This week's Sports Business Journal had an article regarding the exclusive negotiating window between the ACC and its existing media rights partners, ABC/ESPN (national football) and Raycom (men's basketball and regional football). FSN also likely will be negotiating its rights for Olympic sports and women's basketball as well, though that is not part of these negotiations.
In previous statements, IMG's Barry Frank has stated that his goal for the ACC is to get a rights agreement that is comparable to the mega-agreements that both the SEC and Big Ten have earned. Early indications from the negotiations are that those right fees are not likely and that just a little over a week into the 60 day exclusive window, the ACC rights will hit the open market.
So who are possible suitors for the ACC rights if the they hit the open market
Over the air
FOX has been mentioned as the most likely suitor for these rights. While the network has mid-afternoon obligations to Major League Baseball, the network should be able to accomodate some 12pm windows in the September and October and some primetime windows. Mid-afternoon windows would be available in November. NBC and CBS do not appear to have any interest in the rights and NBC's schedule with Notre Dame that often pushes their start times to 2:30pm makes it unlikely that NBC could accomodate ideal start times.
FOX has not shown any interest in college basketball in the past and its not know if they would be willing to pick up any games. ABC's recent decline in sports programming also makes it unlikely that they would pick up a small package of games and NBC has not shown any interest in the sport in close to a decade. That leaves CBS, by default, to air any games. The question becomes whether CBS would make a pitch for a set of games or continue a sublicense agreement with a cable or syndication entity.
ESPN owns the rights and one of the synergistic aspects of having the football rights with both ABC and ESPN is the ability for multiple games to air in the same broadcast window. The ACC has also been the one conference that has benefitted the most from the Big Ten's reverse mirror, where an ABC game at 3:30pm will air on ESPN/ESPN2 depending on the coverage of the Big Ten's game. One downside that the ACC felt directly this year, largely from the new SEC deal, was that a large number of games shifted to ESPN360, a service that is still not available on the Time Warner systems in the Carolinas.
Versus and FSN are likely interested in the rights as well. FSN does have an existing relationship with the conference through its Olympic sports contract and through the ACC Sunday Night Hoops sublicense. Versus could have a leg up because, unlike FSN, Versus is national and does not have regional pre-emptions. FSN on the other hand does have about a 7-8 million household advantage due to channel placement. Comcast does have a stronghold in most of the ACC's large markets outside of the Carolinas and that could help Versus. A dark horse could be Turner. TBS was offered up for the Raycom package of games back in 2003 and it wouldn't surprise me if they also made a bid. TBS has been out of the college football game since the end of the 2006 season to focus on their MLB Sunday & playoff package, but has stated more than once that their interest in college football was still alive.
Because the ACC's basketball rights are owned in full by Raycom, then games are sold as needed to other entities. I'd expect that all cable entities mentioned would make a pitch for a package of games. ESPN has stated previously that their interest is only in a set of games and that the regional syndication package would compete with their SEC package of games in too many markets, so Raycom could stay in play for a set of games in both basketball and football at a reduced rate. FOX has not syndication since the early part of the 00s with both the PAC-10 and Big 12 but eventually took those games in-house and placed them on FSN and sold them to other entities. CBS through CBS College Sports does offer syndication through their purchase of the Atlantic 10 network and allows local broadcasters to produce their own games from Conference USA, so an inventory purchase of the ACC could be ideal for them.
Where does this leave us
I think at the end of the day, the ACC re-ups with ABC and ESPN for a primary set of football games. The ACC might get a premium for having so many games placed on ESPN3.com. ESPNU would also receive a minimum number of ACC games and the ACC would continue to have a major presence on ESPN's Thursday night football package.
For regional football, I think the ACC could strike out on its own and offer a package of regional football games through FSN. FSN currently has a regional set of games involving the ACC on the four RSNs covering the ACC areas (NESN, FSSouth/SportSouth, FSFlorida/Sun Sports and CSN Mid-Atlantic). The ACC could do this in most of these areas without FSN sacrificing these region's Big 12 early afternoon package because of multiple RSNs in most of these areas. The ACC could get more bang for its buck and wider coverage of these games, provided they are not blacked out outside of ACC areas.
I could see the most changes in men's basketball to make up for what will likely be a shortfall compared to projections for football TV rights. I see CBS making a pitch for a package of 6-8 ACC games and maybe getting the ACC quarterfinals and championship as the Big Ten's men's basketball rights with CBS are up for renewal at the moment. If they re-up with the Big Ten, the package of games would be regular season only. ESPN would then pick up a package of 60-70 games, including the ACC tournament except the 1st round and would likely pick up FSN's national package of games. In addition, ESPN3.com would air exclusive ACC games. Lastly, Raycom would stay in the picture, probably airing the same number of games but not paying as much to the ACC.