What began years ago as a vision to help solidify the ACC’s future and provide the league with another large revenue stream became an official reality, finally, here on Thursday during the conference’s annual preseason football kickoff: a dedicated ACC channel is coming, at last.
The ACC announced that in partnership with ESPN, the conference’s longtime television rights partner, the ACC Network would debut in August 2019. The wait will be shorter for an online component of the channel, which will begin streaming ACC events over the Internet in August.
The announcement, which was followed by a press conference with ESPN President John Skipper, ACC Commissioner John Swofford and other league officials, brings an end to years of speculation about if, and when, an ACC channel would exist. Now the questions are about profit and distribution.
What is known, for now:
▪ The digital version of the channel, called “ACC Network Extra” will begin service in August, and will include access to more than 600 exclusive live events.
▪ The online ACC Network Extra will be available to those with access to ESPN3 and the WatchESPN app, which is available on mobile devices. There will not be a separate subscription available for the ACC Network Extra.
▪ When the traditional network launches in 2019, it will include coverage of 40 regular-season football games, more than 150 men’s and women’s basketball games and more than 200 regular-season and tournament games in other sports.
▪ To provide more inventory for the launch of the ACC Network, the ACC will adopt a 20-game league schedule in men’s basketball starting in the 2019-20 season. The conference will continue to play an 18-game regular-season league schedule until then.
It is unclear what the network will cost consumers.
The ACC will become the fourth Power 5 conference to establish its own TV network, joining the Big Ten, the Pac-12 and the SEC. The Big Ten Network launched in 2007, the Pac-12 Network in 2012 and the SEC Network in 2014. Among those, ESPN is a partner in the SEC Network only.
ESPN deal extended
The ACC’s television rights deal with ESPN has also been extended by nine years. It now expires after the 2035-36 academic year, which also now represents the final year of the conference’s grant of media rights agreement. That was also extended amid the announcement of the ACC Network.
Swofford and other league officials on Thursday spoke in gleeful tones about the launch of a network. It was a departure from years of non-answers and scant details about the possibility of an ACC channel.
“There’s no question that these new agreements with ESPN competitively position the Atlantic Coast Conference for the long-term,” Swofford said on Thursday.
Now that an ACC channel is officially on the way, the most important, and obvious, question related to TV and the ACC is this: Can its channel rival the financial success of the Big Ten Network and the SEC Network? Those networks have helped their respective conferences become the wealthiest in American college sports.
Other questions will be answered, too, in time: How many homes will carry the ACC channel? How will distribution work? How many games will be available on the channel? And aside from games, what will comprise programming that will run 365 days per year, 24 hours per day?
The announcement of an ACC channel is the culmination of years of consulting, evaluating and planning. Swofford reportedly began seriously considering the prospect of an ACC channel in the fall of 2012, when Notre Dame announced it would join the ACC in all sports except for football.
Not long after, Swofford and other ACC officials were blindsided by Maryland’s decision to leave the ACC to join the Big Ten. Maryland made that move, its leaders said at the time, in pursuit of a more financially lucrative future. Maryland was, to put it colloquially, chasing the Big Ten’s TV money.
After Maryland announced its decision to leave, Swofford wasted no time. The ACC quickly invited Lousiville to fill Maryland’s spot. Nonetheless speculation persisted about whether other schools – namely Florida State and Clemson – might also leave the ACC to join another conference.
For years, rumors surrounded Florida State and its future in the ACC. Clemson also became the target of speculation that suggested Florida State and Clemson both favored a move to the Big 12. At one time or another, rumors seemed to persist about nearly every ACC school.
Finally Swofford helped put it all to rest. The ACC’s members in 2013 unanimously approved of a grant of media rights agreement, which meant that if a school decided to leave the conference the broadcast rights associated with it would remain with the ACC.
Louisville, not yet an ACC member, also agreed to the deal. When it was originally announced the ACC’s grant of rights agreement ran through the 2026-27 academic year.
The ACC announced the original grant of rights agreement on April 22, 2013. If any date represented the unofficial start of building an ACC channel, that was it.
And now the channel will become a reality. It has taken a while – 1,186 days, since that grant of rights announcement in April 2013 – to reach this point.
During the past three years Swofford expressed confidence, but caution, about the viability of an ACC channel. Early on, in the spring of 2013, he said, “These things don’t happen overnight.” Nor do they happen, apparently, over 1,000 nights. Yet it will happen, eventually.
“We at ESPN are proud to be the ACC’s partner,” Skipper, the ESPN President, said. “We commit to creating and producing content of the highest order for your millions of fans to entertain and entrance them. We will create value for our distributors, an effective platform for our advertisers, financial benefit for ESPN and the ACC.”
The ACC’s path to a channel followed a similar timeline that preceded the announcement of the SEC Network. The SEC and ESPN worked together for three years before the SEC Network came to fruition.
Playing coy in May
The ACC and ESPN, meanwhile, have spent parts of the past three years discussing the ACC’s version of a channel. Though Swofford during the past three years always spoke about the network in careful, measured tones, other conference officials were more bullish about the likelihood of an ACC channel.
“I would be very surprised if a channel won’t happen,” Kevin White, the Duke athletic director and the chair of the league’s television committee, said in an interview in the spring of 2013. “And quite frankly, I’m convinced that it will occur.”
Swofford on Thursday said that White deserved overtime pay for his work leading the ACC’s TV Committee in recent years. White, though, didn’t sound the least bit tired.
“This is not just a milestone,” he said. “This is historic. This is a great moment for the Atlantic Coast Conference. I know I speak for all of my fellow ADs when I say we couldn’t be more pleased to be here today at this particular moment.”
Swofford played coy as always when he spoke with reporters in May at the end of the ACC’s annual spring meetings in Amelia Island, Fla. Yet he also sounded more confident than usual in the feasibility of a network, and he offered some hints as to what was to come.
One portion of Swofford’s interview, it seems now, might have been especially prophetic. He spoke about why he remained confident in the ACC’s financial health, despite the growing monetary gap between the ACC and the Big Ten and SEC – a gap attributable to the disparity in TV revenue.
His confidence, Swofford said, came “with the development of what we anticipate doing” with ESPN.
“So that’s why we’re doing it,” Swofford said then, in May. “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.”
The question is how much, exactly, the ACC will make. Without a dedicated channel, the ACC during the 2014-15 fiscal year – which runs annually from July 1 through June 30 – reported $217.9 million in TV revenue.
That was record TV revenue for the ACC but it paled in comparison to the revenue generated by leagues with their own channel. In the first year of the SEC Network, the SEC reported TV revenue of $311.8 million – an increase. The Pac-12 generated $298.6 million in TV revenue during the 2014-15 fiscal year.
The Big Ten doesn’t itemize its TV revenue on the federal tax return it files as part of its non-profit status, but the Big Ten Network allowed that conference to disperse a full conference share of more than $32 million to its members during the 2014-15 fiscal year.
The ACC, meanwhile, paid out an average full share of $26.2 million during the same time. That was a record, too, but it will be short-lived – and dwarfed, likely, when the league begins to profit from a venture that has been years in the making.