GREENSBORO — How far we’ve come from the early days of the ACC, when C.D. Chelsey’s weekly basketball broadcasts were a rare treat.
In just a couple of months, fans of the league will have Commissioner John Swofford’s candy store permanently at their fingertips — 24 hours a day, 365 days a year — as the league launches the ACC Network, offering wall-to-wall programming for the conference beginning Aug. 22.
This is what those growing pains were all about, starting in 2009 when the landscape of college athletics began shifting and the nation’s best basketball conference had to make some tough choices to preserve its relevance moving forward.
“The biggest challenges were expansion and people understanding the expansion, trying to explain why it was important, why we needed to get to where we were and obviously, some things came after 2009,” Swofford said. “We had to put ourselves in position to be able to have that opportunity.”
The network has been a decade in the making, precipitated by the massive television revenues for college football that began to emerge at the turn of the millennium.
Having hung its hat on the nation’s strongest basketball tradition since its inception, Swofford and other ACC leaders saw the writing on the wall.
“We were a basketball-centric conference,” he said. “We had to redefine ourselves, from a business standpoint, on the football side of things in order to maximize the longer-term revenues we were going to need to continue to compete at the level we wanted to compete.”
Only in the early 2000s did the ACC’s football revenues surpass its basketball income, which was a rarity among major conferences.
The Big Ten and its massive public universities with huge alumni bases took the first step in television, partnering with Fox Sports to launch the Big Ten Network in 2007, famously airing Appalachian State’s victory at Michigan as its first live game.
More than a decade later, it’s safe to say the Big Ten Network has been a success, but that wasn’t without hiccups early, as cable and satellite providers didn’t add the channel en masse early on. In fact, only two major providers made the network available at the start.
On the other hand, the SEC Network, which partnered with ESPN, was on almost every major national cable system for its Aug. 14, 2014, launch.
That’s something the ACC took note of, strategically delaying its launch until 2019 when several of Disney’s key contracts came up for renewal. Already, the ACC Network has deals with DirecTV, Google Fiber, Hulu Live TV, Optimum, PlayStation Vue, Suddenlink and Verizon Fios.
Swofford is pleased with the current distribution reach and optimistic about what’s to come between now and the launch.
“ESPN being a part of Disney, they have tremendous leverage in the marketplace and that’s very important both from an advertising standpoint and certainly a distribution standpoint,” he said.
Naturally, the two conferences with the most successful networks have soared above the field in terms of revenue, with the Big Ten bringing in $51.1 million per school in television revenue for the 2017-18 season, and the SEC at $40.9 million.
The Big 12, which doesn’t have its own network, brought in $34.3 million per member and the Pac-12, which has struggled without a partner for its network, did $31.5 million per member.
The ACC, which saw its schools get $26.9 million per institution, is expecting its television revenue to become competitive with the Big Ten and SEC.
That’s especially important in the current media landscape where football drives the bus, which is precisely the change that other conference leaders saw on the horizon and had to begin shifting the conference.
Currently, Swofford said, television and media revenues make up 75 to 80% of the ACC’s revenue.
“It’s been a huge change for us,” he said. “Probably bigger than any other autonomy conference, but it’s been a change for everybody.
“We had to understand that, grasp it and really improve from a football standpoint.”
Progress isn’t easy and it certainly wasn’t for some fans, losing the round-robin schedule and seeing the ACC Tournament played in New York. But in the end, it’s proven necessary.
It’s been tough to see Maryland go and tough to adjust to new rivalries, but without realignment, there would be no ACC Network, and perhaps, even no ACC as the league could have been left behind.
“As a nine-member league, we could see some real struggles coming for us in the early 2000s if we didn’t expand our footprint,” Swofford said.