When Atlantic Coast Conference teams open the season this week, their games will air on several television platforms, from ABC and Fox to ESPNU and the CBS Sports Network.
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A year from now, that list will also include the ACC's own channel.
League schools are working on production and broadcast space for the ACC Network's launch in August 2019 . The conference is mulling football and basketball scheduling that adds extra zip to first-year programming for the ESPN-partnered channel.
The short-term goal is a good start amid industry-wide concerns about falling subscriber numbers for many TV providers as cord-cutters opt for standalone services such as YouTube TV. Beyond that, the ACC needs a reliable financial boost after falling behind its power-conference peers: the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern conferences.
"I think there's some other things we can do (financially), that we are looking at," Commissioner John Swofford told The Associated Press. "But none of those things would reach the ultimate potential that the channel has."
Swofford said it could take four or five years to reap the channel's full financial benefits.
Member schools are counting on that money.
"The single most important thing for the future of this athletic program financially is the success of the ACC Network, without question," North Carolina State athletic director Debbie Yow said.
"We have maxed out on our multimedia rights deal. We have maxed out on our apparel deal. We have maxed out on our tickets sales in football, we're close to that in basketball," Yow said. "All the financial resources that are available for us to go get, we've done really well in. We've kind of hit the wall. ... We have to have it just like the SEC and the Big Ten did."
Federal tax filings for the power conferences illustrate Yow's point — and a growing gap.
For documents covering the 2007-08 school year, the ACC ranked second in total revenue ($162.7 million) and average payout to member schools ($11.8 million). That was slightly more than the SEC and behind the Big Ten ($217.7 million total revenue, $18.8 million average payout) after that league became the first with its own channel in August 2007.
By 2016-17, the ACC's total revenue had reached a league-record $418.1 million but trailed the SEC ($650 million), the Big Ten ($512.9 million) and the Pac-12 ($509.4 million). Its average payout for 14 full-time members — Notre Dame gets a partial share as a football independent with its own NBC TV deal — averaged $26.6 million, while the 15 schools additionally received an average of more than $960,000 in reimbursements for conference championship expenses.
By comparison, the SEC — which launched its ESPN-partnered channel in 2014 — distributed nearly $41 million per school. The Big Ten averaged about $37 million when factoring out reduced shares for past-decade additions Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers. The Big 12 averaged $34.3 million despite lacking its own TV channel, though it has fewer mouths to feed at 10 schools and one of those — Texas — sporting a separate 20-year ESPN deal for the Longhorn Network, launched in 2011.
The Pac-12 averaged nearly $31 million after launching its league-owned network in 2012, though it has been unable to get the channels on DirecTV and has had trouble getting broad access on cable providers outside the region.
The financial numbers keep increasing. The Big 12 said in June that its average payout would grow to $36.5 million following 2017-18 amid its TV deal with ESPN and Fox Sports running through 2024-25. And there are projections that Big Ten schools could soon cross $50 million .
Swofford has declined to publicly discuss financial projections for the ACC Network.
One factor will be distribution deals between ESPN's majority owner — Disney — and cable providers to carry the channel. Swofford pointed to an October deal between Disney and Altice USA that includes the ACC and SEC networks for the New York area as "a very good start for us, optically as well as practically."
"The fortunate thing for us is our partner," Swofford said. "Because not only in terms of their being the leader in sports television and production, talent and so forth — it's Disney, and it's ESPN, and it's ESPN2, and it's ESPNU and it's ESPN News. But it's all those Disney channels. And that's powerful in the marketplace."
Dean Jordan, a global media managing executive with the Wasserman media group who has represented the league in negotiations with ESPN, declined to discuss the ACC Network specifically but said sports remain "the big value driver" with distribution deals.
"When you think about it, people's greatest passions are for their favorite teams and their favorite team's competitors," Jordan said. "That's why regional networks are so popular. . When you look at why college football in general has risen to the heights it has, it's because all over the country in communities big or small, there are these college programs that ignite passion in their alumni, their students and their fans.
"Same as fans of the pro teams, but there's a lot more colleges and they touch a lot more people."
As for programming, the ACC previously announced a 20-game men's basketball league schedule for the channel's debut 2019-20 season. Swofford said it is possible that could include seven season-opening conference matchups before resuming the league slate in December and January — an unusual step considering the last time two ACC teams met in a season-opening conference matchup came in December 1967, according to the league.
Swofford said it is "probable" the 2019 football schedule opens with conference games, too, for attractive matchups "out of the chute."
"The ACC Network, for it to come on board and for us to have the opportunity to really showcase what this league is all about, like some of the other leagues who have taken advantage of that opportunity — the Big Ten Network, the SEC Network, whatever — it's just great for our programs," Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney said. "It's great for our players. And I don't have any doubt it'll be something our fans will truly love."
AP Sports Writers Stephen Hawkins in Fort Worth, Texas; Pete Iacobelli in Clemson, South Carolina; and Jim Vertuno in Austin, Texas; contributed to this report.
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