C.D. Chesley probably isn’t rolling over in his grave on quiet Grandfather Mountain this week, but even the ACC’s pioneer of television couldn’t have imagined what we’re about to see.
When the ACC Network flickers and flashes onto the screen at 7 p.m. Thursday, another era in sports television will have come and gone, replaced by a dream no one thought possible all those years ago.
We’re no longer sailing with the pilot. We’re bouncing signals off satellites, dancing with the stars.
The ACC has been a part of our lives since its founding in 1953 in the old Sedgefield Inn in Greensboro, and for its entire history the league seemed tethered to its beginnings. Quaint, local, collegial and comfortable.
No more. Now the ACC has gone Hollywood. Or at least Bristol, where ESPN has built a new Connecticut studio exclusively for the league’s network, a launching pad for who knows what.
For the ACC’s staid old followers, most of them right here in North Carolina, there’s a nostalgic feeling to all of this, almost a sense of loss. This isn’t your grandfather’s conference any more.
While 1953 felt like yesterday for the old guard, it suddenly feels like a long, long time ago. And it also feels as if another little piece of the old ACC is gone forever.
This is going to be an interesting venture for the league, a leap of faith, really. There’s no risk in the belief that ACC fans will watch. But the unknown is in how much they will watch.
The league has certain strengths, and it’s no secret that basketball is far and away the strongest product. But even within basketball, there’s no guarantee that new fans will suddenly sprout in new places.
Duke, Carolina, N.C. State, Louisville, Virginia and Syracuse have loud and longtime fan bases that tend to overlap and draw in others. The new network will try to expand on that and hope that a Tuesday night game between Georgia Tech and Boston College will convince people in North Carolina to switch from Netflix or YouTube to watch.
In football, only Clemson and Florida State are national brands. The rest of the league’s schools have regional followers. So again, will the New York market care about Wake Forest playing Pittsburgh on a Saturday night?
And the idea that viewers are awaiting ACC tennis or soccer or field hockey or even baseball is a stretch.
What they are awaiting is the unknown, the studio morning shows that will come across as polished versions of the old "Dean Smith Show" or even the old "Prudential College Scoreboard" shows of the '60s and '70s.
The first show we'll watch is "All ACC," a news-and-information studio show.
Also airing early will be a look back at Mike Krzyzewski’s first full recruiting class that saved Krzyzewski from being fired and jump-started the Duke program that has become one of the most successful in college basketball history. It’s good TV. You’re going to want to watch it.
It will remind us all of what is was like in the glory days of the old ACC.
That was in 1986, when there were eight teams in the league and we could watch the entire conference in one day.
And we would.
Those days are over, and what we’re about to see is a great experiment by the ACC, a bold idea based on a throwback mentality that there are indeed ACC fans, not just Carolina fans or State fans or Syracuse fans. The idea is that, just as in the days of Jim Thacker and Billy Packer, and even back to the days of Pilot Life and C.D. Chesley, that ACC fans are unique, that they truly care passionately about their school and the others, too.
That’s the real test. Is the tennis program at Wake Forest worth watching on television? Is the women’s soccer program at North Carolina more than a regional curiosity? Do we really care about college baseball or women’s basketball?
Those are questions we’ve never really asked, certainly not in terms of dedicated viewers and overnight ratings.
The league has watched the other conference television networks and have seen what sells and what doesn’t. The ACC believes it has a better product, a more-rounded fan base and, quite frankly, a better idea than the others.
This isn’t going to be a series of shows and games but a never-ending storyline of a league – its past, present and future.
We’re not in Sedgefield anymore.
We’re headed into another galaxy far, far away.
The ACC has grown from a simple idea into a national brand, a league that has reinvented itself through the years, morphing into a conference that dominates an entire time zone.
Now it has to introduce itself to a new generation of fans who have new options for watching bold new programs, not just on television but in multiple ways.
If it works, it will be because the ACC was right all along, that the schools, their alumni and casual fans are indeed unique, that they feel a part of the league’s history and cling to the simple idea that formed the ACC all those years ago.
And that idea is that we are somehow all in this together, still gathered around the radio, listening to ACC basketball on a cold winter night.
It’s a timeless idea about to face its boldest test ever.