There’s been plenty of recent discussion around if ESPN will actually launch the ACC Network on TV in 2019 as planned, given the ongoing budget cuts at the network and the growing challenges for conference networks and smaller networks. Syracuse athletic director (and former ESPN executive vice-president) John Wildhack was very confident about it going ahead as expected recently, though, and it appears his view is shared by ACC commissioner John Swofford, who cited assurances from ESPN president John Skipper. A memo from Swofford Wednesday to ACC athletic directors and other officials was posted on Twitter by North Carolina syndicated radio host David Glenn, and that memo features Swofford saying Skipper gave “total confirmation” that “the ACC/ESPN linear network launch is full speed ahead”:
— David Glenn Show (@DavidGlennShow) May 3, 2017
Nothing like shots at “so called ‘experts’ on social media” (and it really should be “so-called”). And if Swofford is referring to Jim Miller, who made some comments questioning if this would go ahead to SI, Miller is far from a so-called expert; he literally wrote the book (well, one of the books, anyway) on ESPN, and his reporting and analysis on the network has been proven correct many times. Miller did later say on Twitter after Wildhack’s comments that Wildhack was more specifically informed on this issue, but that his general point was there’s very little certain about ESPN’s future. And, presuming Swofford’s comments here are true and Skipper has given him those assurances, it’s worth wondering why ESPN seems so committed to this particular idea when so much else is up in the air.
From the outside, a linear ACC Network appears to be anything but a sure success. Distribution battles are getting uglier and uglier all the time, as the Pac-12 Networks and Time Warner’s Sportsnet LA have found, and while neither of those has the advantage of ESPN ownership (ESPN has a lot of negotiating advantages, especially around potentially using their other channels as leverage), it’s not going to be easy to convince distributors to pony up for yet another channel.
Cable and satellite providers are already seeing lots of people cut the cord, with high prices often cited as a reason why, and adding more channels will only to boost those prices. Is there really going to be enough demand for an ACC Network? And beyond that, there’s a question about inventory, as a lot of the top games that would be on a linear ACC Network are currently carried on other ESPN platforms. Will ESPN be willing to hurt its other channels to send some of those to the new venture?
One element that’s been mused about is ESPN potentially turning one of its lesser-used channels (likely ESPNews or ESPN Classic, possibly even ESPNU) into the ACC Network, similar to how Fox converted Speed into Fox Sports One (now FS1). That might actually make a lot of sense, as then they’re starting with some distribution instead of starting from scratch; there likely would be some renegotiation of rights, but this seems possible, especially with ESPN parent Disney recently lowering the carriage emphasis on those channels. So that might help, but launching a linear TV network is still expensive and difficult, and it may be even more difficult in 2019.
Of course, there are contractual penalties for ESPN if they don’t do so (reportedly up to $45 million annually), and that may be part of what’s pushing them to stay so committed to this despite the warning signs. And there are some potential benefits, too; ESPN has ACC rights through 2036, and if the network helps grow the ACC’s profile, those rights could become more valuable. But that has to be weighed against the costs of launching a new venture like this. In any case, if Swofford’s comments and Skipper’s comments to him are to be believed, it does seem that plans are continuing for a linear ACC Network. It will be interesting to watch just how that develops.
[The David Glenn Show on Twitter]