The ACC & TV - How To Catch Up to the SEC

ACC commish John Swofford would like to assure you that a better TV plan is on the way. But is it? Image via ESPN

In case you haven't been paying attention the past few days, the TV storm is brewing. Ironically, one of the bigger stories out of the ACC media days was the SEC TV deal, and it's ACC implications. It was the first question asked to ACC commish John Swofford during his interview. Basically every media outlet touched on the subject. Fans commented on it. There's no conclusive answer as to what the ACC should do, or will attempt to do, but the consensus seems to be that they need to do something.

I guess the place to start here is with the move that started the whole issue: that is, the SEC's new deals with ESPN and CBS. We touched on this earlier in an MM, but in case you don't know everything: the SEC inked a 15 year, $2.25 billion deal with ESPN, which coincides nicely with a 15 year, $825 million deal with CBS. The CBS deal is okay, but the ESPN deal is the killer, both in terms of coverage and money. If you're wondering what kind of coverage this deal will net the SEC, it appears that in the first weekend alone eight SEC teams will have their games televised on one of the "ESPN family of networks" channels, some of them nationally.

Just the exposure has some massive side effects - recruits will constantly see the schools on TV no matter where they are; fans are more likely to stick to the team; high-profile coaches looking for publicity will flock to the conference.

But that's just exposure. When you start talking finances, the impact is staggering. The ESPN deal is massive and ground-breaking, and it only stands to reason that the schools will benefit greatly. ACC schools average $6.1 mil from TV deals. The SEC will almost triple that total, with most estimates being anywhere between the range of $15 and $17 mil annually. You don't need to be a rocket scientist to figure out what that means, especially when almost every other school in the country is cutting back on their athletic department figures - the SEC could be entering an era of economic dominance.

Luckily for the ACC, their contracts with both ESPN (for football) and Raycom (for basketball) run out in 2011. Because deals are generally negotiated a year ahead of time, the talks will begin soon. Swofford has consistently asserted that they'll attempt to stick to ESPN and Raycom, but are open to new possibilities. With the economy the way it is currently, one would have to think that there needs to be a new approach if they hope to stay competitive - not even catch up to, but just stay in the same ballpark - with the SEC.

There are various roads the ACC could take from this point. The first, most boring, least rewarding, but also least risky move is to re-up with either ESPN or Raycom. I highly doubt they'd return to the "football for one/basketball for another" method they used the past few years. Football is simply too weak right now to garner any solid money, and the strength of basketball would leverage it out to bring the number higher. I think ESPN may have trouble dishing out another big contract, whether due to issues with finances or a contractual obligation to the SEC that the ACC may find objectionable (for instance, fewer games would be televised for the ACC because ESPN has already agreed to televise X number of SEC games). Regardless of which factor causes it, there looms a possibility of - gulp - an all-Raycom lineup.

For the sake of neatness, the rest of the ACC's options are below the jump.

I honestly believe, and hope, that Swofford will heavily examine alternative options. Perhaps the most popular of these methods right now (with the media, at least) is an ACC/Pac-10 exclusive network, kind of like the Big Ten Network. I'm not going to lie - there's a lot of sense in it. Raycom did the same thing with basketball games - using a primetime (on the east coast) ACC game to lead into another prime time (on the west coast) Pac-10 game - and it worked. It essentially doubles the amount of prime-time available. Also, because the Big Televen led the way there, they could possibly learn from their mistakes and avoid the issues they had (which were plentiful).

There are a ton of hurdles with this option, of course. There's a good of a chance that major cable companies will take too long to pick it up, most households still won't get it, and it'll bring in minimal revenue. For comparison's sake, the Big Ten Network pulled in $66 mil last year, or about $6 mil a team. Even if the ACC-10 (or Pac-ACC - I haven't decided) could double that - 2 conferences > 1 conference; I still doubt they have that pull, though, at least not in football - they'd still be splitting it among 22 teams, meaning it would barely replace what ACC teams get now, and not come close to SEC teams.

That doesn't mean, of course, that it can't be a solid secondary source of income for the conference.

The third, most intriguing option is bringing in a third party. Andrew Jones of Buster Sports brought up the possibility of FOX, if only in passing, but that really caught my attention. If the ACC wants to go another route, I'm sure NBC would entertain talks of expanding their currently Notre Dame-centric CFB lineup. FOX, which currently televises the BCS and the Cotton Bowl, may want to expand as well.

Of course, landing a big time contract from either of these in these economic conditions may be difficult - the SEC deal was finalized in 2008, when the phrase "recession" was only just entering Americans' minds. Plus, ESPN already has the college football infrastructure - NBC and FOX's infrastructures are much smaller, and would have to undergo an overhaul to be able to handle a full lineup.

That said, FOX and NBC aren't about to die out right now, and are diversified enough to undergo some expansion, even now. If they don't think they can handle a full ACC lineup (or a joint Pac-ACC lineup), they could still do a "Game of the Week" type of thing, which would probably be pretty successful.

There's another option that I'm excited about: new media. Swofford mentioned it a few times - several times in this interview, then once in this one. New media refers to basically anything based in new technology - mostly, in this case, streaming video. Could the ACC be considering launching a kind of ESPN360/March Madness on Demand type service, both of which have actually done quite well?I firmly believe it could succeed as a secondary source, provided it's free, like the other two services are. Make viewers watch the normal commercials, maybe one or two ads upon entering a video, maybe even throw up a small, translucent banner on the video like YouTube does now.

There's already a basic version of this - that would be ACC Select, a pay-per-view type service that broadcasts most games (of any sport) that aren't televised. If it were to become a service to be relied upon as a legitimate source of income, it would need to be expanded, revamped, and take a different approach to monetizing, but the base is there.

So, what's the best option for the ACC? Well, that depends on your outlook. The ESPN/Raycom approach probably won't fail, but isn't as lucrative as the others could be. The Pac-ACC Network could be a great channel and provide nearly as much income as ACC schools receive right now anyway, but has a lot of hurdles. FOX or NBC could provide a compelling alternative, but they aren't looking for expansion right now. Games on-demand online would up exposure and bring in advertising revenue, but probably couldn't be more than a secondary or tertiary source.

Personally, I'd love to see a two- or three-headed approach. See if FOX or NBC have any interest, and if not, re-up  with Raycom. Maybe give FOX or NBC a "game of the week" type deal if they aren't interested in a full-time expansion but are still interested. Then either try to launch a new channel - the Big Televen has both the BTN and an ESPN deal, after all - or expand the ACC Select service, or both. Ultimately, expansion of ACC Select seems more probable, if only because the base is already there.

If they decide to go with the traditional, one method approach, the ACC very well could be left in the dust unless Raycom or ESPN are willing to offer substantially more money than before. The only way to truly catch up to the SEC, in my opinion, is to diversify and bring in different sources of revenue. Of course, with the economy currently down in the dumps, opening up several different new types of distributions could prove troubling financially. Regardless, it's almost certain that the old, traditional model won't net the ACC enough to stay as competitive as they want.

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