Luke DeCock

As network prepares for launch, the ACC as we knew it fades into the background

When giving his state-of-the-conference address at the ACC’s football kickoff, John Swofford has been known to pontificate for upwards of 20 minutes as he relates, in detail, the league’s recent achievements.

As Swofford stepped to the podium Wednesday, the past year -- with the ACC holding national championships in football and basketball -- offered a particularly rich vein for the commissioner to mine, even before Swofford’s fourth straight ACC Network victory lap.

But after a mere 12 minutes, a deep breath by his standards, Swofford stepped aside, yielding the bulk of his time like a junior senator. Three ESPN executives spent the next 20 minutes promoting the network, which officially launches in 36 days. A parade of network talent walked across the stage to applause from the wings of the ballroom like middle-school graduation.

Swofford, in a director’s chair, watched silently from the periphery like everyone else. A spectator. A viewer. A prospective ratings point.

It was a particularly acute reminder that the ACC is no longer an athletic conference, a grouping of like-minded and (roughly) geographically aligned schools collectively interested in intercollegiate competition. The ACC is now a television network that also sponsors sports.

Whatever dividing line there once was between the ACC and ESPN is gone, blurred to the point of invisibility. They are in this together, forever. As one ACC insider likes to say, “There is no ‘network.’ We is them and they is us.”

“Launching a television network is not what you traditionally do as a commissioner, at least in the previous world, to some degree,” Swofford said later in an interview with The News & Observer. “It is in today’s world.”

Three years in the launching and many more in the making, beginning with the first football-focused expansion more than a decade ago and rolling through the second expansion and into the post-Maryland grant-of-rights agreement that secured the conference’s membership for the foreseeable future and made a network realistic, this ACC-ESPN partnership-slash-marriage is the inevitable extension of modern college athletics.

Television dollars have fueled the exponential explosion of college sports into a billion dollar business. The ACC, like the Big Ten and SEC before it, had to pursue this new model to support what it has become, essentially sharing profits with ESPN as a business partner instead of negotiating rights fees as a client.

(And in the process, applying the NCAA’s exploitative “collegiate model” to television, relying heavily on unpaid student labor to make money for everyone else. For every “student-athlete,” a “student-producer.”)

The ACC Network still has hurdles ahead, most notably the fact that Comcast’s deal with ESPN parent Disney has three years to run, which could leave a big chunk of the ACC’s fabled footprint without the network on cable. Closer to home, Charter’s Disney deal is up next month, so inevitable brinksmanship aside, the Triangle should be covered on cable soon after launch, if not before.

Swofford has referenced in the past the ACC’s ultimate trump card, putting the Duke-North Carolina basketball game on the ACC Network, a gambit that secured national carriage for ESPN2 when it was staggering out of the gate 25 years ago. But carriage deals are difficult and complicated, so there will be stragglers. It comes with the territory.

But three years after the ACC and ESPN announced the creation of the network at this same event, it is mere weeks away from going on the air. There’s not much on the line. Just the financial future of the ACC, which is no longer in the hands of the schools. They’ve invested their millions in studios and other infrastructure. It’s up to ESPN to make it all worthwhile, for ESPN and the ACC both.

We is them. They is us.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.