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Opinion

Will the ACC Network be DOA?

In an uncertain climate for cable TV, will the ACC Network thrive like the SEC Network, or go the way of SportsChannel and KBL?

Lots of stuff happened last week. Le’Veon Bell got suspended. Francisco Liriano regained his form. Tyler Glasnow got hurt. And Chris Sale channelled his inner Edward Scissorhands.

But my favorite story came from ACC media week. That’s when
ESPN.com advanced the story about ESPN & and the ACC coming together to finally form an ACC Network.

And ESPN REFUSED COMMENT to ESPN.com!? That’s beautiful on so many levels.

Welcome to the incestuous world of college athletics and television where everyone is married to one another yet no one is on the same page.

That’s part of the reason why I am more skeptical than most that this new ACC Network is the Godsend that many who root for that conference’s institutions suggest that it is. But then again, I am a natural born skeptic so maybe my cynicism should be dismissed.

“I will try to feed your cynicism.”

Oh! Hello. Where’s that coming from? Well, it’s John Ourand from Sports Business Journal. He broke many of the details of the dawn of the ACC Network. And he spoke with me this week on ESPN PGH.

“The easiest thing in the media industry to do is to say that you are going to start a TV network. The hardest thing to do is to actually launch TV a network,” said Ourand.

He points out that ESPN’s launch two years ago of the SEC network was the most successful in cable TV history. The ACC network will be patterned after it. But, as Ourand points out during the interview, ESPN is going through a massive reorganization of its talent, outreach, and budget.

“I don’t want to that ESPN had been in a death spiral, because that’s overstating it. But in the two years since they completed that (SEC) launch, the cable TV industry has become much more challenged. ESPN has lost 10 million subscribers. There has been a huge
trend in the cable television marketplace to go away from the big tiers of programming, to smaller lower cost tiers. Now, in the next two years as you think that trend will continue and accelerate, ESPN & the ACC are going to have to convince Comcast, DirectTV,
Charter, etc that the new network will be good enough to keep subscribers long enough to put in those smaller packages. I think that will be an extremely tough sell.”

That’s one of the many layers to this story that is leaving me in doubt when it comes to how impactful the ACC network is going to be. Believe it or not, I have more faith that between now and 2036 (when the ACC Network deal expires), the ACC has a better shot of
resembling what we know now than ESPN does.

No single entity in the world has undergone more changes in the last 20 years than broadcast television. On line dissemination, on demand viewing, and recalculated corporate partnerships have relandscaped the broadcast TV map as we knew it back in 1996 (20 years ago).

Imagine what it’ll look like in 2036 (20 years from now).

You can’t. Back in 1996 some of us still hadn’t made a full change over from VHS to DVD. Hell, at my college apartment, we hadn’t started it yet!

The point is, for all the language and poison pills that were put into this deal to prevent teams from leaving the ACC via ties through the TV network… what if the provider is a dinosaur by then? What if in 2036 ESPN is what Prime Sports or KBL, or Sportsnet,
or SportsChannel were by the late 2000’s.

Long dead or dying.

“Nobody has any clue in 2035, much less 2020, how people are going to be consuming video. I don’t see the the cable industry disappearing. But the idea of having a linear network may be a lot less attractive in 2019 than it was in 2009,” said Ourand

There is a significant level of naivete that exists if you believe in this contract. You must believe that TV isn’t going to change. You must believe the punitive dollar amounts associated with this deal will pinch as much then as they do now. You must believe that
somebody won’t come along who isn’t dumb enough to offer even more.

And, perhaps most importantly, you must believe Notre Dame isn’t going to try to weasel out of this deal and go somewhere else if it finds a better partner when/if it ever decides to join a conference in football.

The only contracts I trust less than college coaching contracts, are college conference/network contracts. And the only college conference/network contracts I trust less than most are the ones that involve Notre Dame.

If in, say, 2026, Notre Dame and the Big Ten finally figure out a cost revenue proposal that makes sense to get ND into the conference and buy out the Irish from the ACC despite the penalties that may exist now… both sides will do it in a heartbeat. Real dollars
now may mean nothing compared to proposed dollars in 2026 for 2036.

Pay the fines. Pay the penalties. Who cares? We could be onto a la carte game by game viewing through heretofore unknown providers by then anyway.

Seriously! In 1996 if I had told you Pitt, Syracuse, Miami, BC, Virginia Tech, and Notre Dame were going to be in the ACC, you would have chuckled in my face. If I had told you WVU was going to be in a Big XII with ten teams you would’ve belly laughed. If I had told you Utah and BYU wouldn’t be in the same conference, Rutgers was is in the Big TEN with Maryland, and Texas A&M would be in the same conference with Florida but Nebraska and Oklahoma would be in separate conferences you’d take my keys at the bar and tell me
to take a cab home.

Why assume what looks normal now will look the same then?

Don’t get me wrong. The ACC, its member institutions, and ESPN have entered into what appears to be a mutually beneficial partnership for all parties involved right now. I simply question if it will result in the longstanding accord many are presenting it to be.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker

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