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ACC Network Faces Challenges Ahead of 2019 Launch

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Athletic director Warde Manuel told Michigan's Board of Regents last week that his department's share of Big Ten revenue was $51.1 million in 2017-18 and was projected at $52.1 million for 2018-19.

In its most recent federal tax filing, the ACC reported that the average distribution to its schools in 2016-17 was $26.6 million - a little more than half the Big Ten's haul. Two points about the striking contrast:

First, neither the ACC nor its members have revealed their 2017-18 shares. Moreover, no one has projected 2018-19 numbers.

Second, sports isn't Monopoly. A more modest pile of cash - none of the Power Five conferences is impoverished - hasn't prevented ACC teams from thriving nationally in football, men's basketball and the Olympic sports.

But Manuel's presentation to Michigan's board, plus the Southeastern Conference's average distribution of $40.9 million in 2016-17, reaffirms that the ACC needs its impending cable channel to generate considerable revenue.

A partnership with ESPN, the ACC Network is scheduled to launch in August 2019, its earnings potential the subject of rampant speculation and, among athletic directors, much anticipation.

The ADs wonder because they're investing millions in on-campus network production facilities. They worry because sustaining a business long-term with a fraction of your competitors' resources borders on impossible.

The revenue gap has never been larger and likely will grow until the ACC Network debuts. The overarching question is: How much can the channel bridge the gulf?

Disney's October carriage agreement with Altice, a cable provider that serves New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, was an encouraging start. Disney is ESPN's parent company, and the Altice deal includes not only ESPN, but also the ACC and SEC networks.

Negotiations with cable providers elsewhere, and how many subscribers those providers retain in our cord-cutting world, will help determine the ACC Network's success. Forecasting those contracts and subscription rates is folly, but there is one history lesson worth examining.

Many consider the SEC Network, born in 2014, the most successful launch in cable TV annals. In its final fiscal year without the network, the conference reported $210.4 million in television and radio revenue. One year later, it jumped nearly 50 percent to $311.8 million.

The league's most recent tax filing, for 2016-17, showed $409.1 million, a 94.4-percent bump over the network's three years.

During that same time, ACC television money has risen $38.2 million (19.7 percent) to $236 million.

Translation: In 2013-14, ACC television money lagged behind the SEC by a modest $13.2 million. Three years later, the difference was a staggering $173.1 million.

Since the SEC also has a lucrative contract with CBS, its increases can't be solely attributed to the SEC Network. But there's no questioning the network's impact.

Comparable numbers for the Big Ten and its network are unavailable because, unlike the ACC and SEC, the conference does not reveal television revenue on its tax return. Rather, the Big Ten's return categorizes more than 90 percent of its income as "sports revenue."

Matching the SEC's meteoric rise will be difficult, if only because ACC fans, smaller in number than at larger SEC schools, aren't likely to create similar demand. That said, the ACC's footprint stretches from Boston to Miami, and west to Pittsburgh, Louisville and Notre Dame.

SEC TV-radio revenue rose $101.4 million in the first year of its cable network, which calculates to $7.2 million for each of the 14 schools. The same increase divided among the ACC's 15 schools would be $6.8 million.

Yes, partial ACC member Notre Dame will receive a full network share - and the Fighting Irish should. Their men's basketball and Olympic programs, plus their five annual football games against ACC colleagues, are that valuable.

Some may recall that in February 2017 Florida State AD Stan Wilcox told the FSU Board of Trustees that the ACC Network could net each school $8 million-$10 million in Year 1 and $10-15 million per year thereafter.

"These are all projections," Wilcox told the board, according to 247sports.com. "... They are saying this network should have the same kind of return that the SEC Network has had in (its) first couple of years."

Optimistic doesn't begin to describe, and no one associated with the ACC Network project has echoed Wilcox, publicly or privately.

Firm answers? They won't emerge until the conference's 2019-20 tax return is released in the spring of 2021 - three years from now.

Until then, some tangible and encouraging numbers from the last five seasons for ACC faithful:

NCAA men's basketball tournament record: ACC - 65-35, SEC - 40-24, Big Ten - 47-31.Men's basketball national championships: ACC 2, SEC 0, Big Ten 0.Football bowl record: SEC - 34-23, Big Ten - 23-23, ACC - 26-28.Record in BCS, CFP and New Year's Six games: ACC - 7-5, Big Ten - 8-6, SEC - 8-9.Football national championships: SEC 2, ACC 2, Big Ten 1.Top 25 teams in this year's penultimate Directors' Cup all-sports standings: SEC 7, ACC 6, Big Ten 5.

An excellent place to be competitively. The ACC's challenge remains financial.

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June 28, 2018
 
 
 

 

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