Some things stand the test of time. ACC basketball and syndication have a heritage that stretches back to the Eisenhower administration with the conference's college football package entering the fray in 1984. Somehow, the ACC's syndication package with Raycom survived the dawn of the ACC's cable network, moving from local over-the-air stations to RSNs after the 2018 season. But now, the ACC's tradition of syndication may finally have met its match.
The demise of regional sports networks (RSNs) has been prolonged, tenuous, and covered extensively on this site. Another domino in this process just fell as Diamond Sports Group, the owner of the Bally Sports RSNs, has dropped the ACC's Raycom syndication package for football and basketball after taking ownership in 2019 after the launch of the ACC Network.
As it stands, three games in the first three weeks of the season have not the ACC has not assigned a TV partner:
- September 9: Cincinnati @ Pitt
- September 9: Western Michigan @ Syracuse
- September 16: VMI @ NC State
Bally Sports likely would have picked up all of these games if they did not have their current financial woes. The worst-case scenario is these games and other "leftover" ACC-controlled games throughout the season get sent to either ACC Network Extra, which requires a cable/over-the-top TV subscription (think Hulu Live TV or YouTube TV), or ESPN+.
The best-case scenario is an over-the-air network like The CW, who broadcasts LIV Golf and was the broadcaster for the proposed Cincinnati Chili Bowl, or Scripps Sports distributes these games to networks like Ion, as they do with national Friday night WNBA games.
Having The CW or Scripps Sports distribute the game is solid exposure for the ACC and their non-conference opponents in these games as they do not require a cable subscription. For FCS opponents of ACC schools, this is welcome news. An appearance on a local over-the-air network affiliate is the best exposure they will likely get in their home markets.
Even for the Group of Five, appearances on network TV, regional or national are like gold as only the Mountain West and American are guaranteed appearances on the Big Four networks. Even then, that is capped at 1-4 appearances per year for those conferences.
Aside from the Southern Conference, which has a Game of the Week distributed by Nexstar for its local stations and handfuls of CAA and Big Sky teams, exposure on local over-the-air networks is rare for FCS schools. Most schools in FCS have their games behind paywalls with ESPN+ or FloSports with few schools or conferences bothering to simulcast on local networks.
Casual fans may believe that syndication does not matter in the current broadcasting climate, but they need to look no further than the reach of the SoCon's Game of the Week. In an article I published in March, I calculated the reach of the Southern Conference's network of local stations, and below is the breakdown:
While it is silly to assume that every single person in a given TV market would watch a game like VMI-NC State, but Power Five opponents draw viewers in their home markets. Additionally, the possibility of The CW or Scripps Sports airing or distributing the game outside of the home market exists. Reading this, one may think that games such as VMI-NC State and Campbell-North Carolina will be blowouts that no one will watch, but that is never guaranteed.
Over the past five years, college football fans nearly overlooked monumental near-upsets such as 2018's game between #5 Oklahoma and Army and #8 Notre Dame and Toledo because they were on a $54.99 pay-per-view stream (Oklahoma-Army) or Peacock's service (Notre Dame-Toledo).
If VMI has a good chance of upsetting NC State, people will try their best to find a way to watch. After all, over 32,000 people watched a Twitch stream of a TV showing the 2018 Army-Oklahoma game. Having the game on a local channel instead of an RSN makes it easier for people to find it and potentially witness history. The CW and Scripps Sports benefit by gaining more advertisers due to having live sports with potentially historic ramifications.
FCS and Group of Five schools will monitor the ACC's decision closely. Both groups could become winners or losers of the latest chapter in the cord-cutting era.