The ACC Network celebrates its first birthday Saturday, an inaugural year marked by quality programming, widespread distribution, Clemson’s fifth consecutive College Football Playoff appearance and North Carolina’s second straight national field hockey title.
Oh, and a global pandemic.
Quite the baptism, wouldn’t you say?
Also this month, the Big Ten Network becomes a teenager, the Pac-12 Networks turn eight, and the SEC Network turns six. Why such staggered debuts? And why is the ACC Network the baby of the group?
The answers rest with demographics, membership stability and football.
Jim Delany played basketball for Dean Smith at North Carolina, and like his coach, Delany was a visionary. As the Big Ten’s commissioner during the early 2000s, he understood the television power of the conference’s unrivaled collection of large public universities.
Then an 11-member league — Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers have since joined — the Big Ten today includes seven schools with full-time undergraduate enrollments of at least 30,000, according to 2018-19 U.S. Department of Education filings. The SEC and Pac-12 have two such members, the ACC none.
The average enrollments for each: Big Ten 29,427, Pac-12 24,077, SEC 23,524, ACC 15,367.
Those Big Ten enrollments translate to alumni, fan bases and TV eyeballs, and Delany was uniquely positioned to take advantage of the country’s increasing obsession with college football.
A partnership with Fox, the Big Ten Network debuted in 2007 to mixed reviews, especially on the distribution side. But with the likes of Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan, the BTN gradually morphed into a mint, helping the conference become college sports’ revenue leader — the average distribution to longstanding members was $55.6 million in 2018-19.
The Pac-12 launched its networks independently in 2012, and without an experienced broadcasting partner, the venture has struggled. Which brings us to the SEC and ACC, southern conferences linked with ESPN.
If ESPN was going to start a 24/7 network dedicated to one of its college partners, the choice was unmistakable.
In July 2012, the SEC added Texas A&M and Missouri, expanding membership to 14 and jumping into two major television markets. Moreover, the league had won six consecutive football national championships, a streak that Alabama would run to seven.
Alabama, LSU, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Auburn, South Carolina: College football faithful don’t come more rabid than in the SEC.
Conversely, no ACC football team had finished in The Associated Press’ top five since Florida State in 2000. Making matters worse, in November 2012, charter member Maryland announced its intention to exit for the Big Ten.
Less than two weeks later, the ACC invited Louisville to replace the Terrapins. But without a grant of media rights to secure membership, the ACC appeared ripe for additional poaching.
The landscape well-defined, ESPN announced in the summer of 2013 that it would launch the SEC Network a year later. Few doubted the project would thrive, and sure enough, it became arguably the most successful cable start-up ever.
John Swofford, the ACC’s commissioner since 1997, watched from afar. He understood his conference’s liabilities and, in concert with Wasserman Media consultant Dean Jordan, worked to correct them.
The league invited Syracuse and Pittsburgh in 2011, and Notre Dame as a partial member a year later, broadening its footprint and TV appeal. When ACC members signed a grant of media rights in April 2013, only one barrier remained: football.
Led by Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, Florida State kicked down that barrier in January 2014, ending the SEC’s seven-year reign atop the sport. The ACC has since been represented in each of the six College Football Playoffs — only the SEC can say the same — and Clemson has won two national championships.
At the 2016 ACC Football Kickoff, the conference and ESPN unveiled their plans for the ACC Network.
“I think it was a good decision to establish a network when we did,” said Ron Wellman, who retired last year after 27 years as Wake Forest’s athletic director. “Look at the footprint, and it’s where folks are migrating. That is going to put our ACC Network in a powerful position. It already has.
“But think if we had tried to establish a network before we had all of these advantages, before our football product was as good as it is now, before we had the geographical footprint that we have now, it just would not have worked out nearly as well.”
Challenges remain. ESPN and its parent company, Disney, need to strike a carriage deal with the nation’s largest cable provider, Comcast. Signed before the ACC Network’s creation, Disney/ESPN’s multiyear contract with Comcast expires in 2021, and renegotiations will include the ACC Network.
The ACC Network then needs to help the ACC close the revenue gap. The conference’s average 2018-19 distribution to members, $28.8 million, ranked last among the Power Five and was barely half the Big Ten’s.
“That’s already started, to a degree,” Swofford said of enhancing league finances. “But a lot of that will depend on what then evolves from getting the network established and creating that asset. … The league, with its 15 institutions and its footprint, it all has to start from there.
“And we need to continue to improve our football, as a league, and maintain our basketball [excellence], and both of those things have generally been happening in recent years. They just need to continue that direction.”