16 matchup on Friday, March 29, 2019 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri. Robert Willett

Coaches like Roy Williams become pitchmen

In recent weeks and months, both the conference and ESPN have, predictably, hyped the network’s impending arrival. An exhaustive advertising campaign launched, replete with the ACC Network’s amorphous slogan: “We Do This.” The conference has turned some of its schools’ most prominent coaches into pitchmen, urging fans to demand that their cable providers distribute the network.

During one such spot, posted to Twitter, Roy Williams, the UNC basketball coach, looks into the camera and tells fans to go to a website to check whether their cable providers are carrying the network. “And if not,” Williams says, “contact your cable provider, and let them know that you don’t want to miss a single Tar Heel basket.”

One week before the launch of the ACC Network, it was available nationally on DirecTV, and through three streaming services: Hulu Live, PlayStation Vue and YouTube TV. It was available, too, through Spectrum, a linear cable provider, owned by Charter, that is the dominant carrier throughout North Carolina. In some ways the Spectrum deal, announced on Aug. 14, personified the last-minute nature of television negotiations.

Before it happened, ACC and network officials had downplayed the relative lack of distribution through traditional cable providers. Those officials articulated a need for patience, while pointing to the deals in place with DirecTV and the streaming services.

“We are having productive conversations with distributors outside of the ones that have already been announced,” Rosalyn Durant, an ESPN senior vice president for college networks, said during a recent conference call with reporters. “Those conversations continue and will continue through launch and beyond launch.”

She added that fans demanding the network, and their “readiness to switch” if their provider isn’t carrying it, “gives notice.” That the ACC hasn’t secured more distribution deals with traditional carriers isn’t necessarily abnormal. Distribution negotiations between networks and providers are often slow, Jordan said, and sometimes extend past a network’s launch.

“I’ve been part of launches before, literally, where a deal got done six hours before the launch,” he said. “So there’s still plenty of time to flip the switch for the network to go on the air. It has traditionally been this way.”

Still, even with the Spectrum announcement, distribution for the ACC Network is behind where the SEC Network was at the same point before its launch. In the month before it began airing five years ago, the SEC Network secured deals with Cox and Charter, which gave the network a reported reach of more than 90 million potential viewers.

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ACC Network officials have not detailed its projected reach upon the launch. Comparisons to the past, though, aren’t necessarily fruitful, given the ever-changing landscape of media consumption. There are more streaming options than there were five years ago, for instance, and while linear cable distribution is an important way to reach viewers, it is far from the only way, as it once was.

That reality, then, has led to an obvious question: why favor a traditional distribution model in the first place? Why not allow potential viewers — and ESPN’s research has shown the ACC Network’s potential subscriber base to be the youngest among the Power Five conferences, and therefore the most adept to technology — to access the network through a more modern, “a la carte” model, like the one successfully used by HBO?

In June, one ESPN executive, Stacie McCollum, dismissed the idea of going a la carte.

“No, no,” she said when asked about it. “We’re committed to a linear network. We think there’s enough demand for a linear network so right now, no. We’re full systems go with the linear network.”

Duke’s Zion Williamson (1) laughs with ESPN’s Allison Williams after Duke’s 84-72 victory over Syracuse in the quarterfinals of the 2019 ACC Tournament in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, March 14, 2019. Ethan Hyman

ACC Network’s purpose? Generating money

The number of potential viewers will determine to what degree, and how quickly, the ACC closes the widening financial gap with the SEC and Big Ten. Five years ago, the Power Five conferences were, financially, not all that far apart. They all distributed between $17.6 million and $25.7 million to their member schools.

Since then, tiers have emerged within the Power Five. Last year the Big Ten, thanks to the success of its cable network, distributed nearly $54 million to each of its member schools that received a full share of conference revenue (Maryland and Rutgers did not). The SEC, thanks to the success of its cable network, distributed about $43 million to each of its members.

Without a network, the ACC last year distributed an average of $29.5 million to each member school that received a full share of revenue. During the past five years, the conference has doubled its overall revenue — from $232.5 million to $464.7 million — but even that hasn’t allowed it to keep pace with the Big Ten and the SEC.

More than anything, the purpose of the ACC Network is to generate money, and to keep the conference’s schools financially competitive with its rivals in other conferences. Yet closing that financial gap, even a little bit, will depend in part on the ACC Network’s success and reach. The financial gains will not be realized overnight, or perhaps even over a couple of years.

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Every ACC school has already invested resources to build on-campus studios in preparation of the ACC Network. The construction of the studios was mandatory though, as McCollum, the ESPN executive, put it, “it’s up to them, what they spend.” That might have been true, in theory, though McCollum acknowledged that schools needed to have the necessary equipment to facilitate digital broadcasts.

The studios have not been cheap, though some schools saved costs by renovating existing facilities. N.C. State did that and still spent approximately $6.6 million. UNC built a new studio, adjacent to the Smith Center, and spent $15 million. Both UNC and N.C. State will have to pay off that debt before realizing any profit from the network.

ESPN and ACC Network officials have tried to spin the on-campus studios as facilities that will benefit their campus communities, instead of costly overhead that could take years to pay for themselves.

“(They) will be used for student production groups, their student telecasts and things like that,” Aaron Katzman, an ACC Network producer, said of the studios. “So it’s enhancing everybody. Everybody’s winning.”

Another aspect of the on-campus studios: they are likely, to varying degrees, to be reliant on student labor — workers who may or may not be paid, depending on their agreements with their schools. For games produced on campuses, the network, Katzman said, “will rely on school production groups.” The games will be the ACC Network’s primary offering, its chief selling point.

NC State’s 78-75 loss at Georgia Tech on Thursday night secured a double-bye in the ACC tournament for Duke. (AP Photo/Danny Karnik) Danny Karnik AP

ACC beholden to ESPN’s scheduling demands

In its first year, the network will broadcast 450 live ACC events. That will include 40 regular-season football games and 150 men’s and women’s basketball games. The first football game will be Georgia Tech at Clemson, the 2018 national champions, on Aug. 29. The first men’s basketball games will be four conference games on Nov. 5 and 6 — the earliest conference openers ever.

Among them will be Notre Dame at North Carolina, and Georgia Tech at N.C. State. In the revenue sports of football and men’s basketball, the ACC has long been beholden to ESPN’s scheduling demands. That’s how Thursday night football and Monday night basketball have become regular fixtures. Now, the ACC Network’s need for programming will create new demands.

Neither conference nor network officials have detailed how the network might affect scheduling. In football and men’s basketball, at least, the schedule doesn’t appear likely to change much, outside of the conference openers to start the season in both sports. The most drastic changes, then, could come in sports that will receive new exposure.

“We might move some games into some non-traditional windows, in the afternoon,” McCollum, the ESPN senior director of programming and acquisitions, said in June. She and Katzman were in Winston-Salem then, part of a National Sports Media Association panel about the ACC Network.

Wes Durham, a broadcaster with deep ACC roots, moderated the discussion. Durham grew up with the ACC. His father, Woody, served as the longtime radio voice of UNC football and men’s basketball. During Wes’ childhood and adolescence, he often shadowed his father in the radio booth.

Now Wes Durham will be one of the faces of the ACC Network. He will co-host, along with Mark Packer, a daily morning show. “Packer and Durham” will air every weekday from 7 to 10 a.m. It will be, at least in the beginning, the ACC Network’s only personality-driven program — the network’s closest thing to the Paul Finebaum Show, which is synonymous with the SEC.

Finebaum, who for decades made his name as an Alabama sports talk radio host, is the personality that drives the SEC Network. He is a part of that conference’s culture, as are the loyal listeners who called into his radio show and began their diatribes in their deep-south drawls, stretching out Finebaum’s first name to preface their commentary so that Finebaum was not “Paul” but “Paaaawwwwl.”

In the years leading to the launch of the ACC Network, one of the questions has been who will become its leading personality. – its version of “Paaaawwwwl.” It is a question without an answer, and also one that reflects the natural comparisons between the conferences. They are rivals between the lines of competition and, culturally, outside of them.

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski yells instructions to his team during the first half of Duke’s game against UCF in the second round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship in Columbia, S.C., Sunday, March 24, 2019. Ethan Hyman

ACC basketball, all the time

And so it follows that their television networks, both backed by ESPN, will be compared, as well, and judged in relation to each other. During the panel discussion in Winston-Salem in late June, McCollum, the ESPN executive, attempted to describe how the ACC Network would differentiate itself — how it wouldn’t simply be a re-brand of the SEC’s channel.

She argued that the ACC Network’s technological capabilities would offer separation. She emphasized the focus on story-telling and documentary-style programming, which in the first year will include shows, among others, about longtime Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden, Clemson’s football program and the recruiting class that helped launch Mike Krzyzewski’s tenure at Duke.

Finally, McCollum said, “the third pillar is we’re going to own basketball.”

“Even during football season, we want to be talking about basketball,” she said. “It is the ACC. If we’re not talking about basketball, I don’t think we’re doing a service to fans. We want to super serve fans and we also want to make sure we’re talking about the depth of all the sports … we’re going to be talking field hockey. We’re going to be talking fencing. We’re going to be talking about lacrosse.”

McCollum’s answer reflected one of the ACC Network’s most foremost challenges: the question of how to appeal to a broad audience with divergent interests. The SEC Network’s identity, after all, is narrower. The culture of the conference is rooted in football, in the games and the stories that surround them but also in the mythical fanaticism that transcends state borders and school allegiances.

The ACC is different. Outsiders may label it a basketball conference, the way McCollum described, but its identity is not so easily defined. There are large state schools with football-mad followings, like Clemson and Florida State. There are schools like Boston College and Pittsburgh that compete, often in futility, for attention and support in markets dominated by professional sports.

In North Carolina, both UNC and Duke are national brands because of their basketball tradition, and rivalry. Yet even the state’s four ACC schools don’t necessarily share a unified culture, the kind that stretches in the SEC from Alabama to Arkansas, and south into Louisiana.

So what, then, will be the identity of the ACC Network? And how will the network handle the inevitable conflicts that arise, the reality that if it caters to one group of fans, another will undoubtedly cry bias or, perhaps worse, tune out? Katzman, the ACC Network coordinating producer, tried to address that question after the panel discussion in Winston-Salem.

“I think it’s fun because it’s different,” he said, attempting to describe what the ACC Network’s personality would be. “And I think you’ve got everything from Syracuse to Boston College to Miami, Louisville and Notre Dame and everything in between. So for me, it’s how do we take all of those schools from snow to the beach and have one kind of message, and vision? ...

“There’s no SEC version of that.”

Financial Markets Wall Street ACC Tournament.JPG
Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner John Swofford and ACC mascots pose for photos on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, during a visit Tuesday, March 6, 2018, to kick off and celebrate the New York Life ACC Tournament at the Barclay’s Center, in Brooklyn, N.Y. Richard Drew AP

ACC expansion was a necessity

Twenty years ago, in 1999, Swofford entered his second year as the ACC’s commissioner. It was a nine-team conference then. Florida State began and ended the college football season No. 1, a wire-to-wire national champion.

The Internet was still relatively young. Nobody watched games on their phone. There was no streaming, no Twitter. PlayStation was still only a video game console. Swofford could not have envisioned all that was to come — nobody could have — but some things, he saw.

The next year, in 2000, he began casual discussions with school presidents and athletic directors about expansion. Those conversations grew more serious through 2001, 2002 and 2003, when the conference formally decided to expand to 12 schools. Seven schools voted in favor, all except UNC and Duke.

“There were people in the core of the league, the state of North Carolina, that just didn’t understand the necessity of it,” Swofford said not long ago, looking back. “And I think most people do now, in hindsight, with the way it has evolved and things that have happened for the league.

“But at that point in time, it was hard for people to understand. Change is hard for people.”

And so now comes more change, after a decade of it. During the ACC’s most challenging moments, when some feared the league’s unraveling, Swofford faced a binary reality: He would either lead the conference through the tumult. Or he’d be remembered for presiding over its downfall.

On Thursday at 7 p.m., Swofford will be in Bristol, Conn., on the ESPN campus. He will be in Studio G, the new 2,800-square foot space that ESPN built for the ACC Network. Dean Jordan will be by his side. Ten years after their first conversation about a network, the lights will come on and it will go live, a creation a long time coming.

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