ACC Network goes live as college sports wars heat up

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With competition among major college sports conferences at an all-time high, the long-awaited launch of the ESPN-owned ACC Network Thursday night is expected to a major financial boost in the Atlantic Coast Conference's bid to catch up to the financially dominant SEC and Big Ten.

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The ACC and ESPN are set to split both revenue and costs on the new initiative, which will air dozens of games in football, basketball and other sports involving top programs such as Clemson and Duke in traditional cable TV and digital formats. Similar networks provide a sizable chunk of revenue that the Southeastern Conference (SEC) and Big Ten disperse to their schools, which then re-invest the proceeds into team facilities, coach salaries, equipment and other programs.

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After a lengthy pre-launch process, the ACC Network will look to lure paid subscribers and put its schools on equal financial footing with their out-of-conference rivals.

“This is a big thing for the ACC because they’re behind on per-conference economics and this network will fix some of that. This launch is a long time coming, but I think it’s being launched correctly," said Patrick Crakes, a sports media consultant and former Fox Sports executive. "This is going to catch them up and it’s going to put them in a position to generate revenue per school so they can make the investments necessary in football, basketball and other sports to compete as a conference.”

Despite a membership that includes some of the most marquee names in college football and basketball – traditionally the most lucrative sports in college athletics – the ACC has distributed far less to its schools in recent years. Bolstered by their successful media experiments, the Big Ten distributed $54 million to each of its 12 longest-standing programs in fiscal 2018, while the SEC distributed $43.7 million, according to documents obtained by USA Today. By comparison, the ACC doled out just $29.5 million each.

The ACC Network will air 450 live events in its debut year, but the conference’s top games will still air on Disney-owned ABC or ESPN platforms as per a separate broadcast rights deals.

The fledgling service is years away from a subscriber base on par with that of the SEC Network, which boasts roughly 59 million subscribers generating about $230 million in annual revenue, according to estimates by The Athletic. Still, ACC schools will see a noticeable revenue hike in the coming years, and the ACC Network should quickly exceed revenue generated by the embattled Pac-12 Network, according to John Vrooman, a sports economist at Vanderbilt University.

“Optimistic forecasts of $10 million to $15 million per school for the new network are probably somewhat exaggerated but after an initial shakedown period, ESPN’s fully owned ACC Network should surpass the Pac 12’s fully owned Pac-12 Network with about $5 million to $8 million bump in revenues per school after 2019,” Vrooman told FOX Business.

Unlike the SEC, Big Ten and ACC offerings, which leverage media partners like ESPN and Fox to land lucrative carriage deals with cable providers, the Pac-12 Network is wholly owned by the Pacific 12 Conference teams but has struggled to attract subscribers and distribution.

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The ACC Network kicked off at 7 p.m. ET on Thursday with the two-hour debut of “All-ACC,” its main studio show. The network will air 40 regular-season football games this fall.

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