CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — First, C.D. Chesley captured our imaginations in 1957 by sending ACC basketball into living rooms along Tobacco Road for the first time, then we spent Saturday afternoons sailing with the Pilot, Thacker and Packer as the league established itself as the best in the nation.
From there, an upstart group from Charlotte took the reins, giving ACC basketball an unprecedented primetime platform for the first time and helping to begin what would become a revolution in the high-stakes world of college sports television.
For the past 37 years, Raycom Sports has become a part of the fabric of ACC culture, the familiar voices of Dan Bonner and Tim Brando offering a warm soundtrack on a cold winter evening.
This week, schoolteachers across the region will wheel televisions into their classrooms for the last time to watch a Raycom broadcast of the ACC tournament, as the conference prepares to launch the ACC Network in partnership with ESPN, ending 37 years of syndication on local television networks throughout the league’s geographic region.
“For a lot of longtime ACC fans, that connection between Raycom and the ACC is almost ingrained,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said. “The length of that relationship and partnership is sort of unheard of, really, in sports television.”
What became a 37-year partnership was anything but certain early as Raycom, a fledgling production company, won the rights to the Great Alaska Shootout and produced nonconference games for some ACC programs.
Raycom sought the league’s conference package for the 1980-81 season, but the league awarded it to Washington-based Metro Sports. The next time the contract came up for bidding, Raycom joined forces with Jefferson-Pilot Sports, which was on better financial footing thanks to its backing from Greensboro’s Jefferson-Pilot Insurance.
Together, Raycom and Jefferson-Pilot were awarded a three-year, $18 million contract for rights to the league’s basketball broadcasts starting in the 1982-83 season in one of the first major media deals in college sports television, easily pricing out the likes of Chesley, who had paid $600,000 for the league’s rights in the 1979-80 season.
Not only was it significant then, but even today, Swofford views the first Raycom deal as a game changer in the history of televised college sports.
“I certainly think it was one of those launch points, and from a basketball perspective, it definitely was,” he said.
In the early days of ACC basketball, one Saturday afternoon broadcast was the standard before Chesley added doubleheaders and tripleheaders. Raycom had bigger ambitions; ambitions that were considered crazy at the time, as CEO Ken Haines and his team believed they could make college basketball primetime programming during the week and persuade stations to pre-empt popular network shows.
“Our belief was that the market could accommodate more games, fans wanted more games,” Haines said. “It was a gamble. We felt the market was there.”
One gamble would be met with another as Raycom’s decision-makers knew that the only way they could afford to continue growing their empire was to do something unheard of in television, in which they’d retain and be responsible for all commercial inventory throughout their broadcasts.
“That was a dramatic departure and we gambled that the product was so popular that the stations would agree to the new deal,” Haines said. “We would generate enough additional revenue to make up for the compensation we had to pay in some markets.”
The ACC’s early sponsors made it all possible, as Anheuser-Busch, Holly Farms, Hardee’s, Food Lion, Pepsi and Chrysler — among others — took a chance and helped make Raycom’s financial plans viable. There were challenges because of laws on interstate banking at the time, as multiple feeds had to be used to accommodate regional commercials.
‘A golden era’
ACC basketball entered a new world on Dec. 8, 1982, when Raycom aired its first conference matchup as Virginia visited Duke in a broadcast that nearly didn’t happen at all.
Haines, who was en route to Greensboro to oversee the production of the game from a truck in a parking lot outside WFMY, heard on the radio about a bomb threat at the Washington Monument.
Right up until the 9 p.m. tipoff that night, there were doubts Raycom would go on the air, as stations stuck with network news coverage rather than releasing the AT&T long lines for the broadcast.
“It’s amazing to me — to this day — how close we came to not being successful in our very first telecast with the ACC and not being able to get the game on the air,” Haines said.
Fortunately for both the ACC and Raycom, the first-night hiccups were an aberration in what would become the most successful syndication partnership in college sports.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was in his third season when Raycom took over, giving the young coach a new level of exposure as the Blue Devils began building their dynasty.
Several ACC coaches had established a recruiting pipeline in New York City, but the league’s new television exposure made it the biggest show on the East Coast, evidenced by six D.C. area players on Krzyzewski’s first Final Four team in 1986.
Jim Sumner, a longtime local sportswriter and 1972 Duke graduate, has followed the league since growing up in Robeson County, N.C.
“The coaches from back in that era … they used that as recruiting, particularly since the ACC schools recruited the East Coast,” he said. “It was just different; it was a big deal being on TV. It’s not a big deal now — it’s Tuesday.”
It didn’t hurt that Raycom’s expanded package hit during an era that featured national championship teams for North Carolina and N.C. State along with stars such as Ralph Sampson and Len Bias, along with Bobby Cremins building a strong program at Georgia Tech.
‘Last man standing’
Now 37 year later, the idea of not being able to watch an ACC basketball game — really, most any conference’s basketball games — is absurd.
If it’s not on one of ESPN’s offerings or a conference’s own network, games are on any number of regional networks: NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Fox Sports’ regional cable systems or one of the major networks.
Somehow, Raycom has remained, switching positions with ESPN in 2011 and licensing broadcasts from the sports giant. Over the years, Raycom could feel the tide turning in sports television based on carriage fees that ESPN was getting from cable companies and began to diversify its business, building its digital operation, getting into the event business and upgrading its two production trucks.
“We’re the last man standing in syndication,” Raycom CEO Jimmy Rayburn said. “For a long period of time, we were the ones making enough money to be the last one standing, to be able pay the increase rights fees that the ACC demanded.”
It’s the little things that stand out for longtime Raycom commentators Dan Bonner and Tim Brando.
Bonner pointed out the pregame meal Raycom served before Carolina’s win over Syracuse on Feb. 26 — something that is no longer industry standard — as executives sat down for barbecue with folks who work behind the scenes pulling cable.
Brando, a fixture on ESPN, CBS and Fox broadcasts, got his start with Raycom in 1985 and has maintained that relationship for one simple reason.
“If the relationship is that honest or that good, you just can’t wait to do another game for them,” he said. “I’ve always enjoyed the notion of just having fun or getting to call the game. Now, in network TV, you never know if you’re going to get to control your own destiny. Just like a pilot going up, you’d like to control that plane.”
Working with Raycom gave people a chance to take off, as it also helped launched the careers of sportscasters such as Jay Bilas, Billy Packer, Brad Nessler and Mike Patrick.
“Obviously they have an eye for talent, I think they have the ability to help that talent develop,” Brando said. “They hire you and they stay out of your way.”
As a young producer at ESPN, Wildhack kept his eye on who had the call at Raycom.
“There’s a number of people who are talent at ESPN that frankly, we discovered through Raycom,” he said.
A perfect arrangement
Shortly after the final buzzer of the ACC championship game on Saturday night, Raycom’s final broadcast of ACC basketball will sign off, another casualty in the billion-dollar business of college athletics.
At its peak, Raycom was broadcasting 500 games per year through deals with the ACC, Big East, Metro, Pac-10, SEC and Southwest conferences. Now, 14 games remain, starting with a noon tipoff Tuesday at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte.
Some sadness will accompany the end of an era, but with it comes pride — not only in what Raycom built, going from an ambitious outsider to industry giant — but in helping the ACC become one of the nation’s premier conferences.
“Gene Corrigan and Tom Butters and John Swofford said it, that the ACC probably wouldn’t have been able to grow to the degree that it did and the extent that it did without a very strong television package that Raycom provided,” Haines said.
“It’ll be very strange, but it’ll be somewhat gratifying to know that all of this might not have been possible without Raycom.”