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The pilot sails no more: After four decades, ACC’s longtime TV partner signs off

The pilot still sails, quietly, behind the scenes.

Before the first game of the ACC tournament in Charlotte, the Raycom television crew will listen, over their headsets, to the old “Sail with the Pilot” jingle of the Pilot Life insurance company that once sponsored the ubiquitous syndicated broadcasts of ACC basketball.

In the production truck, and at the broadcast position, and behind the cameras, and everywhere else, they’ll sing along:

Sail with the Pilot at the wheel/On a ship sturdy from its mast to its keel

He guides through storm and wave/insures you while you save

That jingle has been off the air for years, but for the ACC it represents something bigger than life insurance. It’s a link to C.D. Chesley’s groundbreaking Saturday ACC broadcasts on local affiliates, WRAL in Raleigh, WBTV in Charlotte, WFMY in Greensboro. It’s a callback to Jefferson-Pilot, which partnered with Raycom to take over that package in 1982, becoming Lincoln Financial and then Raycom Sports and then the so-called ACC Network, the in-name-only precursor to the actual network ESPN will launch in August.

The common thread over the past 37 years has been Raycom, the Charlotte production company which became as much a part of the ACC as the ACC itself.

N.C. State’s game against Georgia Tech at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., was televised on Fox Sports South Wednesday, March, 6, 2019. Ethan Hyman

After almost four decades, Raycom will go off the air after the ACC championship game on Sunday, taking decades of history with it.

“We all grew up with it,” said Freddie Kiger, a Chapel Hill historian and television statistician who works for ESPN and Raycom. “That was a Saturday mantra. You huddled up around the television, and watched the game of the week.”

The pilot will sail no more.

But what a voyage it was. The ACC essentially launched televised coverage of college basketball as we know it, and that television package essentially created the ACC basketball juggernaut as we know it. What Chesley started, Raycom and its various partners expanded into the blanket coverage we know and expect today.

For all these years, Raycom has been as much a part of the ACC environment as any of the schools, right down to the Food Lion ads. When the televisions were rolled into classrooms across North Carolina and South Carolina and Virginia on the Friday of the ACC tournament, they were tuned to what would now be a Raycom affiliate, a local station bumping network programming – even soap operas, during the tournament – to show college basketball.

“You can ask everybody what channel they watched the tournament on, watched those games on,” said Wes Durham, who grew up watching his father call games for Chesley and will do play-by-play for Raycom in Charlotte. “They all remember.”

For decades, Raycom controlled all of the ACC’s television rights, selling games to ESPN and CBS. It also sold the ads, which accounted for the ubiquity of sponsors like Food Lion and Holly Farms Chicken. Raycom was so important to the ACC that when the conference sold control to ESPN in 2010, it insisted Raycom be cut into the deal. Cynics noted the presence of Chad Swofford, son of the ACC commissioner, on the Raycom payroll, but more than anything that underlined the symbiotic relationship between the two. Raycom retained the rights to broadcast the tournament, alongside ESPN.

ESPN is taking over completely now, both the mothership and the ACC Network when it launches in August. Raycom will still exist, as a production company instead of a broadcaster, but the branding will disappear from the airwaves along with the games.

While the ACC champion is celebrating in Charlotte, four decades of Raycom and seven decades of ACC television history will sign off for good.

“I don’t know that there’s any other rightsholder relationship like ours, that has lasted the term, the length of time, that ours has with the ACC,” said senior vice president George Johnson, who has been with Raycom for 27 years.

What we now know as Raycom is the heir to a legacy that started in 1957, when Castleman D. Chesley, a Philadelphia entrepreneur, sensed a market for television coverage back in North Carolina of the Tar Heels’ run through the NCAA tournament. From Philadelphia and Kansas City, Chesley beamed the games back to North Carolina. Chesley sensed the appetite for more.

The ACC became the first conference with a television deal, with Chesley starting with a Saturday game of the week in 1958 before growing into a full-fledged network by the 1970s. “Sail with the Pilot.” Jim Thacker and Bones McKinney and Billy Packer. It was groundbreaking stuff at the time. No one else was even close.

Charlie Harville, left, and ACC TV entrepreneur C.D. Chesley in 1962 in Louisville. File Photo

At its height in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Raycom was a massive sports distributor, controlling the rights to the ACC, SEC, Big 8 and other conferences, syndicating those games over local stations before the big cable broadcasters and regional sports networks accumulated the money and power to whittle those rights away. To the end, though, the ACC was always the flagship property. Raycom controlled the conference’s media rights, selling chunks to CBS and ESPN and regional sports networks, but keeping enough for itself.

The ‘80s in particular were a golden era for Raycom and the ACC, both dominant and generally unchallenged in their fields. In the Triangle alone, Dean Smith a colossus astride the conference, Mike Krzyzewski in ascendance, Jim Valvano’s insurgency in full force. And that’s before you even get to Lefty Driesell and Terry Holland and Bobby Cremins. The ACC’s success in what might have been its greatest decade was inexorably tied to the broadcast exposure it got from Raycom at a time when ESPN was still in its infancy.

“Raycom had rights to five or six conferences in that time period, but the bread and butter, the money maker, the one that carried us all, was the ACC,” said Jimmy Rayburn, Raycom’s chief operating officer. “Just because it had been done for so long. Everyone else was starting from scratch. TBS and some others had tried to do something, but nobody with the success Raycom and JP had with the ACC.”

Wes Durham and Mike Gminski, right, talk before N.C. State’s game against Georgia Tech at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, March, 6, 2019. Ethan Hyman

“It really has been the basis of everything that I’ve done,” said Bonner, who started in Chesley’s final year and has been with Raycom and its partners ever since.

As ESPN spread its tentacles across the world of college sports, the bond between Raycom and the ACC remained unexpectedly strong. It was overwhelmingly clear in 2010 that the conference’s future lay with ESPN, even as the network and conference decided against launching a stand-alone network. (That wouldn’t happen until 2016.) ESPN or Fox had money to offer from per-subscriber fees that Raycom couldn’t imagine with its advertising-based model. Whatever headstart Raycom had had on the big cable broadcasters, it had long ago evaporated. ACC commissioner John Swofford, essentially out of sentimentality, insisted ESPN cut Raycom in on the deal.

It was an unexpected twist in an era of dollar-minded, big-money sports, but it underlined the bond between the ACC and Raycom. Those games remained freighted with nostalgia.

Everyone else had ESPN. The ACC had this. It was, for better or worse, family.

“It was unique and it was ours,” Durham said. “That’s the thing. That’s kind of what we’re losing. We’re losing something that those of us who grew up in the original footprint of the five states, that’s kind of what we feel like is leaving at the end of this year.”

In some ways, it’s time. ESPN’s massive financial might long ago eclipsed what Raycom could squeeze out of advertising revenue, and the Raycom graphics and production started to look increasingly dated compared to ESPN’s cutting-edge presentation and polish. An ACC fan who came out of a 20-year coma would find almost everything about a Raycom broadcast both familiar and recognizable. (Tim Brando! Mike Gminski! Wait, Syracuse?)

In its later years, the noon Raycom football window became a badge of shame. If your team was in that game in October, you knew you could go ahead and cancel the vacation time you’d blocked for a bowl game. The image of Frank Beamer’s arms raised in triumph with Virginia Tech and Wake Forest tied 0-0 at the end of regulation may not have become a meme online without the Raycom graphics across the bottom half of the screen.

“Raycom is your buddy back home who knew you back when. ESPN is your work friend, and networking with them will help move you up the ladder.”

As Raycom disappears to viewers, it will live on behind the scenes. As part of the ACC Network deal, which saw Raycom relinquish the syndication rights it still had through 2027, Raycom received a long-term production agreement with ESPN to produce around 100 ACC games each season for the network, in addition to the ACC games Raycom already produces for regional sports networks like Fox Sports South, which includes 28 men’s basketball games and 17 football games.

ACC Network Football(2)
An ACC Network is scheduled to arrive in 2019, as announced here in 2016 during the league’s annual Football Kickoff. Chuck Burton AP

“In North Carolina and South Carolina, every game we did could be seen by 100 percent of people,” Rayburn said. “Next year, the ACC Network won’t even be close. You’ve got to do it, no question, and people will find it, but it don’t be close.”

It’s very much the end of an era for the ACC, a long-time partner being eased aside, in some ways similar to how Chesley was eased out by corporate syndicators like Raycom.

The ACC Network may replace Raycom, may improve upon it, but it can never replicate that connection, built over decades of the greatest years of the ACC.

“There has always been a passion, not just for basketball, but ACC basketball,” Bonner said. “It has always been exceedingly important.”

That’s what’s being lost after this week, a little piece of the old ACC that the newcomers could never understand that runs deep in the soul of anyone who grew up with it.

And if you listen closely enough Saturday night, as the Raycom broadcast goes off the air, you might be able to hear him, the pilot at the wheel, even if only in your head.

Raycom Sports will go off the air after the ACC tournament, concluding 37 years of broadcasting ACC basketball. Luke DeCock

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.