Some of the biggest news coming out of the sports world has nothing to do with what’s happening on the field, but rather with the biggest network covering it. ESPN recently laid off around 100 of its employees, many of whom were long-time and well-regarded staffers. The terminations are purportedly a cost-cutting measure for the sports media empire that has committed billions of dollars to TV rights agreements but is watching as subscribers flee in record numbers.
My colleague Maury Brown has provided a more detailed breakdown of the issues at hand, but that unfortunate situation – huge longterm TV contracts coupled with falling subscribership – has put ESPN in a position where it may need to start curtailing its future TV rights spending. And that brings us to the ACC Network. Last summer it was announced that ESPN and the ACC would partner on a new, conference-specific cable network that will launch in August 2019. But some have begun wondering if ESPN’s latest round of layoffs might indicate a possible lack of commitment toward investing in the planned network.
ACC commissioner John Swofford has reassured conference members that ESPN intends to proceed with its ACC Network plans, and an ESPN spokesperson tells Forbes that nothing has changed: “Both sides remain committed to launching a dedicated platform for ACC fans in 2019 as previously announced and as planned.” Whether or not that turns out to be true – it seems to be an ongoing debate among those in the know – the ultimate question that remains is whether it’s a smart idea for ESPN to provide financial backing to a new TV property. We’re in no place to tell the future, but some current indicators suggest that while the ACC Network may be a risky venture – ESPN will own the property and thus be responsible for all expenses and potential losses – it may not be such a bad bet.
Right now three college conferences, the SEC, Big Ten and Pac-12, have their own conference-specific cable networks. The SEC Network (wholly owned by ESPN) and Big Ten Network (owned near-equally by Fox and the Big Ten) have both been tremendously successful thus far, and we estimate that network distributions from both have put the SEC and Big Ten in a class of their own even among the Power Five. The Pac-12 Network, meanwhile, has struggled to meet expectations. It’s profitable, but just barely: Pac-12 schools received just $1.4 million apiece in 2015. It’s still not available on DirecTV, and there has been talk, even from a Pac-12 athletic director, about selling a stake in the network (the conference owns 100% of the property and is thus on the hook for all expenses).
So how does the ACC stack up against its conference peers? To find out we looked to football, which moves the needle far more than any other sport. Thanks to the folks at Sports Media Watch, we were able to compile viewership figures for every nationally televised regular season college football game over the last two years. We then averaged each school’s national TV viewership numbers to get a sense of its general popularity:
On the whole, average ACC team viewership is a fair bit behind both the SEC and Big Ten. The ACC’s top team, Clemson, would rank fifth in the Big Ten and seventh in the SEC. A simple glance at the above chart would suggest that an ACC Network would land somewhere between the Big Ten Network and Pac-12 Network in terms of national demand – not a bad place to be, but hardly reason enough for ESPN to pony up millions of dollars at a time when it’s trying to scale back. But what’s important to note is that conference networks carry third-tier games, or the match-ups that have been passed over for national broadcasts. In other words, the best of the bunch are rarely available, so it’s the less popular teams that will get the most real estate on a conference network. Alabama, for instance, played just one game on the SEC Network last season – a 48-0 drubbing of Kent State – while Vanderbilt played seven.
For a conference network to succeed, then, it requires a depth of drawing power. It’s little surprise that the SEC thrives in that category – Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt are the SEC’s least-watched teams, but all would all be around the middle of the pack in either the Big Ten or ACC. That depth may help explain why the SEC Network had little trouble picking up distribution, and the network now counts 62 million subscribers according to Disney’s most recent annual report (Disney owns 80% of ESPN).
What may be surprising, however, is that the Big Ten and ACC actually look pretty similar from the waist down. In fact, the bottom eight teams for each conference have an average viewership of 1.4 million per game over the last two seasons. Ohio State and Michigan are both massive draws, but they played just a single conference game apiece on the Big Ten Network. The Big Ten’s six least-watched teams, on the other hand, averaged nearly five games each on the conference network.
That’s of course not to say a dedicated network for the ACC would instantly match the success of the Big Ten’s. Last year the Big Ten Network still aired eight games that featured one of the conference’s top four teams, each of which would lead the ACC in average viewership. Plus it’s worth noting that the ACC gets a boost here from five guaranteed games against Notre Dame, one of the nation’s most popular teams. None of those games against the Irish will migrate to the ACC Network, since every Notre Dame game is typically broadcast nationally.
But the ACC doesn’t appear to be too far behind its Midwestern peer, and the numbers above are hardly the full story. We’ve limited our scope to football, and many will be quick to point out that the ACC is mainly a basketball conference. That’s no cure-all, since basketball draws far fewer viewers than football and the top teams will again largely play on national TV, but it would suggest the above numbers likely fail to fully represent the ACC’s drawing power. Plus the ACC brings some major markets to the table, with schools in Boston (No. 7 TV market in the US), Atlanta (No. 8) and Miami (No. 16); other ACC markets, like Raleigh and Louisville, are packed to the brim with college sports fans. That’s an important factor – the Big Ten brought on Maryland and Rutgers in 2012 largely because of their home TV markets.
The ultimate takeaway here isn’t that an ACC Network is a sure thing. After all, it seems there’s no such thing these days, with even the untouchable NFL starting to feel the effects of cord cutting. But it’s also hardly a doomed property. The ACC clearly stacks up well against the Pac-12, so at the very least an ACC Network should live above the profitable, if disappointing, baseline set by the Pac-12 Network. And it looks far more likely that it could approach what the Big Ten has accomplished. So despite ESPN’s apparent desire to cut costs, funding the ACC Network could be money well spent.