The ACC is in a sticky wicket. The only way the conference will stand pat is with a grant of rights agreement, such as the one signed by the Big 12. With a lowball television contract locked in long-term, schools won’t sign one. One solution the conference will explore, according to Sports Business Daily, is to create an ACC Network to boost TV revenue.
But ACC Commissioner John Swofford has quietly been exploring a branded channel and began floating the idea for it in the fall, around the time that Notre Dame joined the league in all sports but football. The Fighting Irish have committed to play five ACC opponents in football each season, but it will maintain its independence.
For the ACC, it potentially could allow the conference to keep up financially with the Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC, which have all launched or are close to launching branded channels, and sources say the conference sees it as an enticement to keep schools from being seduced by other conferences.
Sounds nice. The problem? It’s not clear the ACC can create a network. The B1G kept its lesser rights to use in a joint venture with FOX. The Pac 12 withheld some rights to football and basketball to start the Pac 12 Network. The ACC, in contrast, sold all of its rights to ESPN through 2027. Any network created would have to be done with ESPN. The network is currently “lukewarm.” That’s not surprising since the WWL is (a) creating an SEC Network to compete in some of the same markets and (b) has had a terrible time getting the Longhorn Network on television.
Even if the ACC creates the network. Can it get that network on cable? Conference networks don’t rate well. They exist to leverage inventory to get them onto basic cable tiers and earn subscriber fees. This works for the Big Ten, which has large, concentrated fan bases. Throwing a couple Michigan/Michigan State or Ohio State football games on BTN forces providers in those states to kiss the ring. That should work for the SEC in theory. The ACC? Not so much.
Whatever ESPN wants to claim, the ACC is a definite fifth among “the big five.” Its marquee football programs, Florida State and Miami, can recruit elite talent but are not elite brands with strong alumni bases. Markets are an issue. The ACC has the smaller programs in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Pennsylvania. Boston College will be its only school in the Bos/Wash corridor. That’s before trying to get it carried on sports tiers nationally. Even the absolute best-case scenario, tossing in a couple Notre Dame football away games and some prime Duke and UNC basketball inventory, may not provide enough of an impetus for cable providers to pay for it.
An ACC Network seems like a tenuous proposition, and that is assuming the conference stays together as constituted. It’s hard to plan for a network when your best football programs and biggest TV markets could be out of the picture next week.
[Photo via USA Today Sports]