So Long to College Sports Syndication

We all know that nothing stays the same forever and that life is about evolving and changing.  As we get older, the things we remember from our younger years become more of a distant memory and simply fade away.

This week, one of those things happened.  Since 1957 the Atlantic Coast Conference has had at least its basketball games appearing on some form of the over-the-air broadcast station syndication throughout what is called its “geographic footprint” and beyond.  That long-standing relationship was given a definite termination date yesterday in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The ACC Network, an ESPN owned entity will begin broadcasting in 2019.  This move has long been coming for the ACC as the league struggles to keep up with the Joneses.  The Big 10 was the first to start its own college sports network by cutting a deal with Fox to own 49% of the network.  The Pac-12 followed with a completely league owned network.  In other words, the Pac-12 didn’t have a cable dancing partner and as a result has been the least successful.  The Pac-12 Network, which broadcasts out of studios in San Francisco, has been unable to strike a deal with Direct TV to place the network on its satellite system and make it available to its subscribers.  Direct TV obviously knows what I know and that’s outside of about 6 western states, no one cares about Pac-12 sports and if they do they are able to watch the biggest football and basketball games on other outlets.  There’s no market for a dual swim meet between USC and Arizona. God Bless the student-athletes for participating in those “Olympic Sports”, but they are not now nor have they ever been a television staple.  The Pac-12 will tout itself being on Dish Network, but the numbers bear it out that Dish is an inferior product to Direct TV so until the Pac-12 finds a way to get on Direct TV, it will remain anonymous.

In just a couple of years on the air, the SEC Network has proven to be a financial success for its owner ESPN, and ESPN has poured a large amount of resources and some of its top talent in forever young and fantastic Brent Musburger.  The SEC Network is on Direct TV, and again other than a few football and basketball games, I don’t recall watching the SEC Network for much of anything.  I think College Baseball sucks, and I don’t watch any of the other “Olympic Sports” because I just don’t care.  I know someone does, but that person is not me.  Reportedly the SEC Network is largely self-sufficient, in that it generates enough income for ESPN to pay for the rights fees the network has to pay to get the games to place on the network.

The by-product of the SEC Network however has been the same issue that is now facing 14 1/2 ACC Schools (it’s only a 1/2 because Notre Dame has a separate football deal with NBC), and that is that the schools will be forced to invest anywhere from $1 million to $6 million dollars building studios and preparing to program some of their sports themselves.  ESPN isn’t rolling in its high-definition production trucks to Blacksburg, Virginia to broadcast a January wrestling match between Virginia Tech and N.C. State.  Same with sports like softball, track and field, and lacrosse.  The ACC Network is going to require that those events air on the channel, but it’s not going to do anything to produce them.  But, it’s what the ACC schools want and so now they are going to get it because every other Power-5 conference (outside of the Big-12 and that’s coming) is doing it.

The other by-product is the end of a what some of us now middle-agers have long enjoyed about ACC football, and basketball in particular.  And that’s the ability to watch games on your local over-the-air affiliate.  ACC basketball first hit syndication in 1957 when a Greensboro, North Carolina businessman named C.D. Chesley put together a network of five North Carolina stations to document the University of North Carolina’s run to the 1957 NCAA Basketball Championship.  That year culminated in the Tarheels winning the NCAA Title in Triple-Overtime over Kansas, and Wilt Chamberlain.  The experiment proved to be so successful that next season, Chesley aired a full slate of games and was the over-the-air syndicator for ACC basketball until 1980.  I still remember in the 70s seeing the graphic come on the air with the late-great Jim Thacker saying “the following is a production of C.D. Chesley.”  That and the world-famous “Sail with the Pilot” insurance commercials that seemed to air during every commercial break.

ACC Basketball’s over-the-air syndication really took off in the 1980s due to a Charlotte based visionary named Rick Ray.  Ray was the programming director at WCCB in Charlotte when he went to his bosses at the station and suggested that the station begin broadcasting college basketball games because well nothing is bigger in North Carolina than basketball.  They turned him down, so Ray quit and with his wife founded “Raycom Sports” in 1979.  Immediately Raycom founded an event that turned into the “Great Alaska Shootout” basketball tournament around Christmas.  Two years later, Raycom teamed up with Jefferson Pilot Communications and grabbed the rights to ACC basketball and the rest is history.  From 1981 until the present Raycom in some form or another – whether in combination with Jefferson Pilot – or on its own has broadcast ACC football and basketball.  It began with a unique business model by purchasing broadcast time from its respective local stations and then retaining most of the advertising dollars.  It made Ray rich and Raycom a recognizable brand.  Ray eventually sold his interest in the company and when Ellis communications purchased Raycom and several television stations in the 1990s, it chose to use the name “Raycom Media”.  At one point Raycom had rights to broadcast SEC Football and Basketball, Big 8, Big 10 and games from the old Southwest Conference, and basketball games from the old Metro Conference.  In recent years, it lost all of those rights except for its signature ACC property.  It has also founded a bowl game in Charlotte, and holds the rights to pre-season NFL games of the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints.  It’s been a huge success, but like Walmart drove out of business mom-and-pop stores, ESPN has sent Raycom to the edge of the grave.

In just 3 years, Raycom will be out of the college sports syndication business.  I’m not going to excuse Raycom’s productions sometimes because frankly they have fallen down in some areas, particular with football in recent years.  Some of the broadcasters assigned to do football and basketball (particularly Tim Brant, who thankfully has retired) have been brutal, but some are great like Tim Brando and Wes Durham and Mike Giminski, and some of the production quality was pretty weak at times, but it was still unique in that Raycom was the last over the air syndicator to be affiliated with a major conference, and Raycom is responsible for initiating the broadcast career of ESPN’s top basketball analyst Jay Bilas.

In 2010, the ACC signed a new broadcast rights contract with ESPN.  As part of the deal, the conference insisted that ESPN sublicense games to Raycom.  Raycom also received the rights to the ACC’s digital platform and corporate sponsorship rights.  In the deal which was supposed to last until 2027, Raycom was given the rights to 31 live football games and 60 live basketball games (including the first meeting each season between Duke and North Carolina, which is broadcast along with ESPN) per season for the life of the contract.  Raycom then sublicensed 17 football games and 25 basketball games to Fox Sports Net, although Raycom continued to produce the games.  They did so under the branding of the ACC Network, but with yesterday’s announcement, there is now an actual ACC Network and Raycom is out of broadcasting ACC football and basketball in 2019 as that inventory becomes the exclusive property of ESPN and the ACC Network.  I assume that ESPN is going to have to pay Raycom handsomely, not to mention Fox Sports Net to recapture those rights and I assume that’s been done because I don’t think ESPN would have moved forward with this project if they had to share broadcast rights with an over-the-air network.

Where does that leave Raycom Sports?  Well, probably out of business short of negotiating an over-the-air broadcast deal with another smaller conference like Conference USA or even the American Athletic Conference, but what started as a big idea by a visionary in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1979 stands as the classic example of what a person can do with vision, work ethic and perseverance.  But, like all things in life it changes.  Now the ACC will have it’s own network and some of us lose another piece of our youth.  College sports purists talk about history and tradition, but that went the way of the dinosaur when conferences began expanding to 14 teams, and in some ways it’s disappoining but in other ways, it’s just inevitable.

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