The ACC Network launches in two weeks. It feels a little late. ESPN can always count on the football-obsessed to boost its SEC Network. The iron needs to be hot to strike on ACC football and, this year, it’s not.
Two or three years ago the ACC could offer a good football conference with Clemson at the top. Now it’s the Tigers and not much else. The ACC always has good men’s basketball, but football draws more eyeballs. Besides, Zion Williamson mania is over at Duke and the league doesn’t figure to be as deep as last season, when seven teams made the NCAA tournament and Virginia won it.
Rosalyn Durant, an ESPN senior vice president, said during a Thursday media call that the ACC accommodated the network by scheduling enticing league football games early in the season. Here are the matchups for the first four weeks: Georgia Tech at Clemson, Virginia Tech at Boston College, Virginia at Pitt, Miami at North Carolina and Florida State at Virginia.
Clemson is No. 1 in the preseason coaches’ poll. No other ACC team is ranked. Miami, Virginia Tech, Virginia and Florida State were among those receiving votes. This is the best the ACC football has to offer in 2019 (not including quasi-member Notre Dame, which still has its own deal with NBC).
Football and men’s basketball can’t fill the ACC Network’s 24/7 programming. There will be Olympic sports, including those played by women, and studio shows on a fancy set. The ACCN, like the SECN, will feature propaganda programs meant to build the league’s brand.
But, as far as making money, it comes down audience size for football and men’s basketball. More fundamentally for the ACC Network, it needs wider distribution. It doesn’t have carriage agreements with Comcast/Xfinity, Charter-Spectrum or Dish Network. That represents about 47 million households, and the clock is ticking for the Aug. 29 Georgia Tech-Clemson game.
ACCN does have deals with satellite provider DirecTV and streaming services Hulu, PlayStation Vue and YouTube TV. Durant wouldn’t say how many households that represents. She said ESPN is “confident” it will secure more carriage agreements and noted that everyone in the country can get ACCN one way or another.
ACCN already has wider distribution than the SECN when it launched five years ago. Carrier agreements often come together at the last moment. But fans without ACCN as part of their current TV package when the games start would have to switch providers to watch them on the network.
“The media landscape now is vastly different than it was five years ago,” Durant said. “But some things don’t change. How we think about success is the same, and it’s having a multiplicity of providers. ... We are very pleased with the providers we have on board.”
Streaming appears to be the future of television. Recent research by the company eMarketer estimated that so-called “cord cutter” households have increased by 19.2 percent this year. It projects that pay TV households will decline to 76 million in 2022, down from about 100 million in 2013.
But roughly 86.5 million households still have traditional cable and satellite service. And live sports on streaming channels are notoriously buggy. Unfortunately for the ACC Network, this was demonstrated by technical difficulties for its studio reveal show Thursday via the ESPN app.
I tuned in hoping to get a feel for the network’s presentation. Instead, I got the ACCN logo with a message promising that the event would start soon. It didn’t, though, eventually forcing an ESPN official to tweet a link for a web site to access the show.
That’s no big deal for a studio-reveal show. It’s a very big deal when customers can’t see a game at the scheduled time, as illustrated by the Twitter storm of angry fans that follows such screw-ups. A network that relies on streaming channels for the bulk of its distribution better have the technological infrastructure to ensure it can be accessed reliably.
“I think that ESPN has a pretty strong record of a vast volume of digital events,” Durant said. “Do things happen? Of course things happen.”
Technical glitch aside, the ACCN studio does look cool. Huge monitors take up a good portion of some walls and there are touchscreens everywhere. Robotic camera arms pop out of furniture. Amy Rosenfeld, an ESPN senior producer, said the studio is equipped for virtual reality graphics and will use data and analytics as a “storytelling device.”
There will be some a familiar face among the on-air talent. A weekend college football show includes former Georgia and Miami coach Mark Richt.
“Teaching coach Richt how to use the touchscreen was pretty cool,” Rosenfeld quipped.
During the studio reveal show, Richt said the game with Georgia Tech at Clemson on a Thursday night is “going to be wild.”
“And Georgia Tech is breaking out a new offense,” Richt said. “They’ve been triple-option all those years and now all of a sudden they are spreading it (out), and it’s (high) tempo. We are going to find out what they’ve got.”
That’s not the most compelling angle, but in Richt’s defense, there’s not a lot to work with. The Tigers are favored by 35-points. The ACC Network’s debut is a little late for a football league that used to be interesting but now is lopsided.
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