The ACC Network will launch August 22, and will broadcast their first football game (Georgia Tech-Clemson) just one week later. In the time between the announcement and launch, the ACC and ESPN have been trying to make carriage agreements with all the top cable/satellite and streaming providers to show the channel at launch. But a lot of those providers haven’t signed on yet.
While deals have been made with DirecTV, Verizon Fios, Altice, Hulu and others, there remain some major holdouts on the ACC Network as zero hour approaches. Comcast, Dish and Charter in particular haven’t agreed to a deal yet, which would mark a sizable portion of the country without access to the new network. As per David Glenn of The Athletic, just 20 million households subscribe to a service that has an announced deal to carry the ACC Network, with most of those being due to DirecTV. However, more deals are expected to be announced soon, and Glenn’s sources say the network is expected to debut with 30 million to 50 million subscribers. That would be quite good compared to many other college networks’ debuts, but is still a long ways from the estimated 86 million subscribers ESPN has. And Comcast, Dish and Charter collectively have about 47 million homes, so they’re significant holdouts here.
Of course, ACC and ESPN execs are putting up a brave front and are saying they’re optimistic things will work out. But they’re also pulling out a lot of stops to try and get potential viewers to lobby companies to add them. The ACC is bringing out the big guns in North Carolina men’s basketball coach Roy Williams, Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, and Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney for announcements telling fans they could be without games or original programming that they could be interested in if they don’t notify their provider they want the ACC Network.
Optimism about whether or not the ACC can make these deals depends on who you ask. As Glenn notes, there’s still a fair bit of time ahead of the launch, and many carriage deals are only done late in the process. Glenn’s sources estimate And ACC commissioner John Swofford is confident deals can be reached, as ESPN parent Disney can use their other networks as bargaining chips in carriage negotiations. As Swofford told Glenn, “Clearly, ESPN brings tremendous leverage to the distribution table. That’s one of the many reasons, one of the biggest reasons, we’ve been so optimistic about the ACC Network from the start.”
Swofford isn’t the only optimistic one, either. Sean Breen, the senior vice president of affiliate sales for Disney and ESPN Media Networks, told Glenn “We have great momentum with the ACC Network. We’ve hit our stride in the marketplace, and we’ll have more (carriage) announcements coming soon.” And ESPN spokesperson Amy Phillips seems similarly confident that deals will be reached. In a statement last week to Curt Weiler of The Tallahassee Democrat, Phillips said, “We are pleased with the distribution agreements we have in place and continue to have productive conversations with distributors across the ACC footprint and beyond.”
But Florida State associate athletics director Jason Dennard seems less optimistic, because he hasn’t seen much progress between the two sides to necessitate the appropriate urgency to get something done. And Dennard has a particularly interesting perspective, as only three providers available in Tallahassee have signed on so far; DirecTV, Hulu, and Playstation Vue. Comcast and Dish are big players in that market, but Dennard told Weiler last week there’s “no traction at this point on them airing it,” and he put out a call to action to Seminoles fans to contact Comcast about the network.
“What we’re encouraging everybody, especially locally in Tallahassee, is to contact Comcast and let them know you want it,” Dennard said. “That’s the only way it’s going to happen at this point is people are going to have to make their voices known because I would say there are ongoing negotiations with them, but there’s no urgency on their part yet.”
Dennard had no issues with the setup and actual implementation of the network. In fact, he was impressed with the network and noted that it’s ready to go. It just needs to get into households. But that’s not an insigificant hurdle.
Carriage negotiations going to the last minute isn’t an uncommon occurrence. When the Big Ten Network launched, they were making deals up until the final moments before their launch, and the SEC Network did something similar. And it’s understandable why that happens; the volume of requests for a network tends to rise dramatically when programming people actually want to watch gets closer, especially live games. (Which is why ACC Network has stacked its early schedule with some big games, including Georgia Tech-Clemson on Aug. 29.) So this carriage situation could look a lot better when the actual launch rolls around.
Having said that, times are different than when the Big Ten and SEC launched their networks, and deals aren’t always inevitable. The Pac-12 has had their network since 2012, and they still haven’t been able to get a deal with DirecTV. (In fact, they have an estimated 19 million subscribers, which is less than the ACC Network’s already announced a month before launch.)
The Pac-12 Networks aren’t quite directly comparable, as they’re independent rather than allied with Fox (like the Big Ten Network) or ESPN (like the SEC and ACC Networks). So they have much less leverage in carriage negotiations. That conference has also recently found much less success in football and men’s basketball than the ACC. But the Pac-12 Networks are proof that college networks aren’t always a must-add, especially when there’s a rising tide of viewers complaining about what they pay for cable or satellite and defecting to cheaper streaming services.
The ACC’s already ahead of the Pac-12 in subscribers, and they look to shoot ahead in conference revenue too after this new network launches. But just how high they go will be determined by their carriage deals. And we’ll see just how many carriage deals get struck in this final month.