With ESPN TV Deal, ACC Feels Safe From Raids, For Now
Officials from the Atlantic Coast Conference never actually used the phrase "protection money.'' But in essence, that is how the ACC sees the reported $1.86 billion it will receive from the network and all its entities from 2011-2023. The conference and its 12 schools, officials said, now should feel protected from a raid by another conference pointing a loaded contract at them.
As Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage said, to the Charlottesville Daily Progress: "Everyone at the ACC did great work in positioning the conference for this deal. The increase in revenue and exposure for all of our sports over numerous platforms provides some long-term stability.''
Amid all the talk Thursday, the day the ACC and ESPN formally announced the deal, about platforms and visibility and exclusive windows and continued partnerships, the cloud of conference re-alignment still hovered over everything. Officially, no ACC school ever was approached by another league during the frenzy of (eventually minimal) conference-switching last month. But the prospect of it, and how the ACC could stand firm against it, was never far from anyone's mind.
ACC commissioner John Swofford and ESPN executive vice president John Skipper both said Thursday, in a conference call addressing the contract, that by the time the raids of the Big 12 conference, and the speculation of other school shifts, had picked up steam, their talks were already in the final stages. "My sense of it is that it really had no effect on our discussions,'' Swofford said, adding that those talks "were not altered in any way.''
Said Skipper: "Just because it's an interesting subject, John and I discussed a little bit the landscape, but most of the details were hammered out before that came up.''
Still, at the same time the "interesting subject'' surfaced, so did reports that one of the ACC's charter schools, Maryland, was in the target sights of the Big Ten, which had already added Nebraska by then. Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow -- as it turned out, just days before taking the same job at North Carolina State -- told FanHouse at the time that the Big Ten had never contacted her or anyone else at the university. (She also vehemently denied any interest by Maryland in switching leagues.)
The ACC office, meanwhile, was conspicuously silent during that time, with completion of the new television contract expected, literally, any day. Other ACC schools considered inviting targets, possibly by the Southeastern Conference, in these cases, included Florida State, Georgia Tech, Clemson and Virginia Tech; each remained mum; an official at one of those schools, while insisting that it had not been approached, admitted, "We're watching what's going on like everybody else.''
The reason for all the holding of breath up and down the coast: money. The long-awaited contract with ESPN will supposedly double the annual intake of each program, to roughly $13 million a year. (It is likely that the contract is backloaded, however, pointed out one ACC school official, so teams will not see that windfall immediately.) It keeps the ACC as a major player; it is expected to maintain its strength in men's basketball and almost certainly will increase it in women's basketball with a greatly-increased slate of national broadcasts.
Plus, it gives it a chance to gain credibility in football, which has not lived up to expectations since it expanded in 2004 to become more of a Bowl Championship Series contender. Whether the games are BCS-quality or not, there will be more of them televised, and possibly fewer relegated to the company's website, than ever before.
Still, the now-12 teams of the Big Ten get roughly $22 million each from both the conference's own broadcast network and other networks. The SEC teams will average $20 million a year over the course of its television contract through 2024; reports have the intake for the upcoming season at $17.3 million a team. The currently 10-team Big 12, meanwhile, does not split its revenues equally among its members; the ACC pointed out frequently that its teams will continue to get an equal share.
The conference and network executives also pointed out that the contract provides for "a different composition'' of the league in the future -- that is, if it grows or shrinks, the ACC will negotiate "in good faith'' to adjust the deal fairly.
In fact, it was that point that prompted Swofford to re-state, passionately but without rancor, the league's mandate and what he and its members are convinced is its strength.
"Again, one of the reasons it didn't come up is, it's clear that the ACC is a very sound conference, not likely to change,'' Swofford said. "Most of the discussions about conference realignment, there was very little discussion of ACC schools ... They're bound together by tradition, and also bound together by a commitment to academic and athletic excellence. This mostly was a pretty big non-factor in this discussion.''
It seemed that tradition and history also factored in the ACC's decision not to seek its own network, in the mold of the Big Ten's, as another line of defense against outside raiders. The ACC has had a deal with ESPN literally from the network's birth in 1979, and Swofford made note of the "ESPN brand.'' The conference is trusting the network's plans to flood every medium to which it has access with ACC sports. The traditional plan -- which included longtime regional syndication partner Raycom -- is retained, with updates and tweaks.
The ACC preferred that to establishing its own network, which Swofford said was studied long and hard. Besides, he added, the Big Ten model driving so much of the realignment talk "may turn out to be an anomaly.''
ESPN appeared thrilled with its end of the arrangement, as it keeps them in the game against the leagues that do form their own networks. "We will continue to acquire marquee product that we need,'' Skipper said. "We will pay a market price for it. But it works for us in our financial models.
The ACC seems satisfied as well, because there is more money going to its schools, giving them less reason for their eyes to wander to another conference.
"I would hope personally that things settle in with the existing conferences as they're not comprised and we have stability moving forward,'' Swofford said. "I know that's the preference of our schools for our conference, as well as the overall landscape. But we'll just have to see how it plays out, if and when it plays out."