The conference sports networks we’ve come to know and love may be dying a slow death. Gridiron Now writer Chadd Scott gives us an in-depth look at the situation.
The conference TV network as we’ve come to know it is dead. When the SEC Network launched August 14, 2014, it closed the door on an era of sports television. Neither the ACC nor the Big 12 will reopen that door.
What I’ve heard from sports TV executives, college athletics administrators, media accounts, my own research and intuition on the subject essentially was confirmed by ACC play-by-play man Wes Durham during a March 9 interview with Louisville Sports Live.
“If the ACC goes forward with a – quote – network, I don’t think it will be as conventional as Channel 611 or 610 on DirectTV where the SEC and Big Ten are,” Durham said. “I think it’s probably going to be in a multi-platform situation; you might see what I’ve heard to be called ‘cross platform branding,’ which is what the ACC Network would be. Any broadcast that has an ACC production behind it would be known as – quote – the ACC Network. (It) might not be called that, but you get my point.”
You’ve heard about cable “cord cutters.” To “cord cutters,” add cable companies and their non-sports fan viewers becoming fed up with the increasing carriage fees sports networks demand. The combination has changed the landscape any new sports network – not just a college sports network – enters in 2016.
“Some of ESPN’s financial situations are going to play into this,” Durham said.
ESPN has been hit particularly hard by cord-cutters and as the ACC’s primary media rights partner, the company likely doesn’t have the same gusto for launching an ACC Network as it did the SEC Network.
Cable companies no longer are interested in adding more sports networks and passing the costs on to consumers who, in large numbers, don’t want them. The cable TV content providers – ESPN and Fox – know this and, I’m sure, have told their league partners (ACC, Big 12) as much. That era is over.
The conferences, though, don’t want to hear that.
The conference TV network has become a status symbol in college athletics. Vanity compels the conferences without one to push for it even as the marketplace pushes back. Woe be the conference that attempts to buck this trend and finds itself the line in the sand over which the cable companies will not budge.
Important to keep in mind during this conversation is that while the SEC and Big Ten networks have proven fabulously successful and lucrative, the Pac-12 network continues to be plagued by problems. Jon Wilner’s Twitter feed remains the go-to destination for reading about all the money the Pac-12 network isn’t making and all the enemies it is.
Instead of trying to be the last of what was, the ACC and Big 12 should focus on being the first of what’s next, whatever that is. Patience, hard as it may be, could be the best course of action, particularly for the ACC.
“ESPN has a clause in their contract that if they do not offer a network by July 1 of 2016, they owe the ACC – reportedly I should say – a clause in the contract that requires ESPN to pay the ACC $45 million a year to be divided among its schools,” Durham told Louisville Sports Live.
I try to follow these developments as closely as anyone in the media and I had not heard or read that anywhere previously.
Then I received this tweet from Tom Block of the Seminole IMG Sports Network:
@ChaddScott Have heard this was coming; didn't know the amount.
— Tom Block (@_TomBlock) March 13, 2016
A tidbit found at the bottom an article by CBSSports.com’s Dennis Dodd seems to give the idea of this “clause” further credibility: “Each Big 12 school receives $23 million annually in media rights revenue. That’s at least behind the SEC and Big Ten among the Power Five conferences. It will soon be behind the ACC, according to a high-ranking source intimately involved in the process, whether the league adds a network or not.”
If the ACC finds itself in a position to distribute an extra $3 million to each school from ESPN annually by doing nothing, that is absolutely the best short-term course of action. Considering the SEC Network provided roughly $7 million per member institution last year, I don’t think a full-blown ACC Network on cable, the likes of which I just explained will never happen, would bring in much – if any – more money than that same $45 million the conference could receive without a network.
A successful business requires more than hard work and a good idea it requires timing. The timing, as things stand today, is all wrong for the next conference network.
The cable TV era is over. I don’t think an “over-the-top” network available only to connected devices similar to the WWE Network is the answer. The technology and mindset required for that model to flourish are not yet available among the masses in requisite numbers to satisfy the conferences. Nexflix repeatedly has said “no” to sports. YouTube? Apple TV?
Whatever the next successful conference network – and I won’t even use the word TV here – I’m guessing it will be on a model that doesn’t exist today.
(You can follow Chadd Scott on Twitter @ChaddScott)