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ACC Network: Dream, or pipe dream?

Is an actual ACC Network ever going to happen? It’s a fair question in light of last week’s industry-shaking layoffs at ESPN.

A May 3 memo from ACC Commissioner John Swofford to the ACC Council of Presidents obtained by the David Glenn Show and published on Twitter seems to answer the question in the affirmative, if only from the vantagepoint of Swofford.

But is that “total confirmation” from Swofford worth the paper it’s printed on?

We’re talking 2019, two years down the road, a veritable eternity in TV broadcasting, given the pace of developments in this day and age.

The aforementioned ESPN layoffs came out of left field in some respects, and in some respects, they were very much inevitable, if not the harbinger of much more to come.

The budgeting realities at ESPN have changed dramatically in just the past couple of years, with cord-cutting severely impacting the flow of dollars into the coffers of the Worldwide Leader, and the enormous rights fees that ESPN execs negotiated with the NBA, NFL and MLB sending money out by the truckload.

Which is to say, it ain’t 2013, when ESPN announced its plans to roll out a new SEC Network, anymore. The SEC Network came about after ESPN had passed on the chance to build the Big Ten Network that eventually went to Fox and launched in 2007.

As an answer, the SEC Network looked great on paper: you get SEC football, which has ruled the roost at the top of FBS football going back at least the past decade, and the diehards in the Deep South would tell you, “forever,” with SEC hoops, baseball and Olympic sports like gymnastics as filler.

Problems: CBS shares rights to SEC football, meaning you don’t even have all the big games for the network. Then, you know, even if you did have exclusive rights, would you put the good stuff on the network, in the way that, say, ESPN did back in the early days of ESPN2, when it put a Duke-UNC basketball game on the Deuce to force the hand of cable operators to make the network more broadly available?

That gambit worked back then, sure, but it’s risky, just as sure.

Which gets to the question of, If I’m an SEC fan, do I need the SEC Network, and then the deeper question, If I’m not sure I even need the SEC Network, what am I paying for, exactly?

Now apply those same questions to the idea of an ACC Network. What am I getting there that I don’t get already? What incentive does ESPN have, for example, to move Duke-UNC to the ACC Network? Yeah, none. So we get Boston College-Clemson on a Tuesday night in January on the ACC Network instead of ESPN3. Great.

That’s it, the value of an ACC Network, right there: second- and third-tier conference and non-conference matchups in hoops and football, the entirety of baseball and the Olympic sports, and ACC-specific studio shows.

Pleasing to the diehards, without question. But this is where the rubber hits the road here. ESPN isn’t going out of its way to create things like the SEC Network and Longhorn Network (all University of Texas, all the time) and this idea of an ACC Network just to please us diehards.

The obvious goal for ESPN here is to create additional networks with content that fans have to have and thus have to demand access to from their cable and satellite providers to whom those fans will then pay additional monies to be able to access.

In 2007, when Fox launched the Big Ten Network, in 2011, when ESPN launched the Longhorn Network, in 2013, when ESPN launched the SEC Network, it seemed that going this route was the future of college sports.

And it may very well be the future of college sports, but as with so much else about the future, more is unknown than can possibly be known right now.

The ESPN layoffs that we all know about now tell us that the bottom-line health of the Mothership isn’t what it used to be, by a long shot, and being brutally honest, it’s not like cutting a relative few staffers loose is going to account in and of itself for the decline in subscribers and the increase in commitments to rights fees.

I don’t have any doubt that ESPN President John Skipper is committed at this time to moving forward with the previously-announced plans for an ACC Network to launch in 2019.

What the business model for ESPN looks like in 2019 is something that we can’t be too sure of right now, unfortunately.

Column by Chris Graham


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