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Saturday, March 2, 2024
The Observer

ESPN launches ACC Network, unique conference-centered streaming coverage

On August 22, ESPN launched the ACC Network, joining the ranks of several other major conferences to have a dedicated programming channel. The network has been a project long in the works and has taken countless moving pieces to bring it to fruition.

“It’s a conversation that has happened and evolved over the years between [ACC] Commissioner [John] Swofford and different ESPN leadership at various times,” Meg Aronowitz, head of remote production for the network, said.

Aronowitz cited John Skipper, a long-time former executive of the network and president of ESPN from 2012 to 2017, as an early force in this project. Skipper, a graduate of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, was “very passionate about the ACC, and was very passionate about the project before he departed ESPN, and was really the driver of pushing to launch an ACC network and partner with the conference on the network.”

Stacie McCollum, head of programming for the network, echoed Aronowitz’s recollection, saying the project was conceived as early as 2009, but didn’t gain momentum until late 2014, early 2015. The partnership between ESPN and the ACC was announced in July of 2016.

“It's something that always they have had in the back of their mind in the last decade,” McCollum said. “And something that we knew that we wanted to be a part of.”

McCollum said ESPN has a unique relationship with the conference due to their exclusive ownership of all rights. While the network has more complicated deals with ABC and Fox Sports over the Pac-12 and the Big Ten, they manage all ACC coverage.

“It only made sense of the next evolution was to create a dedicated network,” she said.

One of the primary pieces of this project that influenced the lengthy timeline between announcement and launching was the on-campus availability. Aronowitz, who oversees all on-campus broadcasting facilities, spent much of the last couple years visiting various campuses and developing state-of-the-art facilities that were custom to the needs of the school and network. The studio at Notre Dame is located in the Corbett Family Hall on the east side of the stadium.

“It's really been a process that has been years in the making. And, and one that was done deliberately and done intentionally over this amount of time, to allow us to, to build out facilities and put us in a situation to launch, you know, at the right time that ESPN and the ACC both felt would be the right time,” she said. “… So there was a time where we that we're working on the production, build out the operations, build out with travel around to all of the schools in the conference and just have cursory conversations of what we'd call it … in air quotes because, you know, the deal wasn't done yet.”

Aronowitz said throughout that process of traveling to the 15-member school campuses, the negotiations and deals were still being made at the highest level. Regardless, the entire staff continued to work in preparation for a deal to be finalized and the contract to be announced. Once the details were confirmed, her team had about 18 months to build out all sites to manage the needs of the network.

As the primary day-to-day contact with the partnering school, Aronowitz spent significant amounts of time on Notre Dame’s campus. Mike Bonner, executive producer of live events for Notre Dame athletics, and Scott Rinehart, director of Broadcasting Technology for Notre Dame Studios, were both very involved in determining the construction of control rooms, production facilities and equipment needed for the facility.

Built in conjunction with the Campus Crossroads campaign, Aronowitz ultimately spent additional amounts of time working alongside the Notre Dame staff and administration “given that it was part of the capital project that was being built into the football renovation for about 18 months, and we made several visits to walk the space to look at the specs to spend time talking with all those folks about what was going to be in the space.”

While it might seem as though Notre Dame football would be the marquee coverage, Aronowitz and McCollum both insisted that the ACC network will differ from conference networks that have come before, becoming much more than just a football channel, highlighting the conferences unique dominance in Olympic sports and the desire to feature more women’s sports. The network will feature one away football game for the Irish, expected to be announced shortly.

“Any other network that we've launched, that we have a goal to serve the sports fans, and whatever that conference specific needs are, obviously, the ACC is, is as much as it is growing into a Football Conference — and it certainly is a football conference — it is it is very much known as a powerhouse basketball conference,” Aronowitz said. “There's going to be basketball content on the ACC network 12 months a year, which is not necessarily something that you would see on some of the other conference networks.”

While Aronowitz’s assertion that the ACC is a powerhouse basketball conference — nine of the last 20 men’s March Madness champions are current members of the ACC, including last year’s champion, Virginia — McCollum built on that point citing the numerous national championships and All-Americans that have been produced in a number of sports throughout the conference, specifically citing lacrosse, softball and soccer. Beyond the trophies the conference has enjoyed throughout its illustrious history, the bigger asset to the conference strength is it’s depth down the schedule.

“What’s unique about the ACC is the depth of all of their other sports,” McCollum said.

McCollum — a graduate of Concordia University in Texas — said this unique approach and content creation is important to the conference and feels a personal tie to this project and hopes it inspires a whole new generation of athletes and sports fans.

“I played volleyball at a very small school years and years ago and to have my daughter now have the opportunity to be able to see women like, you know, her or when she gets older, to know that if she wants to play volleyball, she wants to play soccer, that there's an outlet there to be able to watch those games,” she said. “I just think that those underserved sports are going to really enjoy the additional exposure. And it's something that I'm personally very excited about.”

In addition to providing a broader range of coverage, the network hopes to be more innovative and creative with their approach of reaching out to viewers.

“We want to try to push the ACC as a technology driven network by combing the fan base and doing you know, marketing research to see who ACC fans are,” Aronowitz said. “Technology is really important to that. So looking at unique ways to incorporate technology into the coverage of all ACC events in studio that you wouldn't necessarily see on some of the other ESPN networks.”

Aronowitz said fans can expect to see a number of new fan interactive experiences and stories that will continue to evolve over the course of this next year.

“That’s really some of the ways that we're just trying to set the mark in the metric for the ACC compared to the other networks. But we also don't look at it as a competition, we look at it as delivering unique content to the core ACC fan and growing that fan base by giving them great content,” she said.

McCollum reinforced that vision, claiming the goal for this partnership is to elevate access and storytelling among the network.

“ESPN as a whole already does a tremendous job of storytelling. But we want to take that further,” she said. “And we want to make sure we're telling the full story about the whole athlete. It's not just about what's happening on the field of play or on the court, we want to tell the story about the amazing volleyball player who may also be getting you know their PhD in neurosurgery or whatever it might be. And so storytelling is a huge tentpole for us, it'll be an anchor. And we can do that a lot of different ways we can do that.”

That desire to create a narrative for the athletes and teams throughout the conference is similar to the Olympics, according to McCollum.

“I remember tuning in to the Olympics at that time, it truly was every four years. And you fell in love with the athletes, not only because it was representative of your country, but because of the great storytelling that they always have done around the Olympics,” she said. “And so I'd like to think that we have an opportunity in front of us to shine a spotlight more on just some of those personalities, and what makes collegiate athletics unique and different. … We feel that we have an obligation and are committed to making sure that we're also talking about just how hard these athletes work in the classroom.”

Discussing Notre Dame’s specific involvement at the network, Aronowitz acknowledged the loyal following Notre Dame athletics — and football in particular — experience. This brand loyalty is contrary to the trend within professional sports where fans, particularly young fans, tend to follow individuals rather than franchises.

“We recognize that there is an affiliation and alumni affiliation associated with individual schools, and with conferences that is really like a birthright for these fans. … What you hear most often in the college landscape is we play for the name on the front of the jersey, not the name on the back,” she said.

Aronowitz said the brand is so much stronger in the university than it is for an individual student athlete.

“Don't get me wrong as a production philosophy, we often try to create stars and try to personalize and humanize student athletes,” she said. “But the fact of the matter is, in most instances, we only have them on campus for oftentimes, one two, maybe three years unless it’s an Olympic sport where they wouldn’t be there for four years. But even then, it’s really hard to develop a brand for an individual when they’re not going to be there long term. … I think you see that if you look at the ACC network animation package, all the elements that you see if you watch any of our coverage today, it’s such a cool animation package, but it is very specifically logo and brand driven based on the university and their mascots. Because that's what people associate with in the college landscape most often.”

Aronowitz went so far as to say it didn’t matter where Notre Dame finished in the conference, their fans will tune in regardless.

“Notre Dame alumni and fans are viral, and they will watch anything that Notre Dame does,” she said. “And that’s a that’s a terrific problem to have. Right? If they’re watching, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they know the student athletes that are on the field or on the court. But they’re watching because they're Notre Dame fans.”

One of the projects McCollum shared she was personally excited about was an in-depth feature of the Notre Dame women’s basketball team and head coach Muffet McGraw, in particular.

“But I think that's, you know, that was one of the things that drew us immediately to, you know, can we do something with coach McGraw,” McCollum said. “And we all know her as a basketball coach, but do we know more about her? What else can we do to show her personality and what she's like with her team?”

Covering a women’s program that has been dominant in their field and led by a coach who has become a pioneer in her field and champion of female empowerment is particularly fitting among this production team. Led by senior vice president of college networks for ESPN, Rosalyn Durant, the executive team consists of almost entirely women. While both Aronowitz and McCollum acknowledge the unique experience working with a primarily female staff provides, they both reiterated that it was organic development, as the team was created in search of the most qualified candidates who just so happened to all be women.

“We just happen to be the right women, the right people for the job, and it happened organically,” Aronowitz said. “And the more and more, we all kind of sat around at meetings, as we were going through the planning, the more and more. We all started to recognize what a unique opportunity this was, because it's very rare. … It was never a conversation of ‘Oh, you're sitting in this room because you're a female.’ It was a conversation of ‘Alright, what's next on the checklist? What do we need to get done?’ And we're all equally respected for that ability.”

McCollum echoed those sentiments.

“It's pretty special,” she said. “And I'll tell you, it's something that ESPN is incredibly proud of, as well.”