NEW YORK — Through two and a half months and one entire college football regular season, ACC commissioner John Swofford is ready to call the ACC Network a success.
The conference’s network launched on Aug. 22 and so far, has exceeded the expectations of Swofford and the school’s athletic directors, Swofford said while speaking alongside Duke athletic director Kevin White at Learfield IMG College Intercollegiate Athletics Forum presented by Sports Business Journal on Wednesday.
The process of launching the standalone network in partnership with ESPN has not been totally smooth. Comcast, the nation’s largest traditional cable company with a large footprint in ACC territory, has been a notable holdout, with the Philadelphia-based company’s over 20 million subscribers unable to access the league’s content.
That’s been a significant detriment to the ACC Network’s ability to gain traction in places like Pittsburgh, where Comcast is the dominant cable provider. Regionally notable Armstrong Cable, which is based in Butler, Pa. and is the 17th-largest television provider in the country, has also not agreed to carry the network.
But those carriage disputes were somewhat expected when the league launched the channel, mimicking those suffered by the Big Ten and Pac 12 over the earlier part of this decade. The ACC Network has already far surpassed the Pac 12 Network in number of subscribers and is already on the heels of the Big Ten Network, despite that groundbreaking channel’s 12-year head start.
The ability of Comcast and other unserved customers to add ACC Network through over-the-top streaming services such as AT&T Now, Hulu, PlayStation Vue, Sling and Youtube TV has allowed for fans that might have been frustrated by a lack of access to find the channel some way, some how.
Furthermore, the actual in-game production, handled by ESPN jointly though studios in Bristol and Charlotte, along with facilities at each of the 15 conference schools, has received positive reviews across the board
“I expected more criticism,” Swofford said. “Whether it was the talent or the games that are on.”
“We’re in the early innings of this thing, but we’re ahead of projections and there’s a lot of enthusiasm for how far we’ve gotten in a very short amount of time,” White added.
One of the less popular measures the league undertook in response to the launch of the network was the reconfiguring of the football and men’s basketball schedules to being the season with league games, in order to pump up demand for the new channel.
“Scheduling does change some when you have your own network,” Swofford said. “This year, with men’s basketball, we started the season with seven conference games to tip off the basketball season to really give us something tangible for fans to latch on to. … Part of that decision was with the network in mind. We wanted that attention to be on the network.”
But he said that he doesn’t know if those changes will persist into the future or be a one-off for the channel’s launch. He did say that it’s important for there to be big games on the ACC Network, and not just on ESPN or ABC.
Swofford told a story about how the ACC, when athletic director at North Carolina, helped ESPN launch ESPN2 25 years ago.
“Back when ESPN2 was very new, I was the AD at North Carolina at the time,” Swofford retold. “I got a call from Gene Corrigan, who was our commissioner. ‘I need you and Tom Butters (then Duke AD) to consider something. It would probably help us as a conference a lot and it would help ESPN2 if you put a Duke-Carolina game on ESPN2.’”
Swofford recalled having to weather a storm of public criticism for having made the decision to go along with ESPN and the ACC’s request.
“A lot of people didn’t get ESPN2,” he said. “The phones were pretty hot for a few days. But in the longer term, from a business standpoint, that was the right decision.”
Swofford hopes that similarly, the need to ruffle a few feathers with mixed-around schedules and to wait out Comcast in extended negotiations will be a net positive for the conference and its schools down the line.