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Volume 22 No. 19
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Litany of distribution deals puts added pressure on big cable systems to carry ACC Network

ESPN executives are expecting that big distributors such as Comcast, Charter and Dish Network will have a lot of pressure to carry the ACC Network when it launches this August.

The reason: National distributors DirecTV, Hulu and PlayStation Vue already have committed to carry the channel. That is on top of regional commitments from Altice One’s Optimum and Verizon’s Fios.

No matter what happens with Comcast and Charter, ACC fans in their markets will have other distribution options if they want to subscribe to the new conference network.

“I’m not suggesting that absolutely everybody will be fully launched on the date of the network’s launch,” said Justin Connolly, executive vice president of affiliate sales and marketing at Disney & ESPN Media Networks. “But we certainly like where we sit in terms of our recent conversations. We like the way the programming is lining up from a scheduling perspective. Each distributor is going to have to make their own choice and decision here, but we really like where we sit with them.”

The strength and tradition of ACC basketball gives the conference’s network year-round leverage in its pursuit of carriage deals.
Photo: getty images

To underscore the amount of pressure that will be on Comcast and Charter, the first ACC football game on the network’s schedule will pit Georgia Tech against Clemson. Georgia Tech is in a Comcast market; Clemson is in a Charter market. It’s possible that only DirecTV, Hulu and PlayStation Vue subscribers in those markets will be able to see that game.

ESPN used the same strategy when it launched the SEC Network, whose first game was Texas A&M at South Carolina. Columbia, S.C., was a Time Warner Cable market, and ESPN set up a bevy of fan events around the game to exert extra pressure on Time Warner, one of the last distributors to cut a deal.

Comcast, Charter and Dish Network are known as particularly tough negotiators. Comcast went a full year without the Big Ten Network when it launched in 2007 and engaged in a rancorous public fight with the conference and Fox Sports, which owns part of the channel. Dish Network has not been shy about dropping sports channels, particularly regional sports networks.

The question these distributors have is: How many subscribers can they afford to lose before they are forced to cut a deal? Comcast ultimately decided to carry the Big Ten Network. DirecTV, though, still has not cut a deal for the Pac-12 Networks.

Given the number of ACC Network carriage deals already announced, ESPN believes it has a deal template for winning carriage for the new network. Disney’s affiliate deals with Comcast, Charter and Dish Network don’t come up before August, which means that they will have to work out a deal in the middle of an existing contract — something that is not the norm but does happen on occasion.

“There’s an opportunity to have demand to do deals outside of a broader conversation,” Connolly said. “We also have some broader conversations that are well-timed against the launch. We look at it as a combo.”

ESPN has a good history with launching college sports networks. It owns all of the SEC Network, which launched with virtually full distribution in 2014. It also owns the Longhorn Network, which has carriage throughout Texas.

Other college conference networks have been more hit-or-miss in terms of carriage. Big Ten Network went through a year of bruising carriage battles when it launched, but it now has carriage deals with all of the big distributors. 

The independent Pac-12 Networks is on the other side of the coin. It has been hamstrung by distribution challenges since its 2012 launch. Most notably, the Pac-12 has been unable to cut a deal with DirecTV.

Each distributor is going to have to make their own choice and decision here, but we really like where we sit with them.
Justin Connolly
Disney & ESPN Media Networks

DirecTV actually committed to carry the ACC Network as part of a bigger deal three years ago. But neither ESPN nor DirecTV made the news public until last week, when DirecTV was part of an ACC Network marketing push.

“From our perspective, it is incredibly significant if you think about where some of the other conference networks have been with DirecTV specifically,” Connolly said. “It’s encouraging for us that when we launch the third week of August, it’s going to be available in the DirecTV footprint.”

Plus, Altice was the last holdout for the SEC Network but signed an early deal for the ACC Network.

“Sometimes these things take a little bit longer than we would like,” Connolly said. “Ultimately in the context of a broad conversation we figure out a way to make it work.”

Connolly, who ran the SEC Network when it launched, remarked about the similarities in the look and feel of the networks. While there will be a lot of focus on the upcoming Clemson-Georgia Tech game, Connolly pointed out the year-round programming to keep pressure on distributors that don’t cut an ACC Network deal.

“We feel really good in terms of what the ACC brings from a regional footprint with a really strong basketball schedule, and obviously a really strong basketball legacy,” Connolly said. “Over time, that actually works quite well for us from a distribution perspective.”

The main difference: Whereas CBS has the first choice of SEC football games every week, ESPN holds all of the media rights for the ACC. That means it can be more creative in determining which games to put on the ACC Network.

“We have the ability to think about the schedule and the programming in an even deeper, more holistic basis, in the way that we think about programming the live event content and the matchups in any particular season,” Connolly said. “That helps us in distribution conversations. It helps us in making the network appealing to certain customer groups from a regional and seasonal perspective.”

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.