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New Cable Network for A.C.C. Heightens Arms Race in College Sports

After three years of planning, building and negotiating, ESPN was ready earlier this month to reveal the studio for its newest television channel, the ACC Network. A 30-minute teaser was produced, but when the scheduled time to stream it came and went, it became clear the hype-building exercise was a dud.

“In true Live TV form, we’re standing by with technical difficulties,” an ESPN communications staffer wrote on Twitter.

ESPN hopes the actual debut Thursday night goes more to plan.

The channel will be both influential for college sports and anachronistic to many viewers. The Atlantic Coast Conference is the fourth Power Five league with its own dedicated television channel. The venture will be owned by ESPN, which will split expenses and revenue with the A.C.C. Among the top conferences in college sports, only the Big 12 remains on the outside looking in when it comes to the upside of a league-focused network.

Of the Power Five, the A.C.C. distributes the smallest share of money to each member school. The ACC Network should change that, accelerating the arms race in college sports of coaching salaries and ever more opulent facilities even as each school takes on millions in debt from building on-campus studios.

In a media environment in which streaming is the acknowledged future (and increasingly the present), the ACC Network is an honest-to-goodness cable channel, ESPN’s ninth and perhaps final one. It demonstrates the continued relevance of television as the largest platform for mass consumption of sports, a reminder that the one-two punch of subscription fees and ad dollars — the combination that girded ESPN’s rise — remains formidable.

“We don’t really view it as ‘Hey this is just a linear television channel,’” said Justin Connolly, the ESPN executive in charge of distribution. Hundreds of events produced by the network will be presented digitally, and ESPN’s distribution strategy has included streaming providers.

The Big Ten conference started the first dedicated conference channel 12 years ago, and the Pac-12 and the Southeastern Conference soon followed suit. John Swofford, the A.C.C.’s longtime commissioner, said there were two reasons the conference waited so long, reasons that get at the heart of how conference networks make money.

ImageCreditMelissa Rawlins/ESPN Images

The A.C.C. needed to grow, he said in an interview, and it needed to get better at football.

In the past six years the A.C.C. has added Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Louisville and Notre Dame (in all sports but football) while losing Maryland. Before that, it added Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College. The conference now stretches almost the entire length of the East Coast, from Miami to Boston and upstate New York.

“We needed to have a larger footprint with more television sets in that footprint,” Swofford said.

Whether that growth has made the conference better at football is up for debate. The A.C.C. placed a team in the College Football Playoff each year since it began in 2014. But four of those five appearances were by Clemson, and being top-heavy isn’t the same thing as being deep.

Only one other A.C.C. team was ranked in the final Associated Press top 25 poll last season. The A.C.C. finished in the top three of Sports Reference’s college football conference simple rating system just four times in the last decade, anchored by Clemson’s recent success.

“Football was really driving the economic model, and consequently we felt like we really need to improve from a football standpoint,” Swofford said. While the A.C.C. has remained a powerhouse in both men’s and women’s basketball, that sport lags far behind football in influencing viewership and revenue.

ESPN’s programming executives will have to balance competing priorities. The ACC Network will show about 450 live events in its first year, largely the non-marquee football and basketball matchups, along with less prominent sports like soccer, baseball and track and field. Hundreds more events will be available for streaming digitally.

But ESPN also has a deal to pay the A.C.C. $240 million annually for its top tier media rights for almost the next two decades. For that to be worthwhile, ESPN needs to put the very best football games on ABC or ESPN, where they will attract the largest audiences.

Swofford said the A.C.C. wants that, too. “At the same time, the ACC Network needs and will have marquee games as well, in order to keep it something that people desire,” he said.

ImageCreditWinslow Townson/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

The ACC Network will show 40 football games this year, but if it shows only ones like Louisville against Wake Forest (combined 2018 conference record: 3-13), few people will watch and cable companies won’t be compelled to carry the channel, which is critical for its success.

Barring any last-minute agreements — and in carriage negotiations, there are often last-minute agreements — the ACC Network will be carried at launch by DirecTV, Verizon, Charter and Optimum, as well as a host of smaller companies and digital upstarts. It will not be carried by Comcast, AT&T, Dish or Cox.

The first football game shown on the ACC Network will be the season opener for Clemson, the reigning national champion and preseason No. 1. ESPN and the A.C.C. hope that will drive demand from fans to television operators.

Swofford believes the ACC Network will follow a similar growth trajectory to the Big Ten Network, which took a few years to reach widespread distribution. That channel is currently available in 57 million homes, according to the media research group Kagan. By way of comparison, ESPN is in around 85 million homes.

There are a raft of digital replacements for the traditional cable bundles, and ESPN has agreements with most of them — including Hulu, YouTube and PlayStation — to carry the ACC Network. That’s an advantage other conference networks didn’t have at launch.

“That dynamic is more real today than it has ever been,” ESPN’s Connolly said.

The A.C.C. also learned from the Pac-12’s failings. Rather than team with a major media company when starting its channel, the Pac-12 opted to stay independent and wholly own and operate its channel. Seven years later, the Pac-12 Network is in 18 million homes — less than a third of the reach of the Big Ten Network and SEC Network — and contributes paltry sums to its member schools.

“It is a lesson that is very well chronicled,” said Lydia Murphy-Stephans, who was the president of the Pac-12 Network for its first five years. “Universities and conferences are not media companies. They do not inherently have leverage to drive carriage.”

Nobody in sports television has leverage the way ESPN does. The three-year ramp-up meant carriage negotiations for the ACC Network could be tied to expiring agreements for ESPN and ESPN2, and even ABC and the Disney Channel. (The Walt Disney Company owns ABC and the Disney Channel, as well as 80 percent of ESPN.) If a carrier wouldn’t take the ACC Network, ESPN could threaten to withhold plenty of must-have channels.

“We could have launched sometime during the last three years or so, but this launch is strategic,” said Swofford, adding that a large part of that strategy related to “ESPN and their omnibus deals, and when those deals were up for negotiation for the future.”

The ACC Network won’t radically transform the fortunes of either the conference or ESPN. The conference’s smaller sports will see the biggest returns, and the rights are a small part of the more than $6 billion ESPN will spend on sports this year.

But as major college sports nears the end of a decade of conference-switching and turbulence, and as ESPN is in the midst of a radical transformation in viewing habits and media distribution, both hope the ACC Network will offer them a boost.


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