ESPN is the only thing that can save the ACC as we know it
Florida State is frustrated and ready to move. As a matter of self-preservation another ACC school will jump to the Big XII with them (Miami, Clemson, Georgia Tech) and then all the ACC teams will scramble in another game of musical chairs. (Maryland and Virginia to the Big Ten? NC State and Virginia Tech to the SEC?) If this happens, it will be ESPN's fault. And ESPN's will pay dearly for it. They will pay in increased rights fees and loss of control. The worldwide leader in sports has the chance to hit the brakes and preserve their investment and control in the ACC, but based on the actions out of Bristol, no one there seems to see the big picture.
Here are the factors in play, what ESPN can do and why they should act.
Money and ACC parity
Issue: Every time the ACC signs an ESPN TV deal, it is outdated and below market before the ink is dry. This naturally causes resentment among the members and puts them behind their competitors in other conferences. ESPN probably feels blameless in this area. They are not forcing the ACC to sign these deals. They can't help the timing. It's not ESPN's fault that the ACC leaders are playing checkers while the other conferences play chess. But ESPN needs to preserve the ACC deal. They have a partner that is 100% in bed with them. ACC games are going to fill ESPN3 and ESPNU. The conference is willing to play in timeslots where ESPN needs programming and provide reliable ratings.
Resolution: ESPN needs to get Florida State, Clemson and whoever else has wandering eyes in a room together with the rest of the ACC. They need to revise the ACC deal again only this time with some sort of parity clause. Allow that the ACC TV payout will always be within X% of the top conference deal and always X% above the average of the major conferences. This may seem like a huge pill to swallow for ESPN. But instead of getting a discount on ACC games, they should be paying a premium. This is their only exclusive partnership in major college sports. That has value. Whatever money they give up in the deal they will make back in other areas.
Access to the playoff
Issue: The ACC cannot be left out of the playoff. Because the other conferences are aggressive and forward looking, they are dictating the size and shape of the new four-team playoff. ESPN has stated that they want to run and broadcast any playoff. ACC teams are scared less about the bowls and more about never having access to the playoff.
Resolution: If ESPN does want to run that show, they need to provide assurances that ACC will have the same level of access and ability to qualify as the Big Ten, Big XII, Pac 12 and SEC.
Third Tier Rights/ACC Network
Issue: Three conferences have their own network and the SEC is about to form one. The ACC is the only "major" conference without one. I don't think ACC fans care about a conference network. I think this issue, like many is about perception and money.
Resolution: If ESPN had to placate Texas by forming the Longhorn Network, they may have to do the same with the ACC.
Since the ACC does a terrible job championing their own case, let me sum up all the facts and hope that ESPN steps back and sees what is at stake.
1. In similar timeslots on ESPN Networks, ACC Football delivers bigger ratings than Big XII or Pac 12 games.
2. If Florida State and any other schools leave the ACC, ESPN will have to pay more for their TV rights AND have less content (as some of those games will move to FOX or other cable channels).
3. The PAC 12 has taken back first tier rights. An expanded Big XII will try to do the same. CBS has first tier rights to the SEC. The Big Ten's deal is up in 2016. They will attempt to take back first tier rights too. The only conference where ESPN controls first tier rights is with the ACC. As ESPN sees the best games moved off of their channels to others, a strong ACC led by Florida State is a great insurance policy. If ESPN doesn't act, all the good Florida State, Miami, Clemson, Virginia Tech, Duke and North Carolina games will be on other networks.
The ACC created this mess, but ESPN gladly signed them up for deals that they knew were undermarket. No one ever wants to fork over more money when they don't have to. I don't expect ESPN to save the day this time around...and that probably means the end of the ACC as we know it. Hopefully someone in Bristol will see what needs to be done and protect their investment in the ACC.