When the ACC Network clicks to life Thursday night, the ACC forges ahead into a new and promising but still uncertain future, but it is not alone.
Although the network is branded with, focused on and saturated by the ACC, it’s really an ESPN operation. The ACC provides the content, and its schools and students handle most of the lower-level production.
But this is unquestionably an ESPN venture, and as such, its success or failure is largely out of the ACC’s hands.
This isn’t a terrible thing for the conference, it’s just different.
The ACC no longer has control over its own destiny. The history of the conference will forever be divided into pre-network and post-network.
ESPN and Disney, its corporate parent, have a long history of making money for their partners. ESPN is not in the habit of getting into unsuccessful ventures. It does not have a history of giving up quickly on major investments, even those that don’t turn out exactly as planned. The Longhorn Network is out there, still plugging away!
The ACC Network is a long-haul play for ESPN, which is why it took so long to convince the network to get on board in the first place. In the absence of the fervid fandom of SEC football, ESPN had to be convinced of the ACC’s marketability (enter the most recent round of expansion and the rise of Clemson football) and its durability (the grant of rights that locked in the league’s membership after Maryland’s departure).
Even in an era of cord-cutting and unplugging, ESPN remains a strong draw both via traditional and satellite providers and via the internet. The ACC Network will be pulled along in its wake, as it has during carriage negotiations that successfully landed the network on Spectrum/Charter and DirecTV, even if Comcast is still hanging out there, a major unsolved problem.
There are risks, of course, but they are small and insignificant compared with the risks the ACC would face by not having a network of its own to attempt to keep pace with the Big Ten and SEC, while securing its position ahead of the network-less Big 12 and the weak-networked Pac-12, the latter having launched its network without a partner like ESPN (ACC/SEC) or Fox (Big Ten) and now shouts into the late-night void.
No, the risks here for the ACC aren’t financial. The network may lag behind or it may do fine or it may print money, but all of those are better than the status quo. This had to be done to keep from falling farther behind. The money will work out, one way or another. And if the entire cable-satellite-bundle ecosystem collapses, the ACC won’t be the only conference scrambling to pick up the pieces. That’s all fine.
The risk, in handing the keys to the conference over to ESPN, is in the greater implications. The ACC will no longer be doing what’s best for its schools or its athletes; it will do whatever is best for the network. Not consciously, to be sure. But choices will have to be made, on everything from scheduling to potential expansion, and the deciding factor will inevitably be what it means for the network. It now pays the bills. It now calls the shots.
The ACC had to have this network, but it also had to relinquish its autonomy to get it. It’s a different conference now, not the one founded at Sedgefield Country Club. No one from ESPN was in the room then. They have since bought a seat at the table.
The network itself is going to be fine. The numbers have been adequately crunched, and ESPN’s commitment to making it uniquely ACC has, so far, been apparent, from the elevation of Wes Durham and Mark Packer to the documentaries commissioned for the network’s rollout. Fans are probably going to love it, other than all the unusual start days and times to fill otherwise vacant airwaves.
The ACC is going to be fine, financially. How it reckons with what it has become is what it faces now.