Home The only way the ACC survives: Renegotiating that disastrous ESPN TV deal

The only way the ACC survives: Renegotiating that disastrous ESPN TV deal

Chris Graham
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Remember that 20-year ESPN deal that the ACC announced with much fanfare back in 2016? It’s a millstone around our necks.

ACC member schools will be bringing in barely half what schools in the Big Ten and SEC get from their TV deals by the end of the decade. If you think that doesn’t matter, consider that even in the current environment, where we’re behind, but not by that much, the ACC didn’t have a team in the College Football Playoff in 2021, and only got five bids to the 2022 NCAA Tournament.

Three of the four 2021 CFP bids went to B1G and SEC. The Big Ten got nine NCAA Tournament bids in 2022; the SEC, six.

And now the rich are getting richer, with USC and UCLA now headed to the Big Ten, on top of the moves of Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC.

The ACC can’t expand its way toward more TV money. Don’t @me about Notre Dame football. We already get five games a year with the Irish; three more isn’t moving the needle where we need it.

The way the ACC survives: convincing ESPN to give us more money.

I’m not saying here the ACC just dies if nothing changes. I’m not of the mind of the preponderance of sportswriters who seem to assume that the grants of media rights by the member schools to the ACC is just something that can go away if somebody wants to leave.

Anything can be done, no doubt, but the ACC isn’t going to just let Clemson or Florida State or North Carolina or whoever up and leave without paying a pretty penny, and if Jim Phillips is worth what we’re paying him, I think we’re talking mid-nine figures as a starting point.

I’m not also of the opinion that it benefits the Big Ten and SEC to want to grow much more beyond where they are now. At some point, the law of diminishing returns from economics has to apply, and getting even bigger than huge isn’t getting better.

The TV deals for the Big Ten and SEC can certainly get bigger, but do they grow enough to increase the per-school payouts for everybody, or are you just are adding more mouths to feed from a marginally bigger pie?

The first, most obvious targets for the SEC would be Clemson, Florida State and Miami. An argument can be made that Clemson would add to the SEC football landscape, for sure, but FSU and Miami, not so much.

Miami has been to exactly one ACC Championship Game since joining the league in 2004, and Florida State hasn’t been relevant nationally since 2014, which feels like a million years ago.

And then we hear talk about North Carolina and Virginia to the Big Ten, but a couple of things there.

One, UNC isn’t going anywhere without Duke, just for basketball. UNC-Duke is one of American sports’ top two rivalries, beside Yankees-Red Sox, and it doesn’t take much to argue that UNC-Duke is #1. No way Carolina is doing something that doesn’t involve Duke.

Two, UNC and Virginia each field a wide breadth of varsity athletics teams – UNC 28, Virginia 27. If you’re Bubba Cunningham or Carla Williams, do you want to have to make the finances work on having to send your non-revenue sports teams on road trips for conference games in Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, California?

An aside here, but the B1G schools like to portray themselves as being academically-minded institutions of higher learning, and at the same time, they’re guaranteeing multiple cross-country trips for Rutgers, Penn State, Ohio State, USC, UCLA in any number of sports.

So much for putting a premium on the student part of the student-athlete experience.

All of this talk ignores the obvious that it’s not exactly clear why either the Big Ten or SEC would need to expand beyond where they are now.

The Big Ten just locked up the Los Angeles media market; UNC and UVA add marginal value at best at this stage.

If I’m the president of a Big Ten or SEC university, I like where I am now. Our 32 schools have the competitive advantage of having almost twice as much money from TV than our biggest potential rivals, and the ACC, the best-positioned among the others left from the former Power 5, is stuck with its TV deal through 2036, which is an eternity from now.

Why would I want, again, as a president of a Big Ten or SEC school, to invite more people to our table, to share in our feast, to maybe take the big piece of chicken that I had my eye on?

Yeah, no, I wouldn’t.

I don’t doubt that I can and probably will be proven wrong here, but I think the Big Ten and SEC are done, and the ACC and everybody else are left to figure out how to survive from here.

This gets me back to the premise at the beginning of this think piece.

We need to convince ESPN to give us more money.

It shouldn’t be a hard sell. Does ESPN want to continue to throw its money at a product that is going to be diminishing in value over the next 14 years of this deal?

As it stands now, there’s a Power 2, the ACC is a distant third, the Big 12 an even more distant fourth, and the Pac-12 is a mid-major.

I don’t know that ESPN would be willing to throw enough money in a new deal to get the ACC to the levels that the Big Ten and SEC are and will be down the road, but even a step or two toward closing the gap would help both sides.

More money means better product, which means more eyeballs.

That’s the sales pitch that Jim Phillips needs to be making to the folks at ESPN.

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].