The ACC's leadership spent a “significant amount of time” discussing television and all that comes with that topic – rights fees, the possibility of a dedicated ACC channel in partnership with ESPN – during the league's annual spring meetings.
John Swofford, the ACC commissioner, admitted that much, at least. Beyond the obvious revelation that league officials discussed the conference's TV situation in great detail, though, there wasn't much in the way of TV news that came out of the spring meetings, which ended on Thursday.
It wasn't necessarily a surprise. For years Swofford has received questions about the possibilty of an ACC channel. And for years he hasn't said much of anything about it. His non-answers have become so predictable that he began his session with reporters on Thursday with a joke about them.
“I know that you have a job to do,” Swofford said moments after he sat down in front of a small group of reporters. “And I respect that and I know you're tired of hearing me consistently say the same old sound bites in regard to this particular subject.
“So I thought maybe you'd just want to pull up your previous tweets and stories and do a little pasting and save us some time on comments about an ACC channel. I'm kidding. Sort of. No, I don't really have anything to add to that.”
In other words: There's nothing to say here about this. Just kidding. But no, really: nothing to say.
That wasn't entirely true, though. Swofford spent a significant portion of his post-spring meetings sit-down talking about the TV situation.
Some of it was old, the familiar talking points. Some of it was somewhat new.
Here's everything – well, mostly everything, with some parts edited for clarity – that Swofford said about TV when he met with reporters on Thursday:
--On the “significant discussions” about TV and what he can say for now:
“We have continued to have very significant discussions continuing to take place. And spent a significant amount of time at this meeting in regard to that. But there's really nothnig additional that I can add at this point in time, and I think you understand probably at this point there's not a whole lot we can say, or will say, until we reach a definitive point. And we'll let you know at that point in time what our path is with that.”
-On whether there's a deadline for the creation of an ACC channel:
“No. No deadline. And I've said this stuff. I'll be repeating myself again. Timing is really important with this subject. And that's always a part of this discussion, because of distribution.”
-On ESPN's enthusiasm for spending on college sports given financial concerns surrounding network:
“I think the great thing about ESPN is that you know, when you're a partner with ESPN, they're cutting-edge people. Always have been, and we don't see that changing. I think they're a great partner to have. I think they'll continue to be aggressive about college sports, about live events.
“And I think they'll continue to be very aggressive in terms of how they distribute those live events. And that could be very important going forward to have a partner of that nature. So with technology and so forth, you want to be with people that are progressive and that have flexibility, that are willing to adapt. And I think that's who our partner is.
“And so we're bullish about it and I'd say they're bullish about it. It might not look exactly the same. The days of everything being just a rights fee negotiation is – there still is some of that, but there's a lot more negotiations about developing businesses together that are a partnership, if you will, as opposed to a guaranteed rights fee that will be to get this much this year.
“There's where some of the transition is coming.”
-On addressing concerns of financial health of ACC without an ACC channel or additional TV revenue:
“Well, that comes with the development of what we anticipate doing. So that's why we're doing it. That's why ESPN is in the discussions with us. They like to make money, too. And we like to make money, as well. And need to. This is a great conference.
“Everything that's been done over the last, you go back to 2003 and the discussions and the decisions to move from nine (schools) to 12, and that actually happening in 2005. And most of us knew full well that staying a nine-member conference was not going to cut it in the future that we were going to see.
“And I think this league has been very visionary in that. Has had to courage to act on that vision. And put ourselves in a position to remain one of the absolute top conferences in the country for many, many years to come.
-On the longterm advantages of the ACC despite current financial questions:
“You look at our footprint, the schools we have, the number of television sets we have, the population that's in the footprint. And as I've said before, it's given us opportunities we would never have had before. And in numerous different ways. And we've just got to hit it right. We've got to make the right decisions, and we're talking about decisions that are not only very important but for the long term. And so getting it right is a lot more important than expediency.”
-On reports that ESPN would owe ACC $45 million if an ACC channel isn't a reality at some point:
“I'm not going to comment on that.”
So there you have it. No, not much in the way of hard news. We still don't know when, or if, an ACC channel will become a real thing. Swofford wouldn’t address the widely-held assumption that ESPN would pay the league $45 million if it decides not to pursue a channel.
Even so, it was interesting what Swofford said in response to a question I posed about what he tells athletic directors, and others, who express concern about the financial health of the league. How do you quell those concerns, I asked him.
He said: “Well, that comes with the development of what we anticipate doing.”
The development of what we anticipate doing. What does that mean, exactly? It's unclear, and Swofford isn't going to give away what the ACC and ESPN have in mind. So who knows, exactly.
More than once, though, he either spoke directly about or alluded to ESPN's ingenuity and creativeness. Swofford spoke about how negotiations these days are often less about traditional things – like rights fees – and more about “developing businesses together that are a partnership.”
Again, who knows what that means, exactly. From the sound of it, though, the conversations between the ACC and ESPN go much deeper than, “So, how about that network? Yay or nay?” And a network, in the traditional sense of the word, might be only a piece of what they're discussing at all.
Swofford made a point on Thursday to praise the ACC as a visionary in college sports. As proof, he pointed to league's early expansion from nine to 12 teams as evidence that the ACC knew where college sports would be headed, eventually.
You get the sense now that Swofford is attempting to build on the ACC's visionary status through whatever the next step is with TV – whether it's a dedicated channel or something else that takes advantage of emerging technology. What that next step looks like, though, is unclear.
The prospect of an ACC channel seems less likely now than it did three years ago, when it became a substantive topic after the league reached its grant of rights agreement. That doesn't mean that a channel won't come to be, or that something else won't take its place.
As Swofford said on Thursday, “We've just got to hit it right.”
“We've got to make the right decisions,” he said, “and we're talking about decisions that are not only very important but for the long term. And so getting it right is a lot more important than expediency.”