Live sports are one of the final big-ticket items left for TV, and the rights deals that govern where those events appear remain incredibly lucrative for everyone involved. Still, with the way people watch and subscribe to TV programming changing, getting specialized sports networks picked up has increasingly become a challenge.
All four major U.S. sports leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL) have their own networks, and regional sports networks also operate as exclusive homes for certain teams; something that becomes a potential problem when there are contract disputes or struggles for wider pick-up. New York’s seen this with the YES Network, which primarily carries the Yankees, as well as the Brooklyn Nets. The Dodgers’ Spectrum SportsNetLA remains on just handful of TVs in Los Angeles, despite the team winning the National League West every year since 2013.
The largest (read: most successful) college athletic conferences also have their own networks, which serve as a major revenue boost for the schools as costs continue to rise around running athletic programs. According to recent reports ($$$), the Big Ten paid out $759 million to its 14 members in 2017-18 — plenty of which coming from both its national TV deals with ESPN and Fox, plus Big Ten Network distribution. The Southeastern Conference (SEC), which has deals with ESPN and CBS as well as the SEC Network, earned a $660 million split between 14 teams.
Naturally, the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) wants in on these sorts of payouts as well, which is why the league’s been working with long-time partner ESPN these past few years toward the launch of its own network this August. The ACC made $465 million (14 schools get a full share and Notre Dame gets a partial share as a non-football member) in 2017-18 without a dedicated channel to call its own. That number will go up plenty in the future, depending on how many successful carriage deals the ACC can secure.
In that regard, so far, so good. Especially as the ACC announced its latest deal with Charter/Spectrum, the country’s third-largest MVPD with 16 million households — many of which are in New York and North Carolina, two of the biggest areas for fans and alumni of the conference’s schools. That’s great on its own. It’s even better when added to the already impressive haul the league’s announced with about a week until launch:
- DirecTV: 19 million
- Verizon Fios: 4-5 million
- Altice: 3-4 million
- NCTC: 3-4 million
- Hulu: 2 million
- YouTubeTV: 1 million
- Google Fiber: Less than 1 million
- PlayStation Vue: Less than 1 million
- T-Mobile TVision: Less than 1 million
DirecTV and Charter/Spectrum are two of the top three MVPDs and combine for 35 million households. No. 1 is Comcast (21 million) and they don’t have Dish at No. 4 either just yet. But the more carriage the league early on, the more they can put marquee games on the network. And the more they put marquee games on the network, the more difficult it will be to avoid carriage… for fear of losing subscribers because you don’t have the teams/games they most want to watch.
ESPN’s handled situations like this before with much success. When ESPN2 was first launched, big games like North Carolina vs. Duke basketball were sent there to push carriage. The SEC has scheduled big football games on its own (ESPN-operated) network for opening weekend each year to make sure fans have a reason to demand pick-up. With the ACC, they’re doing the same with week one of this football season, including the season opener for defending national champion Clemson. And if the (typically) basketball-centric conference wasn’t already sold, four different conference hoops contests will lead off the season — with some of the ACC’s biggest teams and fan bases like North Carolina, Louisville, Syracuse and Virginia.
The ACC’s work isn’t done here, obviously, with some big fish still out there. But with the carriers they already have signed on and an emphasis on national distribution (pushing the bigger streaming options helps as it presents easy alternatives for customers to switch if their carrier doesn’t sign on), it seems like the conference is in a strong position to be on a ton of TVs this fall. Not bad considering the ACC was not too long ago just considered a fairly regional basketball league.