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According to ESPN The ACC Network is coming, now the big questions is this: will it launch successfully and what’s it worth?
So let’s dive into the numbers and find out what the market might look like in 2019.
Right now the ACC has teams in nine states — New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, Florida, and Georgia. In those nine states there are roughly 29 million cable and satellite subscribers.
Of these nine ACC states, North Carolina has four teams and Virginia and Florida have two teams each. So over half the conference is locked into three states. The other six states have the remaining six teams.
With that in mind let’s look at the five biggest questions looming to determine what the ACC Network’s value is.
And we begin with the most important question:
1. Will there be enough demand to force cable and satellite companies in Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Georgia, and South Carolina to carry the network on their main tier of channels?
I’m going to assume that there are probably enough people who will demand the ACC Network in Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida — the three ACC states with multiple teams — to get the channel carried in those states on a prime broadcasting tier — that is, the main cable and satellite packages that most people buy.
But what about beyond those three states with eight teams in them?
How will the six states with six teams break down?
Potentially the channel is carried in three Southern states Georgia, Kentucky and South Carolina with three schools, Georgia Tech, Louisville, and Clemson, which are clearly the second most popular teams in their states. Put these states squarely in the maybe camp.
Especially if SEC fans in these states decide to fight against the channel’s inclusion.
But what about the remaining three states, where nearly half of the ACC residents live? Will cable and satellite companies in New York, Pennsylvania or Massachusetts really lose that many subscribers if they don’t carry Syracuse, Pittsburgh, or Boston College basketball and football games? Heck, where do each of these respective teams even rank in their states when it comes to overall popularity?
Remember, Time Warner fought the NFL in New York City forever. Do you really think that many Syracuse fans are truly changing cable or satellite subscribers over the ACC Network? How about Pitt fans in Philly or anyone in Massachusetts over Boston College?
I find it hard to believe that the ACC Network will ever be standard on cable and satellites in these three northern states.
That’s the ACC’s highest population and weakest link.
2. Will the ACC network launch have more in common with the successful launch of the SEC Network or the tortured launches of the Pac 12 and the Longhorn Network?
There’s evidence to support both sides of the debate. Sure, ESPN is powerful and was able to pull off an extraordinarily successful launch of the SEC Network, but that was partly a function of how much cable and satellite companies feared the wrath of SEC fans. There is no area of the country more passionate for college sports than the 11 SEC states. And the SEC teams were the unquestioned dominant college sports teams in all of their states except Texas, where A&M is number two behind Texas. (In Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina, 7 of the 11 states in the SEC, the single most popular team in the states, college or pro, is an SEC team. Is that true in any ACC states other than North Carolina and, maybe, Virginia?)
Second, the SEC Network launched at the perfect time, just before the cable and satellite bundle began to substantially fray.
Third, are there enough ACC fans to scare cable and satellite companies with changing their providers over this carriage issue? Clearly most companies called the Pac 12’s bluff and haven’t seen a loss in revenue. The same was true of the Longhorn Network even with ESPN’s steadfast attempts to get it picked up.
So does the ACC have more in common with the SEC or the Pac 12 and the Longhorn Network?
That won’t matter in North Carolina, Virginia and Florida where I predict cable and satellite companies buckle, but it will matter a great deal in the other six states.
3. Okay, what’s the ACC Network worth?
There are roughly 29 million cable and satellite subscribers in the nine ACC states.
Let’s say, in a miracle that won’t come to pass, that you could get $1 a month from those 29 million subscribers. That would lead to revenue of $350 million a year. You’d have to knock out roughly a hundred million for the costs of the network and then you’d split the remaining revenue between ESPN and the ACC. That would come out to $125 million or $8.9 million a school in the ACC footprint. (I’m not giving Notre Dame any revenue here even though, plainly, they would be entitled to some as well.)
But that number won’t happen because, as I said above, there’s no way that the ACC Network is carried standard in, at a minimum, the states of New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts.
So you’re probably looking more likely at half those subscribers, or around 15 million, paying a dollar a month. (You’d also get another $3 a year from roughly 30 million out of state subscribers — your national rate, of around .25 a month, is much lower than your in state rates. So you can toss in another $90 million in out of footprint revenue.)
That gives you $180 million in revenue, minus $100 million a year to run the network, plus the $90 million in the out of state footprint revenue.
That knocks down the distribution to around $6 million a school.
(Advertising would be nominal because it’s a regional network. The SEC Network has not, for example, done substantial ad revenue thus far. Nor has the Big Ten Network. You’ll know what I mean if you watch the advertisements on those networks.)
As if that weren’t challenging enough, here’s the additional problem: how many cable and satellite subscribers will there be in 2019? Right now ESPN is losing around 3.5 million subscribers a year, will that continue, could it even accelerate? What’s more, will there be an appetite for a new sports channel in a rapidly debundling cable era? In other words, have the best days of national and regional sports networks already passed us by?
We don’t know.
Which brings me to two final questions.
4. What’s the best move the ACC could make?
Adding Notre Dame and Texas.
A 16 team ACC with Notre Dame and Texas as full members could be a gamechanger for the ACC Network because it would add the state of Texas — and its eight million cable and satellite subscribers — along with the national cachet of Notre Dame.
The challenge here? Notre Dame and Texas already have lucrative television deals with NBC and the ESPN/Longhorn Network, respectively. Also, as an added difficulty, Texas would have to extricate itself from the Big 12 and leave behind the other Texas schools in a vastly weakened conference. That seems very difficult.
What’s more, it’s downright impossible to get Texas by 2019 given the rights deals the Longhorns have already signed. Given that NBC already gets all of Notre Dame’s home games, how many Notre Dame football games could actually air on the ACC Network even if the Fighting Irish joined the ACC as full members? One or two at most, probably.
But if you’re thinking of best case scenarios for the ACC, that’s it.
5. Okay, so what’s the best case scenario that could happen for the ACC Network in 2019?
Given prevailing market conditions and the continued assault upon the cable bundle, I don’t think there’s any way ESPN tries to launch a brand new network in 2019.
Instead, I think they’ll decide to turn ESPNU into the ACC Network. (Given that the SEC Network now carries most SEC events along with ESPN and ESPN2 and that many Big Ten games will be heading to Fox, there isn’t that much content on ESPNU from the SEC and the Big Ten. Plus, the Pac 12 and the Big 12 would prefer that their games air on ESPN and ESPN2 since they’re available in more homes. So ESPNU could make sense for the ACC.)
Right now the ESPNU is in roughly 70 million households and brings in .22 a month in subscriber revenue. That’s $184.8 million a year in revenue. I believe ESPN will try and take the ESPNU rates up to around $1 a month in the nine state ACC footprint and keep the rate outside the footprint pretty much the same, potentially going up a dime or so.
If ESPN could bump up the revenue of the ACC Network to the point where 19 million cable and satellite subscribers are paying $1 a month — that would be the subscribers in the six states of North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, Kentucky, Georgia, and South Carolina — then you’d make $228 million more in revenue for ESPNU even if you’re fighting carriage battles in Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts. Combine the revenue from the ACC’s Southern states with the $110 million more in revenue from the 37 million subscribers in other parts of the country outside the ACC footprint, then substract the $100 million in channel operating costs, and you’re talking about around $8 million per ACC school off the ACC Network.
That’s the best case scenario I can see for the ACC Network.
But that’s if everything goes very well.
We’ll find out in a couple of years.
The ACC is about to become the canary in the cable bundle coal mine.