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LONG SHOT: ESPN, ACC, And Pac-12 Talked About A Joint TV Deal. Could It Really Happen?

The Trio Talked Last Summer About A Plan To Save Both Conferences And Talks Could Be Revived.

WASHINGTON — As the Pac-12 waits for a new media deal and the ACC attempts to sort out there issues with members it might be worth restarting a conversation that began last summer….

Not long after USC and UCLA left the Pac-12 for the Big Ten the ACC who has a history of not rushing into things wondered if there was a chance, they might be the next conference that would be poached. The rumors began back then that Clemson and Florida State were not happy with the ever-growing gap between the SEC, Big Ten, and ACC.

CHARLOTTE, NC – DECEMBER 03: Clemson Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney during the ACC college football championship game between the North Carolina Tar Heels and the Clemson Tigers on December 3, 2022, at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. (Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

ACC commissioner Jim Phillips and Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff met to talk about the future and how both conferences might work out a way they could keep their members happy. Enter an unlikely partner to these conversations a couple of program executives from ESPN. 

The ACC inked a deal in 2019 that seemed both wise and lucrative, they would have stability through an agreement with ESPN to broadcast all their events through 2036 and the Worldwide Leader was going to launch the ACC Network. Despite ESPN doing everything it promised all the way up to now in 2023 the deal doesn’t seem as enticing to some as it was when they loved it in 2019.

Some in the conference were upset that not only were they far behind the Big Ten and SEC, but they were not that far ahead of the Big 12. Meanwhile, out West, the Pac-12 was fending the Big-12 who is ready to poach members while wondering if the Big Ten would snag a couple more of schools to join with UCLA and USC.

ORLANDO, FL – DECEMBER 29: Florida State Seminoles quarterback Jordan Travis (13) passes the ball during the Cheez-It Bowl against the Oklahoma Sooners on December 29, 2022 at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

So, the ACC and the Pac-12 began to look at ways they could perhaps form a partnership that could gain the dollars needed to keep their members happy enough to stay put and not bolt to another conference. 

The Sports Illustrated reporting team of Ross Dellenger and Pat Forde was the duo that broke the story about the conversations and what was discussed by the group.  There would not be a merger or an alliance but a proposed partnership where the ESPN-owned ACC Network — or a renamed entity combining the two leagues — has exclusive rights to air Pac-12 games to West Coast through multiple ESPN cable providers. The deal between the Pac-12 and the ACC would be a media rights agreement and likely take the place of the existing Pac-12 Network. 

So, why would ESPN COULD want this partnership for the ACC and the Pac-12 happen?

The ACC Network has at present about 48 million subscribers and could benefit from the number of homes they could add in Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon, Utah and Washington. 

In the states where there is an ACC team the network is getting about $2 per month from its cable deals through ESPN. Pu the Pac teams in there and the fees will go a bit higher while adding new subs  producing some impressive dollar per month figures. 

The ACC Network is a revenue share deal with both sides equal 50–50 partners, meaning they boost ad prices for spots on Pac-12 games airing on the network, plus they get a monthly cable fee that could be boosted. Add to that putting some of the content on ESPN+ where again revenue can be shared the network keeps the present contract intact but can generate more cash with premier programming.

If the Pac-12 went away it would be a good news bad news thing for ESPN. The good news would be that Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah would go to their partners in the Big 12 while the bad news is Cal, Oregon, Stanford and Washington, the money brands would be going to the Big Ten.

A Big Ten Saturday Night could go to Peacock, Paramount + or to Amazon all who wanted to be the conference streaming partner. 

So, keeping the Pac-12 alive at least for five or six years would benefit ESPN as well as the conference and the ACC.

AS VEGAS, NV – DECEMBER 02: Utah Utes quarterback Cameron Rising (7) drops back to pass during the Pac-12 Championship football game between Utah Utes and USC Trojans on December 2, 2022 at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, NV. (Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

With some creative scheduling of ACC-Pac-12 games, we could see coach Prime’s Colorado playing against his alma mater FSU, Oregon hosting Miami, Washington hosting Notre Dame, and Utah entertaining Clemson. Basketball would also have some fun matchups to be sure with top men’s and women’s teams facing off like Notre Dame-Stanford, Duke-Arizona, Oregon, and North Carolina.      

If ever came to pass it would solve a couple of problems first the ACC could by money generated from network exposure add money to their ESPN deal while Pac-12 would benefit by getting enough cash to satisfy their members in hopes of keeping the conference from losing members to the rival Big 12. Both the ACC’s Phillips and the Pac-12’s Kliavkof believed the idea had merit but knew it would take a great deal of time to pull together plus there would be plenty of hurdles to overcome.

A partnership could take a year or more to work out and there are plenty of things that could kill it before it ever made to the vote by the members. But when you are under attack you go off script and that is what the ACC and Pac-12 are doing. 

Normally battles over media rights aren’t argued in the press but both Clemson and Florida State had no problem calling out both the ACC and ESPN in their declaration of distaste for the present state. 

TEMPE, AZ – SEPTEMBER 23: Oregon Ducks quarterback Justin Herbert (10) throws a pass during warm ups before the college football game between the Oregon Ducks and the Arizona State Sun Devils on September 23, 2017 at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona.(Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)   

“Is it time revenue distribution within conferences, or at least the ACC, is done differently?” said Clemson’s AD Graham Neff. “Yeah, I’ve been very active in those conversations within the league and continue to expect to take a leadership role in our desire for that to be a change. Meanwhile, down in Tallahassee, the Seminoles are not pleased with their present situation.

At a recent Board of Trustee meeting FSU athletic director Michael Alford said “something has to change moving forward” for the Seminoles to remain ACC members. The TV deal with ESPN that runs through 2036 suddenly is looking pretty bad not only to the Seminoles but officials I spoke to in Miami, North Carolina, and Clemson.

This might be a way for ESPN to win by not having to go back to the bargaining table they can get the Pac-12 content at a reduced rate and adjust an enhanced payment for the ACC that would keep the big players like Clemson, Florida State, Miami, and North Carolina. As for the Pac-12 if there is a way to come out of this alive with all ten members then all the better. 

In the end, this will be all about the money, and of the many hurdles this potential venture has that is the most important one. That is why they call these deals LONG SHOTS.

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