ACC Network still in early stages but there are a few hurdles to clear

Burke Magnus remembers the SEC and ESPN first discussing a 24-hour channel back in 2010. The channel is officially launching in August 2014.

ESPN’s senior vice president of college sports programming brings up this point when discussing a potential ACC Network because, well, if this happens, it’s going to be awhile.

Think 2016 or 2017.

ESPN has not gone beyond “initial conversations” with the ACC on the channel concept, Magnus said at last week's SEC meetings in Destin, Fla.

“We want to make sure we give it a thorough consideration, a thorough investigation,” said Magnus. “It’s kind of premature to give you an answer to [what the results will be]. I don’t know what hides behind that exploration. Really that’s the work that needs to be done.”

The ACC already did important legwork in April by securing a grant of rights for its 15 members. ACC Channel or not, the schools are locked in and the league is no longer a Big Ten buffet (though, whether it ever really was is still debatable).

That the ACC is even entertaining a channel is impressive, considering how the Maryland departure was a crowbar to the kneecap just seven months ago.

But despite several ACC officials trumpeting a potential channel shortly after the grant of rights surfaced, there are still serious hurdles to clear for a channel to happen.

Step one: What to do with Raycom.

ESPN must buy back rights that it sold to Raycom Sports, which in turn sublicensed rights to Fox. An ACC channel would need much of that content to pour into the channel.

Consider Raycom’s position. The SEC Network just recouped third-tier content into an ESPN-run SEC Channel, so Raycom’s 31 ACC football games (some of which are sublicensed to Fox) can corner the market on Southeast syndication programming on Saturday afternoons in the fall. Raycom also has 60 live men’s basketball games, according to Sports Business Journal, and Fox also has some of those games, too.

Local stations in the South still need content, and Raycom’s ACC lineup is basically the only game left in that regard.

It seems unlikely Raycom would sell back to ESPN on the cheap, and the ACC knows this. That’s why the ACC plans to make the deal “enticing” for Raycom and will probably have to come out of pocket to secure a successful sell, according to a source with direct knowledge of the ACC’s plan. There’s also a chance Raycom/Fox could keep some of the content. This will be part of the negotiation.

Though ESPN bought all the ACC’s rights and sublicensed them, the ACC still can help facilitate the Raycom sell as an ESPN partner.

These roadblocks appear more daunting than what faced the SEC and Pac-12, which bought back third-tier multimedia rights before launching their channels. The ACC has more programming tied into other ventures, but it seems dedicated to pulling off this channel.

The GOR lends flexibility to explore a channel because schools’ rights are tied into the league whether they stick with a traditional media rights deal or not. Starting in July, the league will pay its full-time members more than $20 million a year in television revenue.

The ACC will have insane basketball, quality non-revenue sports and football that underwhelms at times but has potential because of its fertile recruiting ground.

It also has a footprint of 43 million homes (according to Florida State athletic director Randy Spetman) and has product in several major cities -- Atlanta, Boston, Miami, Charlotte, Pittsburgh.

But questions remain in television circles whether the ACC can deliver in states beyond North Carolina (Duke, North Carolina, NC State, Wake Forest) and maybe Virginia (Virginia, Virginia Tech) or Florida (Miami, FSU).

Boston College is in a huge national hub, but will BC drive programming in that area? The league might have an easier time with Syracuse delivering parts of New York. Clemson is competing with South Carolina for its state, as is Georgia Tech with Georgia. Notre Dame’s brand will certainly help, even as a part-time football member.

The SEC has more no-brainers -- more chances to dominate states -- than the ACC. That doesn’t mean the cable reach isn’t there, though. Perhaps there’s room for both.

UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham, who’s on the ACC’s TV subcommittee, said the league's schools signed the grant of rights knowing the channel’s not a guarantee.

“You’re looking for a deal that makes sense for both sides,” Cunningham said. “That’s what we’re finding out.”

Whatever happens, the ACC has garnered respect in the industry with its grant of rights. Magnus calls it “an incredibly significant development in the realignment timeline.”

“It allows them to operate in a way that everybody’s not looking over their shoulder,” Magnus said. “They can realize the potential of a league that I think will be pretty remarkable, or at least as remarkable potentially -- from a basketball perspective, they are going to be quite unbelievable. Almost like nothing we’ve ever seen, in my opinion. I think they’d be the first to admit they could be better in football and I think this allows them to push on that potential.”

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