Last summer saw the long-awaited news that ESPN would actually launch an ACC Network, first as a streaming-only product but with a TV network by 2019. However, with the recent rounds of ESPN cuts and other belt-tightening, there’s skepticism out there about if the TV network will actually come to pass. Both sides of the issue are illustrated in this Syracuse.com piece from Brent Axe, with Syracuse athletic director (and former ESPN executive vice president for production and programming) John Wildhack saying the launch is on schedule and renowned journalist and ESPN observer Jim Miller being more cautious about the network’s prospects.
During an interview on ESPN Radio Syracuse last week, Syracuse University athletic director John Wildhack said the network is on track to launch as planned.
“It won’t impact our deal with the ACC,” Wildhack said of ESPN’s recent cuts. “Our deal runs through 2036. The ACC Network will launch as scheduled in 2019. I think ESPN will put all their muscle and support toward making sure the launch is a success because they are a partner and they have a vested interest in making sure the ACC Network is a financial success.”
…During an appearance on The “Sports Illustrated Media Podcast” with Richard Deitsch, Miller said doesn’t think ESPN can commit to the ACC Network as planned in 2019.
“I wouldn’t count on it,” Miller said. “I think that is part of the recalculation they are doing looking forward, in particular since that will be on the eve of these big rights deals we have been talking about. And they are going to need to save money.”
Miller later said on Twitter that Wildhack is more specifically informed on this issue, but his general point was that there’s very little in ESPN’s future that’s set in stone. And from the outside, the ACC Network is an obvious target to be skeptical of. We’ve seen that it’s becoming a tougher and tougher world for smaller cable networks (including ESPNews and ESPN Classic), and that certainly would seem to apply to conference networks as well.
Moreover, the ACC wouldn’t seem to have the numbers of rabid football fans that help the SEC Network and the Big Ten Network survive and thrive. Look at the issues the Pac-12 Networks are having, especially with distribution, and they have plenty of advantages over the ACC (including a much earlier launch, way back in 2011). ACC commissioner John Swofford’s comment in Axe’s article that “We know, cumulatively, ACC football and basketball regularly generates more viewers for ESPN than any other conference” is incredible spin, and only works because it’s about total viewers rather than per-game averages; ESPN shows more ACC games than those from other conferences, as their games aren’t usually split with the likes of Fox or CBS, and aren’t relegated to conference networks.
The ACC is a strong basketball conference with great football success at a few schools (including two national titles in the last five years), but it’s very hard to spin it as a massive draw. That’s a big part of why it doesn’t already have a TV network. And when ESPN agreed to do the ACC Network, many figured that was more about avoiding contractual penalties for not doing so than actual interest in the product. There are plenty of reasons to wonder if a linear ACC Network makes any sense in the new world order, and if ESPN will actually launch one.
Of course, on the other hand, there’s good reason for ACC schools to be excited about the prospect of an ACC Network. The lack of a conference network has caused the conference to fall behind the big two (the Big Ten and the SEC) in per-school payouts, and a network may help change that. Florida State’s athletic director said in February that the streaming-only product is expected to deliver per-school distributions of $3 million this year, and that distributions could jump to $10-15 million per school per year a few years after the linear network launches.
However, the question is if it will still make sense for ESPN to invest in this kind of network in 2019. And while Wildhack has experience on the other side, the current bias of his job at Syracuse is important to consider; of course he’s going to make statements about how great and valuable ACC programming is, as he works at an ACC school. Skepticism seems well-deserved given the current TV climate. While the ACC Network TV launch may still be planned for 2019 at the moment, a lot could change by then, and the business case for it doesn’t seem so favorable that its launch is an utter certainty.