ESPN yesterday (Aug. 22) officially launched its much talked about ACC Network -- the latest college sports conference to launch a stand-alone network -- along with the requisite criticisms about lack of distribution deals with some major cable and satellite companies.
Much like with its predecessors the Pac-12 Networks, SEC Network and the Big Ten Network, a lot has been written about the ACC Network’s struggle to sign carriage deals with all top distributors, as Comcast (Xfinity) and Cox Communications and satellite-TV service Dish Network are sitting on the sidelines for the launch. Those distributors serve many of the areas within the ACC footprint, which includes 15 colleges stretching across much of the east coast including 2019 NCAA college basketball champion Virginia Cavaliers and college football champion Clemson Tigers.
Industry experts say however, that unlike previous college conference-based networks, the ACC has benefited from the advent of virtual MVPDs. Network carriage deals with Playstation Vue, Hulu + Live TV and YouTube TV have provided the network with a national footprint, allowing sports fans digital access to the ACC Network anywhere in the country, irrespective of deals with cable and satellite service providers. ESPN does have distribution deals with Charter (Spectrum), Altice USA (Optimum and Suddenlink), Verizon Fios, DirecTV and NCTC members. And while ACC is on DirecTV, it's not on AT&T's vMVPD, AT&T TV Now.
“Unfortunately when traditional sports media covers network launches they tend to go at it from the standpoint of someone’s local cable or satellite system, and figure if its not on that [service] then nobody can get the network,” said sports consultant Lee Berke. “The reality is that the ACC Network can be obtained nationally on these virtual MVPDs -- everyone in the footprint of the ACC Network can obtain the network if they want to buy a virtual MVPD that carries the network. Is everyone going to go that route and drop their cable subscriptions? No, but it is available to anyone who wants to see it.”
Indeed, ESPN senior vice president of college networks Rosalyn Durant said in a recent ACC Network conference call that ESPN is “very pleased with the distribution agreements that we have in place currently,” referencing deals with virtual MVPDs that can “cover the ACC footprint and beyond the footprint.”
The ACC Network -- which industry sources say costs around $1 for distributors within the ACC Conference footprint and around half that outside the footprint -- will offer approximately 450 live contests including 40 regular-season football games, 150 men’s and women’s basketball games, and 200 other regular-season competitions and tournament games annually from across the conference’s 27 sponsored sports, according to network officials.
ESPN, which has a long-term rights deal for all ACC conference events for much of the next two decades, will distribute most of the conference's marquee college football and college basketball games on ESPN and ABC, with the ACC carrying the lion’s share of other live event and shoulder programming from the conference, said industry observers.
The existence of vMVPDs changes the strategy of how distribution deals are done, according to Berke. ESPN now can wait until exiting deals with MVPDs are renewed to package in the ACC Network while still providing the conference’s sports fans with access to the channel through the $50 per month PlayStation Vue, Hulu + Live TV and YouTube TV. Prior to the advent of vMVPDs, a new network's distribution success was beholden to traditional distributors to reach their target audiences.
“The media landscape now is vastly different than it was five years ago with our last linear network launch,” ESPN's Durant said. “How we think about success for a network launch is the same. It's about having ... a multiplicity of providers, and we've always had the traditional. Now we also have the streaming providers to add to that mix.”
Obviously ESPN’s ultimate goal is to have full carriage for the ACC Network across all linear and digital distributors. The virtual MVPDs allow the network to reach fans while negotiations continue, according to ESPN. “So while we are incredibly pleased with the options that we have in place with our streaming partners and others, we are confident that there will be other announcements in the very near future,” Durant said.