On the ACC's Troll Toll and the Wizard Behind the Curtain

By D.J. Byrnes on January 15, 2014 at 3:23 pm
Jim Delany: Luke Skywalker battling ESPN's Death Star.

Yesterday, the Attorney General of Maryland filed a lawsuit in a North Carolina court against the ACC that seeks $157 million in damages.

Among petty arguments over anti-trust laws and a $52 million exit fee, Maryland is also alleging the ACC is beholden to ESPN — saying the ACC went so far as trying to poach unnamed Big Ten schools at the behest of the sports media behemoth — as the World Wide Leader attempts to dominate the TV market by whatever-means-necessary.

Maryland's lawsuit is using the fateful quote from then-Boston College athletic director Gene Defilippo as conference realignment/expansion was swirling in 2011:

We always keep our television partners close to us . . . ESPN is the one who told us what to do.  

Defilippo later apologized and said he misspoke.

You're damn straight he misspoke, but only in that he spoke about college football's Wizard-Behind-the-Curtain in public. But should the existence of ESPN's other, invisible hand surprise anyone? And is it anything but good-business on their part?

Words like "attorney" and "business" are enough to make most sports fans look for a strong rope and the nearest light fixture capable of supporting their full weight, and rightfully so: sports are supposed to be a sanctuary from the everyday bullshit of the real world — and college sports was the alleged oasis from the bullshit of professional sports. 

But whether we like to admit it or not... the times, they are a changin'.

In 2010, ESPN signed a TV deal with the ACC worth $1.86 billion over the next 12 years. In 2008, ESPN signed a TV deal with the SEC worth $2 billion over the next 15 years. (The 24/7 SEC TV launches this fall.) ESPN also has decade-plus agreements in the billions with the Big 12, Pac 12 and Fox.

Shit, in most realms that's known as "buying equity."

As cable subscription numbers continue to dwindle, is ESPN supposed to sit idly while conferences (into which they've sunk billions) enter this brave new world? Is it not standard business practice to wring every cent out of their investment? It's not as if ESPN asking asking Dabo Swinney to run cocaine up the eastern seaboard during the off-season recruiting trips, they're just offering sound business advice to people like Dave Brandon.

Fans want top-flight head coaches, coordinators, assistants and facilities. Coaching salaries on the upper echelons of college football are ballooning. (Kirk Ferentz is on his way to being appropriately paid.) Where do they think the financing of this arms race comes from?

So it shouldn't come as a surprise ESPN is helping contribute to the toxicity of college football; it drives numbers to their billion dollar-investments

The most influential company in college sports was what Jim Delany walked away from all those years ago in a scene so bad-ass I have to let Jim Delany tell it:

An amiable session in which the Big Ten and ESPN cleaned up "housekeeping matters" — schedules and announcers — took a nasty turn at the one-hour mark. That's when talk turned to a contract extension, a negotiating session that went nowhere. Fast.

"The shortest one I ever had," Delany told the Tribune. "He lowballed us and said: 'Take it or leave it. If you don't take our offer, you are rolling the dice.' I said: 'Consider them rolled.'"

Jim Delany and the Big Ten have never looked back. That was good business practice, but it came with a price.

Just as Maryland's move to the Big Ten will ultimately come with a price. The ACC (and by extension, ESPN) has no reason to let Maryland and their bally-hooed footprint walk into the pockets of Jim Delany without extracting as much as they can. (Neither side actually wants this to go to trial because that'd lead to discoveries and sworn-statements.)

Again, fans will complain about increased commercial breaks and the further big-timing of college football, but none of that will be remembered as long their team hoists the trophy. Hell — who am I kidding? It won't even matter if our team wins the trophy, we're addicted, remember? Next year's college football playoff will shatter college football TV records. It's all part of their business plan.

(POP QUIZ: Who owns the first 12 years of broadcast rights to the College Football Playoff?)

So next year, when you feel your blood boiling because some shitheart is on ESPN in three layers of makeup and a $3,000 suit dissing on the non-ESPN property Big Ten, remember, it's not personal. It's just business.

As history tells us, it's a winning formula.

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