In order for the Atlantic Coast Conference to keep pace with larger conferences, such as the Big Ten, some sort of lucrative media rights deal was necessary that included some network-entity.
On Thursday, the ACC got it’s wish. At least they think they did.
ACC Commissioner John Swofford and ESPN President John Skipper confirmed to the media on Thursday that the two have partnered together to build the ACC Network television channel, as well as a digital option, ACC Network Extra. Though the financial details weren’t released, Virginia Tech Director of Athletics Whit Babcock is confident that the deal will bring much needed cash to athletic departments.
“We certainly saw projections and what could be but they also shared with us, ‘Hey, don’t speculate on the numbers.’ It depends on distribution. It depends on a lot of things. I just don’t know what that number will be. For us, we don’t want to get too aggressive and overspend, but it is nice to look out and say a little bit in the near term but more in Year 3 through 20-something, that there is a new revenue stream coming and that all you really have to do is open it. That’s big for projecting for budgeting, and let’s just say, you pick the number, whatever million you put on it times 10 years, that compounded amount is a difference maker in our league.”
The television channel won’t launch until sometime in 2019, which gives the ACC and ESPN flexibility, but also makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly how much revenue the network will bring.
“In some ways, the three-year aspect of things is pretty good,” Babcock said. “We can watch the landscape and we can evaluate it. To those who say that television may look different, we’re all expecting that. But if television looks different, it’s going to be an issue for every other network out there as well. To be partnered with ESPN, there’s no better partner in the world and we feel really good about it.”
One of the challenges ESPN and the ACC believe they’ve addressed is the “cord-cutting” trend among television consumers. More and more consumers are dropping cable and satellite providers, and getting their content online instead. Babcock believes the three-year window allows both the ACC and ESPN to monitor industry trends.
“With John Skipper involved, if television is going to look different, I’m going to put my money behind ESPN to figure out what that looks like,” Babcock said. “What I feel like is incredibly valuable is that content has a lot of value. Whatever screen we push that content to, and college sports is one of the last things if not the last thing that’s consumed live, with all of the other stuff on demand. Content has value and however we push that content out will have value and it can be a traditional, linear channel or it can be totally different in five years, but ESPN will figure that out.”
The deal will require universities to invest in a television studio on-campus, but Babcock isn’t worried about getting that taken care of.
“At Virginia Tech, we’re a little bit ahead of the game,” Babcock said. “Each school has different stuff studio-wise. We learned from our SEC peers in the business. I just picked up the phone and talked to some of them. It can be a big range to get the studios up and running. I guess if I have to ballpark it, it could be anywhere from $1 million-$5 million, maybe $2 million, depending on your capabilities. If you take that out over the length of the deal, the money is well worth it. It’s good for us at Virginia Tech. It will be a great learning laboratory for our communications students and other things. There’s a lot of cross-collaboration that can happen on campus.”
Where the studio will be isn’t set in stone, but Virginia Tech has options. The Moss Arts Center, which is on the opposite side of campus relative to the athletic facilities and is already used by Virginia Tech’s Department of Communication, is something being considered. Babcock says the department is also considering adding a studio into the Rector Fieldhouse renovations that are planned.
“I’m not smart enough in this area to know the laying of cable or anything like that, but for access to our sporting venues, we want it to be fairly close,” Babcock said. “We can do some things in the Moss Arts Center if we want to double up, but I feel like our studios will be in our athletic region.”
Part of the network agreement is that ACC basketball teams will start playing a 20-game schedule in-conference once the television channel launches. Babcock said that Virginia Tech men’s basketball Head Coach Buzz Williams was consulted on the change.
“We certainly talked to him about that,” Babcock said. “Strength of scheduling is a big deal. He was receptive to it, it looks good and he understands the big picture for us.”
The ACC has been considering a nine-game football schedule, but Babcock said there are currently no plans to increase the number of conference games ACC football teams play.
“The commissioner didn’t touch on that, because I don’t think anything has changed at this point,” Babcock said. “We will revisit football scheduling like we always do at the fall meetings but there’s no determination to change off of what we have now.”
The deal doesn’t just help make football and men’s basketball teams more visible, as the ACC Network will televise 1,300 live events starting in 2019, which will include women’s basketball and Olympic sports events.
“We talk a lot about football and basketball but the visibility and recruiting aspect for our Olympic sports is huge,” Babcock said. “When you can go into a young person’s home and say, ‘Every time you play, and there might be a few exceptions, you will be able to watch your son or daughter or your friend on an ESPN platform,’ and that’s another benefit being solely with ESPN. I just feel like there’s a lot of benefit to that.”
The deal with ESPN is scheduled to run through 2035-2036, and Babcock thinks that the network agreement provides stability for each of the 15 ACC programs.
“It’s a great day to be undefeated in football and start a television network,” Babcock said. “In athletics too often, we take success and say, ‘Great, what’s the next issue,’ and over the last few days I thought to stop and smell the roses and to be happy about it.”