During College Sports Realignment,
Why Does ACC Ignore ECU, App State?

By David Glenn
North Carolina Sports Network

During and long before this most recent round of college sports realignment, there has been a lot of speculation — sometimes even angry, misdirected nonsense — that the University of North Carolina and/or North Carolina State University, as the state’s top two public universities and founding members of the Atlantic Coast Conference, have had some sort of vendetta against East Carolina University and/or Appalachian State University and would prevent the in-state Pirates or Mountaineers from ever joining the ACC.

While there certainly are people in those various camps who don’t like each other, especially among the fan bases, the “vendetta” claims miss one very important angle that makes the entire debate a moot point.

(One quick, personal side note: My only son is a proud graduate of ECU, and my only daughter is a soon-to-be proud graduate of App State, so I have a soft spot in my heart personally for both places, I’ve been to both schools dozens of times, and they always have been a big part of what we’ve done with my various media platforms over the last 30 years.)

The reality of the matter is that there has never been a shred of interest in the ACC adding ECU, App State or any other North Carolina-based school, and it’s definitely not because of some underlying disrespect or antagonism toward the Pirates or Mountaineers from anyone at UNC, NC State or any other ACC school.

Instead, there’s an entirely innocuous explanation for the end results here.

While there have been a small number of exceptions to this general rule, the overwhelming majority of expansion and realignment moves in college sports over the last three decades have included an intense desire to add a new state or states to a league’s geographic footprint. By definition, that means expanding to states where a league doesn’t already have a team or teams.

Think about it. The expanding Big Ten soon will have 18 schools in 15 different states. The expanding SEC soon will have 16 schools in 12 different states. Neither of those two super-heavyweight leagues has more than two schools in any single state, and that isn’t an accident. It’s absolutely intentional, because it feeds the need to cultivate new and different parts of the United States in ways that inspire those new places to begin to care more about Big Ten sports … or SEC sports … or ACC sports or … whatever league or product is expanding.

The ACC already has not two, not three, but four(!) universities in North Carolina, in Duke, UNC, NC State and Wake Forest. (That fact actually has caused a lot of resentment among ACC schools and fan bases located elsewhere over the years.) The only other example of such a phenomenon in any of the Power Four conferences is in the enormous state of Texas, where the Big 12 now counts Baylor, Houston, Texas Christian and Texas Tech as members.

It’s not mere coincidence that the ACC and the Big 12 are struggling financially, at least in comparison to the Big Ten and the SEC. Those latter leagues’ memberships have consisted for decades of mostly large, public, flagship universities in a wide variety of very populous states. Those are exactly the sorts of things — along with high-level football, of course — that translate into much bigger television audiences and, over time, much more lucrative TV contracts.

Another thing to remember is the dramatic difference between what the ACC Network, Big Ten Network and SEC Network can charge to “in-market” customers versus what they can charge to “out-of-market” consumers.

Adding App State or ECU to the ACC would add literally zero to the ACC Network’s carriage price, because the channel (a partnership between ESPN and the ACC) already charges the much higher “in-market” rate to its various pay-TV partners across the state of North Carolina.

While the ACC Network likely would pick up new subscribers from any new fan bases via expansion, in the current TV marketplace, the value of those new subscriptions is tiny compared to the value of expanding into a new geography.

Obviously, with the recently debated additions of schools in California (Stanford University and the University of California-Berkeley) and Texas (Southern Methodist University), millions of households that previously had paid nickels per month for the ACC Network soon would pay more than $1 per month for the same channel. That would mean tens of millions of dollars of new revenue for the ACC Network every year, in part because California and Texas are the two most populous states in the country (combined, they comprise more than 20 percent of the entire U.S. population), whereas again adding a school located within the ACC’s existing footprint does not add any value in that very important category.

The bottom line: In the modern college sports world, which revolves mostly around football TV money, which at least in part revolves around expanding a league’s geographic footprint, why would any school in the ACC want to have more than four schools based in the same state, in this case meaning North Carolina? That’s the exact opposite of what the league’s TV partners want, and it’s not what any ACC members want, either.

Too often, when two North Carolina-based football teams play each other, it’s difficult to build a huge TV audience, in large part because so many folks in the other 49 states simply don’t care. Nationally, only much higher-profile intrastate gridiron rivalries such as Florida-Florida State, Alabama-Auburn, Michigan-Michigan State, Southern Cal-UCLA and a handful of others overcome this general rule on a consistent basis.

There are exceptions within North Carolina, of course. The last two State-Carolina football games, for example, drew very strong audiences of 2.7 million (2021) and 3.6 million (2022) on ESPN and ABC, respectively. The Wolfpack’s trip to ECU last season also did well, drawing about 2 million viewers on ESPN.

However, there are far more disappointments than success stories when it comes to North Carolina’s in-state football games and their associated TV ratings.

In 2021, for example, when App State and ECU played each other in Charlotte on a Thursday night in early September, in a game televised on ESPNU, the matchup drew only 245,000 viewers, an embarrassingly low number for a national TV broadcast. On the same night, a Big Ten contest between Ohio State and Minnesota on FOX drew 6.3 million viewers.

In 2018, when ECU hosted UNC, the ESPNU broadcast drew only 284,000 viewers. The Pirates’ game against NC State that year was relegated to streaming-only status on ACC Network Extra, which typically indicates extremely low expectations for viewership numbers. In 2022, ECU’s regular-season matchups on ESPNU against American Athletic Conference foes and fellow bowl teams such as Central Florida, Memphis and Tulane drew such small audiences that those weeks’ Nielsen ratings didn’t even report specific numbers publicly.

Even in-state football games matching current ACC members often fall well below the 1 million-viewer threshold, which is an embarrassing performance by power conference standards.

In 2022, the UNC-Wake Forest contest (matching star quarterbacks Drake Maye and Sam Hartman and two bowl-bound teams) drew only 610,000 viewers on ESPN2. In 2021, the UNC-Duke game drew only 303,000 viewers on ESPN2; the Duke-Carolina men’s basketball game often draws more than 4 million viewers.

With that sort of TV data in mind, remember that ACC representatives, along with their partners at ESPN, have looked at schools such as Cincinnati, West Virginia, SMU, Cal, Stanford, Oregon and Washington during their expansion-related conversations in recent years. What do those universities have in common? They’re all located in states that do not already have an ACC member.

Again, that’s not mere coincidence, and it underlines the ongoing reality that App State and ECU haven’t even been on the fringes of the ACC expansion conversation, much less in the middle of it, not because of some imaginary disrespect or personal animosity, but because of some of the most basic elements of college football’s modern television marketplace.

David Glenn (DavidGlennShow.com@DavidGlennShow) is an award-winning author, broadcaster, editor, entrepreneur, publisher, speaker, writer and university lecturer (now at UNC Wilmington) who has covered sports in North Carolina since 1987.

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