Monday, May 11, 2009

Tudor: TV gets final call on ACC hoops schedule

ACC basketball coaches usually get their way, but an expanded conference regular-season schedule is inevitable.

An increase from the current 16-game slate to 18 may not be voted in by athletic directors and faculty reps during this week's spring meetings in Florida.

But as much as the 12 coaches prefer the status quo, television officials want additional inventory. In a stronger economy, the coaches probably could prevail indefinitely. But with school budgets tight and current TV contracts expiring after the 2010-11 season, the coaches eventually will be told schedule expansion is no longer a point of debate.

Even with extra conference games to offer, the ACC is facing a challenge on TV negotiations. Advertising revenue is down across the board and some dependable corporate backers either are gone or strapped. Wachovia, Circuit City and General Motors were big spenders on college sports when the last round of TV contracts were signed.

At the core of the push for an 18-game schedule is regional TV audience ratings. While ratings are consistently high for North Carolina and Duke regardless of their opponents, the viewer market for most nonconference games among the other 10 schools is soft.

Clemson, a preseason top-25 pick by some last season, played eight non-ACC games that were not even included in the league TV package. Other than a game against Illinois in the ACC vs. Big Ten Challenge, the Tigers didn't have another non-league game on any of the ESPN outlets. Nine N.C. State non-league games were omitted from the TV lineup.

By forcing the coaches to play two more conference games each, the ADs (and TV) will at least create more marketable games. It's not that a Clemson vs. State game is going to be of interest to the big three networks, but it will do better in regional ratings or on ESPN-Something than Clemson vs. Hofstra or State vs. Lipscomb.

The coaches generally contend that 18 league games will lead to worse overall records and a bigger logjam in the middle of the conference standings. They're correct on both counts. But that's the price of expansion in a weak economy.

The irony is that expansion was all about football, where the eight-game conference schedule may never change. Most of the ACC basketball coaches at the time were against adding new league members. In part that was because they feared 18, then 20 and maybe 22-game conference schedules would follow.

Don't bet against it.

-- Caulton Tudor, (Raleigh) News & Observer