An underrated challenge in launching a conference network is building not just the central production facilities, but the facilities required at member schools. David Teel of The Hampton Roads Daily Press has a fascinating in-depth look at what that means with the forthcoming ACC Network for Virginia and Virginia Tech, both of whom estimate millions in required infrastructure costs (and that’s before you get to the staffing costs):
[Whit] Babcock, the Hokies’ athletic director, ballparks the infrastructure cost at $5 million-$7 million. His colleagues at the University of Virginia concur.
U.Va. recently completed $6 million in upgrades that include control rooms and a spacious studio. Years in the planning, the project awaited only last summer’s green light from the conference and its broadcast partner, ESPN.
…The ACC cable channel is scheduled to debut in August 2019, but to minimize initial hiccups, ESPN wants the league’s 15 schools to be operational a year in advance. This requires infrastructure and personnel capable of producing network-caliber programming.
“It’s a very daunting timeline,” [Virginia Tech’s Brian] Walls said.
Virginia, Florida State and Duke are far ahead of pace, with the ACC’s 12 other campuses in various states of readiness. All will spend millions, initially on facilities, then on manpower.
Teel’s piece is fascinating because it also dives into the sheer space and logistics required for these kinds of production facilities. Virginia has built three control rooms at the court level of its basketball arena and converted its former merchandise store at street level into a broadcast studio, and they’re also creating a two-mile cable connection to their football stadium (which will avoid future costs for renting production trucks). Meanwhile, Virginia Tech is renovating, with the assistance of professionals like a Home Builder, to build “two linear control rooms, an audio booth within each control room, a server room to house CPUs (central processing units), equipment storage areas and offices for new staffers,” aiming for 5,000 square feet of space and quadrupling its fiber connections.
This helps speak to why the ACC Network’s linear (TV) launch is so far away; it was announced last summer, but won’t go on the air until 2019. It sounds like most of the schools have massive infrastructure upgrades to make before then, to say nothing of staffing requirements. And Teel’s piece also notes that there are demands well beyond just TV, from in-stadium video board content to digital game and feature production. ESPN is gradually ramping up the demands for digital production, too, requiring ACC schools to collectively produce 600 events for ACC Network Extra in 2016-17, which will grow by 125 annually and cap at 975 in 2019-20. So there’s plenty of pressure to start creating content long before 2019.
Another interesting element in Teel’s piece is that there are incentives for schools to go well beyond the minimums (in both technical specifications and numbers of events produced). Walls made some notable comments on that front:
“You’ve got to be smart with your money,” Walls said. “While ESPN offers you a linear production guideline, it’s basically a minimum standard. That is the bare minimum, and you shouldn’t go into it thinking you’re just going to need to purchase the bare minimum with regard to anything, from lenses to replay to audio mixers. …
“SEC schools were so rushed, they’ve all had to add to infrastructure they initially built because they don’t have enough equipment to support (simultaneous linear productions). Most of them built one linear-ready control room, and now they’re going back and building a second or third, and that’s what we’re trying to get out in front on in the next year. …
“The conference as a whole has X number of linear broadcasts they have to deliver. If they see that Virginia Tech doesn’t necessarily have the best equipment, Virginia Tech might not get selected for (as many) linear broadcasts. Let’s make sure our minimum is above their minimum.”
That will be well worth watching as the digital production ramps up and the linear network launch approaches. Which schools are investing more into their facilities and production, and are their events being selected for more prominent display than their records might indicate thanks to those technical investments? That could be a delicate balance to walk, especially when it comes to the linear network (on digital, it’s much easier to offer everything and let viewers choose, but on linear, you have to make choices about what to air). Of course ESPN will want to show the highest-quality broadcasts possible, but it will also want to show teams that are performing well and are relevant in the national picture.
In any case, the main takeaway from this piece is that building this kind of a network is going to pose major challenges for the ACC’s schools, from finding space to running cable to hiring staffers. And it’s going to be extremely pricey. That’s why ESPN’s assurances that there will still be a linear ACC Network (despite outside skepticism) are so important, as building all this for digital and main ESPN channels only would seem like huge overkill. The schools are investing a lot of money and other resources into preparations for the linear ACC Network, and they’re hoping that those investments will be rewarded. We’ll see how they pay off.