It’s too late for the ACC to be a television trend-setter. The Big Ten was first to launch a network, the SEC the first to partner with ESPN. It is not too late, however, for the ACC to catch up.
Thursday’s official announcement of a reworked television deal with ESPN that includes the 2019 launch of an ACC Network cable channel marks a major turning point for the ACC, which had long sought and was long unable to secure a network of its own.
“This is not just a milestone,” said Duke athletics director Kevin White, the chairman of the ACC’s television committee. “This is historic.”
Short of getting Notre Dame to join as a full football member – something only likely to ever happen if the Irish are left out of the College Football Playoff because they didn’t play a conference championship game – this was the last immediate concern on ACC Commissioner John Swofford’s to-do list, already having successfully steered the ACC through two rounds of expansion and the loss of Maryland.
It’s also a long time coming. In 2010, when the ACC and ESPN entered into what was, at the time, their broadest partnership yet, the possibility of a stand-alone ACC Network was not considered feasible. Instead, the ACC persuaded ESPN to partner with Raycom, its traditional syndication deal rebranded as an “ACC Network” in name only.
So what’s changed?
The success of the SEC Network – ESPN’s profits from the network essentially cover the rights fees it owes the SEC, making the enterprise more or less self-sustaining – provided a viable framework for a similar ESPN partnership with the ACC.
The arrival of Notre Dame, Syracuse and Pittsburgh and swap of Louisville for Maryland broadened the ACC’s geographic appeal, while the 2013 grant-of-rights agreement prevented any further defections and secured the league’s membership into the future, ensuring the investment required to launch a network.
And not to be overlooked, the recent emergence of Clemson and Florida State as perennial national-title contenders did as much to strengthen the league’s position as anything. Ending a five-year Final Four drought certainly helped, but football still drives the bus in college athletics and television.
We’re very confident in what the network will bring financially, because we’re confident in the partner that we have. I think that’s a real important part of it.
ACC Commissioner John Swofford
The Big Ten and SEC were pulling away from the field. How much more money this deal means to the ACC will depend on how financially successful the network is, and representatives from both the ACC and ESPN painstakingly avoided disclosing specific terms Thursday, but its launch will allow the ACC to maintain its position within the Power 5, if not close that gap.
“This most definitely provides tremendous growth opportunities for both parties,” Swofford said.
That growth includes the basketball schedule, which will expand from 18 to 20 games in 2019 to provide more network inventory for ESPN. Going from eight to nine football games seems inevitable as well.
But that’s not the kind of growth Swofford is hoping to create: Money. Exposure. Prestige. A network promises all of that, but it’s no sure thing.
“We’re very confident in what the network will bring financially,” Swofford said, “because we’re confident in the partner that we have. I think that’s a real important part of it.”
Making the network profitable will require negotiating agreements with cable and satellite providers at a time when cord-cutting is exerting considerable financial pressure. ESPN President John Skipper said the ACC will not be replacing ESPNews or ESPNU, requiring an entirely new set of carriage negotiations.
There are also logistical concerns for ESPN, which needs to expand the Charlotte production facility that is already stretched beyond capacity hosting ESPNU and the SEC Network, and the ACC schools, most of which need to build broadcast and production facilities of their own. And the digital component of the network is not particularly robust or innovative, initially at least.
All of that factors into the prolonged run-up to the network aunch, but after waiting this long to get to this point, another three years isn’t going to matter that much.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock