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The ACC has formed a committee of athletic directors and hired Wasserman Media Group to explore the financial benefits of launching its own conference network.But ACC Commissioner John Swofford has quietly been exploring a branded channel and began floating the idea for it in the fall, around the time that Notre Dame joined the league in all sports but football. The Fighting Irish have committed to play five ACC opponents in football each season, but it will maintain its independence.
While its media rights are tied up with ESPN for the next 15 years, that hasn’t stopped the conference from beginning the process of deciding whether such a channel is feasible. It hasn’t had formal talks with ESPN, which would have to play a big role in any ACC channel since the network controls the league’s rights.
For the ACC, it potentially could allow the conference to keep up financially with the Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC, which have all launched or are close to launching branded channels, and sources say the conference sees it as an enticement to keep schools from being seduced by other conferences.
Sources also say there continues to be angst among the conference’s presidents and athletic directors over the league’s ability to keep up with its peer conferences financially. The Big Ten lured Maryland, a charter member of the ACC, away from the conference with its future media revenue projections. The Big Ten’s numbers, buoyed by the growth of its channel, showed that each school’s revenue will rise to more than $40 million by 2020, compared with $24 million in the ACC.
This past year, the Big Ten led all conferences with a per-school payout of $24 million, compared with the ACC’s payout of $13 million. Launching a channel would address those financial concerns because it would represent a major dual revenue stream of license fees from distributors and advertising revenue.
Maryland administrators cited the Big Ten Network as a main drawing card for its decision to leave the ACC for the Big Ten, which it is expected to join in 2014. Persistent rumors have some ACC schools exploring conference options, although the league’s presidents have publicly stated their commitment to stay.
Wasserman Media Group was brought on board to consult with the ACC’s athletic directors on future plans. Dean Jordan in WMG’s Raleigh, N.C., office will lead the agency’s relationship with the conference. He also consulted with the ACC when it renegotiated its TV contract with ESPN last year. Jordan will be working with Swofford and all of the ACC’s athletic directors on the TV committee, except for Maryland’s Kevin Anderson because of the Terrapins’ exit.
ESPN would represent a major voice in any channel launch and it is believed to be lukewarm on forming one, according to sources close to the discussions. ESPN currently has a contract to pay the ACC $3.6 billion over 15 years — averaging $240 million a year — for the conference’s media rights. It then sublicenses a syndication package to Raycom Sports, which, in turn, sublicenses some rights to Fox Sports Net.
To start a channel, the ACC believes that it needs something along the lines of 30 to 35 football games a year. Plus, it wants the rights to re-air games. It remains to be seen how many basketball games the conference would seek for a channel, but the Big Ten Network, by comparison, airs live more than 40 football games, 105 men’s basketball games and 55 women’s basketball games each season.
The ACC would draw its inventory of live games either from ESPN’s inventory — primarily the games that air on ESPN3 — or Raycom’s syndicated package.
To start a channel, it’s also expected that the ACC would roll its sponsorship and digital rights into one entity with the channel. Raycom currently holds the ACC’s digital and corporate sponsor rights.
Another reason for ESPN’s reluctance to move forward is that it is preparing to launch an SEC channel in August 2014, sources said, which would make it difficult to launch an ACC channel in many of those same markets, like Florida, Georgia and South Carolina where the SEC and ACC footprints overlap.
Plus, ESPN’s experience with branded college channels has been difficult in Texas, where it has had problems getting significant distribution for Longhorn Network.
The ACC, however, is hoping that its channel could work alongside any SEC channel. If the SEC channel is headquartered in ESPN Regional Television’s offices in Charlotte, an ACC channel could be stationed within that same infrastructure.
Charlotte-based Raycom could be the hub for such a channel as well.
Any obstacle is distribution, as distributors almost certainly would resist paying for an ACC channel. DirecTV, Comcast and Time Warner Cable are the biggest distributors in the ACC’s territory. Each operator has complained about the cost of sports rights and has had public battles with networks to keep those costs down.
There is no clear consensus inside the ACC on whether it has either the game inventory or the brand strength to make a channel work. But the conference clearly is following the lead of its peers among the big five conferences.
The Big Ten pioneered the strategy in 2007 when it launched its own channel with Fox. The Pac-12 launched multiple regional networks last year, and the SEC is formulating plans to start a channel with ESPN next year.
The outlier among the big five conferences is the Big 12. Commissioner Bob Bowlsby confirmed last week that the Big 12 will not be launching its own channel since all of the conference’s game inventory is tied up in deals with ESPN and Fox. Most of the 10 schools in the Big 12 have sold their third-tier TV games to Fox as part of separate deals, while Texas partnered with ESPN on the Longhorn Network.
The commercial features Terry Saban, the wife of Alabama’s football coach, as she tells the story of her husband’s ascension from graduate assistant to one of the most decorated coaches in college football history. More than anything, the spot shows a side of the hard-charging football coach that most don’t see, told only the way his wife of 40 years could tell it.
Alabama’s championship activated a Coke Zero ad that highlighted coach Nick Saban’s climb to the top of college football.
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES
The genesis for the idea came from a series of discussions, starting with an exchange between Katie Bayne, president of North America brands for Coca-Cola North America, and Claude Nielsen, CEO of the Coca-Cola United bottling company in Birmingham. They talked in the days after Alabama’s win in the SEC championship on Dec. 1, which positioned the Crimson Tide to win its third national title in four years.
“It was during a casual conversation that Claude brought up the point that Alabama is moving into some unprecedented territory under Coach Saban and this is a great opportunity to take advantage of it,” said Brian Smith, director of marketing for the bottling company.
“Coca-Cola is always focused on the celebration, and this is very unique,” said Sharon Byers, Coke’s senior vice president of sports and entertainment marketing. “Having Terry participate gave it an authentic feel. It was a cool way to present Coach Saban and the achievements of Alabama.”
From there, Bayne reached out on Dec. 12 to one of Coke’s creative agencies, Atlanta-based Melt, which works almost exclusively on college business. Melt’s president, Vince Thompson, worked on a script that would put Nick’s wife, Terry, front and center in the spot.
On short notice, Melt charged ahead, scheduling an interview with Terry Saban on Dec. 27 in a studio at Bryant-Denny Stadium, where the Crimson Tide plays its home games. She told stories of Saban as a Coca-Cola delivery truck driver, burning out two clutches one summer as he drove through the hills of West Virginia. She talked about the family’s 18 moves so that Saban could advance his coaching career. The chief challenge was distilling it down to 30 seconds.
A voice-over from Tom Roberts, host of Alabama’s call-in radio shows, was recorded on New Year’s Eve and production of the spot wrapped just days before the game, about a three-week turnaround during the holidays.
“Sharon and I basically spent the holidays together,” Smith joked.
After making its premiere on ESPN’s postgame show, the commercial will run on ESPN’s platforms and local stations across the state of Alabama, as well as YouTube.com, CokeZero.com and MyCokeRewards.com. The Coke Zero brand also will celebrate the Crimson Tide’s championship with special packaging.
Saban also endorses Ford.
■ PLAYOFF PLANNING: Marketers are eager to hear how ESPN will go to market with the new college football playoff, which begins with the 2014 season. Will title sponsors remain on each bowl? Will there be a title sponsorship to the national championship game? How much will it cost?
Some answers to these questions are beginning to come into focus.
Bill Hancock, executive director of the BCS and the future playoff system, said there will not be a title sponsor for the national championship game when the playoffs begin with the 2014 season.
Expect the field for the national title game to keep a very clean look.
ESPN will continue to sell title sponsorships to the six bowls in the system that will rotate in the semifinals. The Orange, Sugar and Rose bowls are three of them. The other three will be selected this spring and are expected to be the Chick-fil-A, Fiesta and Cotton.
Title sponsors to those bowls will have a presence when their game is a semifinal in the playoff. A working title would be “The National Semifinals at the Discover Orange Bowl.”
Other rights, such as licensing and hospitality, will be sold individually for the national championship game. Each bowl will continue to sell those rights to their own game.
Additionally, Hancock said that the new playoff system is seeking office space in the Las Colinas area of Dallas. New COO Michael Kelly, hired from the ACC, starts on Tuesday and other staff will be hired over the course of the year. The playoff system will be seeking a CFO, communications director, an operations director and someone to oversee licensing and other revenue streams.
“We’re going to have a small staff of six to eight people, so we’re going to need some quarterbacks who can also punt,” Hancock said with a laugh.
Premier Sports Management of Overland Park, Kan., is consulting with the conference commissioners on a new name for the playoff system.
■ BCS HOSPITALITY: Alabama and Notre Dame fans were partying shoulder-to-shoulder in PrimeSport’s VIP pregame hospitality.
ESPN analyst Mark Schlereth and his daughter, Alex, emceed the event, and several former players from both schools mingled with guests. The players included Rocket Ismail, Joe Theismann, Tim Brown and Brady Quinn from Notre Dame, and Mark Ingram, Marcell Dareus and Greg McElroy from Alabama.
The pregame event inside the climate-controlled section of Sun Life Stadium sold more than 1,000 tickets at $400 apiece and was one of several locations PrimeSport activated as the official hospitality provider for the Orange Bowl. The Orange Bowl deal includes rights to the BCS championship game in this current BCS cycle.
The Atlanta-based hospitality company also packaged tickets and hospitality with travel. New to its offerings this year was hospitality in Club Liv, the nightclub on Sun Life Stadium’s second level.
IMG College has bought the multimedia rights to the University of Mississippi, giving the sports agency rights at 10 of the Southeastern Conference’s 14 universities.
Ole Miss’ rights formerly were owned by TeleSouth, a Jackson, Miss.-based company that runs radio networks and stations across the state. IMG College bought the Ole Miss contract from TeleSouth for an undisclosed amount. The school and IMG College will now engage in talks for an extension and, most likely, a raise.
The current contract guarantees Ole Miss $2.2 million this year, well below the market value for an SEC school. The Rebels’ in-state rival, Mississippi State, is guaranteed $4 million a year in its deal with Learfield Sports. Other schools in the conference, such as Florida and Georgia, receive as much as $10 million a year from their multimedia rights contract.
“It’s exciting that we’re going to be with the national leader in the multimedia rights business,” said Ross Bjork, Ole Miss’ athletic director. “IMG has the reach to take our brand nationally, and we feel we have a brand that can bring in some national sponsorship opportunities. They’re going to help take us to the next level with our branding, our revenue and our exposure, all of the things you look for in a deal like this.”
IMG College has rights at more than 80 schools and its SEC partners include Florida, Kentucky and Georgia, among others. IMG has a minority piece of the Alabama property, which is run by Learfield.
IMG College will manage all of the Rebels’ rights associated with advertising, corporate sponsorship, the school’s radio network, digital, venue signage and video boards. Promotional rights, hospitality and print rights also are part of the deal.
TeleSouth will still have a presence with Ole Miss because many of its stations will carry the football and basketball games. IMG College will work with TeleSouth to produce and distribute radio programming.
“This bolsters an already strong national sales program and strengthens our deep presence in the SEC,” said Ben Sutton, president of IMG College.