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For the ACC Network to succeed, it needs unique content (not overflow)

At a time when cord-cutting is hurting every network, how does the ACC create something compelling on cable?

NCAA Football: ACC Media Days Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

With a little over a year until launch, there’s plenty of talk about the ACC’s impending cable network with ESPN going on.

The linear channel (paired with its current digital component as well) will house all things ACC, and there’s talk it could add something in the range of $8-10 million for each of the 14 full-time members. Nothing has been uttered officially about those numbers, of course, in part because of the environment the ACC Network will launch in come 2019. Cord-cutting is poised to cripple one of the last remaining institutions of linear TV: live sporting events.

You’re already seeing the effects start to take hold, as the Pac-12 still struggles for pick-up (with DIRECTV and AT&T potentially walking away for good), and the Big Ten — behemoth of behemoths — exhibiting their own struggles, too lately.

Earlier this week, Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel talked about Comcast already dropping the Big Ten network outside the conference footprint. And markets inside the footprint could lose the channel next on basic cable, when the league’s contract expires on September 1. That doesn’t eat into the six-year, $2.64 million deal they’re currently in the midst of with Fox and ESPN. But it does harm chances of BTN raking in the sort of payouts they’ve enjoyed to this point.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Football Media Day Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

As Wetzel points out, viewership is tough outside of football and men’s basketball. And if you look at the rest of the inventory on both the Big Ten and SEC Networks, respectively, it’s a whole lot of recycled studio stuff, syndicated game footage and looks at “classic” games, to go along with non-revenue sports programming.

The ACC could very well suffer the same fate — except without the years of big revenue boosts before it — unless they take a different approach to the network.

Obviously games are paramount, and commissioner John Swofford has already floated some ideas on that front to get viewers invested. Several ACC football teams will play conference games to kick off Labor Day weekend (and Syracuse may be one of those next year). And not only will men’s basketball increase its league schedule to 20 games, but it may stage tipoff games in early November, too (with most of that inventory housed on ACCN).

The rest is where the steeper challenge comes.

For those of us subjected to the ACC Network RSN games these past few seasons, the sorts of studio shows with passing knowledge of non-power teams (on-air talent can barely tell you anything about the Syracuse Orange or other “non-traditional” programs) won’t fly anymore. Strong non-revenue lineups for sports like soccer, lacrosse and women’s basketball are great showcases for those athletes and should be pushed. However, they’re only driving so much audience (and ad dollars).

The ACC’s best asset, to be honest, is it’s culture — and not the type that Roy Williams usually mutters about while in Brooklyn for the league tournament. Rather, it’s the digital personalities that have sprung up around the ACC over the years, in part due to the tribalism caused by conference realignment, but mostly due to the regional nature of the conference’s core membership.

No other conference truly has this — and I’m not just aying this as a member of the larger #goacc cadre of internet joke-tellers. There’s a clear fun-loving personality to taking in the league as a whole that no other conference truly has. So why not harness that and give the ACC Network something completely unique and original, and avoid the staid play of overflow content?

Look around Twitter (sorry, non-users) any given fall Saturday or big men’s basketball game and you’ll find standouts giving voice and images to the larger narratives around the ACC’s host of long- and short-term inside jokes. Pros like Jeff Fischel already work for the league in the capacity of its digital property. But why stop at in-house talent? Names like Ben Swain, Lauren Brownlow, David Hale, Weather Moose, Joe Giglio, That Boy’s Good and hell, folks like us, Streaking the Lawn, BC Interruption and the rest of SB Nation’s ACC blogs all play a core part in the ACC fan experience online. Why not put all of that to good use for unique programming that pulls digital into TV broadcasts?

Because viewers are no longer showing up for overflow and stock TV inventory. There has to be something they can’t get anywhere else if you want fans to not just watch the conference, but its network. They need to be fans of that channel as well, if there’s any chance of it finding success (especially outside of the core Mid-Atlantic footprint of the league).

We’ve made plenty of jokes over the years about the sort of content the ACC Network should host, and I’ll stand by plenty of those (especially Jim Boeheim cooking shows).

But this, more seriously, is a prescription for how the conference plots its own way forward, rather than just following the path of the Big Ten and SEC. It may not be conventional, but look around this conference. It hasn’t been conventional in quite some time. Hopefully the savvy 20-somethings running on-campus operations for the ACCN are all on the same page too come launch. As linear audiences shrink, it’s really our best bet at this working long-term.