ACC and Pac-12 officials are discussing a broadcast partnership with ESPN that would bring the two Power 5 leagues from opposite coasts together for a mutually beneficial relationship, sources say Sports Illustrated.
The proposal, which is still in its early stages, includes ESPN’s heavily owned ACC Network. Under the plan, the ACC Network — or a renamed entity combining the two leagues — would have exclusive rights to broadcast Pac-12 games to West Coast households via ESPN cable providers. The deal is not a merger or consolidation of the leagues, but is instead built around a media rights deal with the world leader in sports — an attempt to reverse the Pac-12’s loss of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten.
While a joint move could include non-conference games from the West and East Coasts — think Clemson-Washington or Miami-Oregon — the main reason for the partnership is television ownership. It would replace the failing Pac-12 Network with a reliable provider that could reach millions of homes in the West.
The potential deal could benefit everyone involved: The ACC is expected to receive long-sought additional television revenue; ESPN gets some Pac-12 inventory; and the Pac-12 likely remains intact, with its 10 remaining members getting an attractive television lineup. It may also be a more desirable alternative for Pac-12 schools than joining the Big 12. At least one Pac-12 source disputed reports of “serious” talks between some remaining schools and the Big 12.
However, those familiar with the ACC-Pac-12 proposal believe there are many hurdles to clear and details to iron out before it becomes a reality. It has to be a longer-term, conscious decision that could take weeks, if not months, to fix, says one administrator. The key question: Does the deal generate enough additional revenue to make it worthwhile?
One administrator familiar with the discussions said ACC athletic directors first heard about the idea during a conference call Friday. “This is something that is considered worthy of investigation, but nothing has any details,” the administrator said. “The general response was, ‘Give us more.’ [specificity].’”
In some ways, the proposal is an extension of the Pac-12 and ACC’s so-called alliance with the Big Ten, a nonbinding agreement announced last year that was said to be aimed at preventing further expansion among the Power 5. It was a response to the acquisition of Texas and Oklahoma of the SEC in 2021, but blew up spectacularly when the Big Ten invaded the Pac-12.
In response, the ACC and Pac-12 have struggled to remain relevant in a market where their top two rival leagues — already the richest in college sports — have greatly increased their value. Relatively new to their jobs, ACC commissioner Jim Phillips and Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff have a good working relationship, according to sources, and are exploring ways to work together.
For the Pac-12, the partnership may be the best possible solution to keep the remaining members, but is it worth it for the ACC? It’s unclear exactly how much additional revenue the league would generate from such a move. But any extra dollars are a plus given the ACC’s long-term television contract. ACC members are believed to receive far less media rights revenue than the new deals of their Big Ten and SEC competitors. ACC is locked into the deal until 2036.
The new Pac-12 partnership may not renew the contract, but it will change the bottom line. That may be the best option for the ACC, as a full contract renegotiation could open the way for the league’s most valuable properties — North Carolina, Clemson, Florida State, Miami and Virginia — to explore leaving. As it stands, avoiding the ACC rights deal could be both expensive and complicated.
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ESPN will gain a foothold on the West Coast, ensuring it owns significant rights to three of the five Power 5 leagues as a result of Fox’s stranglehold on the Big Ten (the network is believed to have at least a 60% stake in the Big Ten’s new TV deal) . ESPN is expected to feature prominently in the Pac-12’s negotiations for a new media rights deal, but the product has been scaled back due to the loss of the Los Angeles market. This agreement could be a way for ESPN to get more out of an agreement with the Pac-12.
Meanwhile, Kliavkoff works to protect his 10 schools from theft by a new colleague. Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark, brand new to the job, has been aggressive in pursuing the remaining Pac-12 programs. The Big 12 is specifically targeting the other four from the Pac-12 South: Arizona, Arizona State, Utah and Colorado. The nature of that pursuit is unclear, as is the level of interest on the part of those schools to make a move. With sources indicating that Oregon and Washington have no clear and imminent path to the Big Ten, those schools may prefer to stay in the Pac-12, which in turn could improve the chances of Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah staying in the league.
For Kliavkoff, a potential partnership with the ACC would project strength at a time when the Pac-12 is weak and guarantee something the Big 12 can’t — a regional network television partner. The Pac-12 will grab a lifeline from the ACC at a time when the Big 12 is attacking its members.
Ironically, this comes almost a year after the Pac-12 and ACC decided not to pluck teams from the Big 12, which at the time was struggling after losing its two biggest brands, Oklahoma and Texas, to the SEC. The Pac-12 and ACC also declined a partnership with the Big 12 a year ago, prompting the conference to add four new members in Houston, BYU, Cincinnati and UCF, and causing more conference dominoes to fall to the Group of 5 in a wave of conference realignment. The next wave is here, sparked by last week’s stunning news that USC and UCLA are moving to the Big Ten.
Meanwhile, the eyes of many in college athletics are on independent Notre Dame. Will the Irish finally be moved to join a full-time league? And will this conference be the Big Ten? A source familiar with Notre Dame’s thinking recently told SI, “Independence remains the club’s preference and leader.” Washington and Oregon also remain attractive Big Ten brands, but their fates could be determined based on Notre’s decision Dame – and the Fighting Irish don’t feel compelled to rush.
“It’s all about money,” says Pac-12 official. “The SEC benefits from it the most, and the Big Ten has the second most from it, and the ACC is stuck in a less-than-optimal deal. And the Pac-10 — we should start calling it the Pac-10 now — is figuring out what our new TV deal looks like, and the Big 12 seems to be chasing us.
All of this potential movement will be determined by money. Any conference expansion means splitting TV dollars more ways. Thus, any additional school must bring significant value to the league to be financially worthwhile.
Does the Big 12 really see value in adding four or six schools from the west? Does the ACC think it’s valuable enough to agree to a media partnership with the Pac-12? And does Notre Dame see the benefit of joining a league? These questions are being asked in one of the most uncertain and chaotic times in the recent history of college athletics.
The mechanism driving each decision is obvious, says one prominent athletic administrator: “It all comes down to dollars.”
More college coverage:
• USC, UCLA and the Big Ten are getting theirs, but at what cost?
• What USC, UCLA moves mean for college sports
• Brady Quinn makes case for Notre Dame to join Big Ten