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

After three years of planning, constructing and negotiating, ESPN was prepared earlier this month to disclose the studio for its latest tv channel, the ACC Network. A 30-minute teaser was produced, however when the scheduled time to stream it got here and went, it turned clear the hype-building train 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 precise debut Thursday night time goes extra to plan.

The channel can be each influential for faculty sports activities and anachronistic to many viewers. The Atlantic Coast Conference is the fourth Power Five league with its personal devoted tv channel. The enterprise can be owned by ESPN however will cut up bills and income with the A.C.C. Among the highest conferences in faculty sports activities, solely the Big 12 stays on the surface trying in with regards to the upside of a league-focused community.

Of the Power Five, the A.C.C. distributes the smallest share of cash to every member college. The ACC Network ought to change that, accelerating the arms race in faculty sports activities of teaching salaries and ever extra opulent amenities whilst every college takes on hundreds of thousands in debt from constructing on-campus studios.

In a media surroundings in which streaming is the acknowledged future (and more and more the current), the ACC Network is an honest-to-goodness cable channel, ESPN’s ninth and maybe last one. It demonstrates the continued relevance of tv as the most important platform for mass consumption of sports activities, a reminder that the one-two punch of subscription charges and advert — the mixture that girded ESPN’s rise — stays formidable.

“We don’t really view it as ‘Hey this is just a linear television channel,’” stated Justin Connolly, the ESPN government in cost of distribution. Hundreds of occasions produced by the community can be introduced digitally, and ESPN’s distribution technique has included streaming suppliers.

The Big Ten convention debuted the primary devoted convention channel 12 years in the past, and the Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference quickly adopted swimsuit. John Swofford, the A.C.C.’s longtime commissioner, stated there have been two causes the convention waited so lengthy, causes that get on the coronary heart of how convention networks generate profits.

The A.C.C. wanted to develop, he stated in an interview, and it wanted to get higher at soccer.

In the previous six years the A.C.C. has added Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Louisville and Notre Dame (in all sports activities however soccer) whereas dropping Maryland. Before that, it added Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College. The convention now stretches virtually the complete size 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,” stated Swofford.

Whether that progress has truly made the convention higher at soccer is up for debate. The A.C.C. positioned a group in the College Football Playoffs annually because it started in 2014. But 4 of these 5 appearances had been by Clemson, and being top-heavy isn’t the identical factor as being deep.

Only one different A.C.C. college was ranked in the ultimate A.P. Top 25 ballot final season. The A.C.C. completed in the highest three of Sports Reference’s faculty soccer convention 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 & 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.

The ACC Network will show 40 football games this year, but if they only show 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. The A.C.C. and ESPN hopes that will drive demand from fans to television operators.

“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 like ESPN. 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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