Photo: ESPN

The long-anticipated ACC Network launches tonight. The network, which includes a linear TV channel and a digital streaming platform, will be owned by ESPN with revenues and cost split by ESPN and the ACC, but the specifics of that arrangement—who bears what costs and who gets what percentage of the revenue—are unclear. In its press release, ESPN wrote:

Approximately 450 live contests including 40 regular-season football games, 150 men’s and women’s basketball games, and 200 other regular-season competitions and tournament games from across the conference’s 27 sponsored sports will be televised annually, plus a complement of news and information shows and original programming. Together, the ACCN and its digital platform, ACC Network Extra (ACCNX), will feature 1,350 ACC events in its first year.

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The News Observer wrote that the debut of the ACC Network “will culminate a long-awaited moment of arrival that will help shape the future of the ACC, and define the legacy of John Swofford, the conference’s longtime commissioner who led the league through years of uncertainty.” The New York Times wrote that it “demonstrates the continued relevance of television as the largest platform for mass consumption of sports, a reminder that the one-two punch of subscription fees and ad dollars—the combination that girded ESPN’s rise—remains formidable.”

The ACC Network also represents how the ever-bloating business of college sports relies on cheap labor and schools’ willingness to throw massive sums of money into production costs. Many ACC schools are already on the hook for building out multi-million dollar studios from which they can pump content to ESPN platforms. The News Observer wrote:

Every ACC school has already invested resources to build on-campus studios in preparation of the ACC Network. The construction of the studios was mandatory though, as McCollum, the ESPN executive, put it, “it’s up to them, what they spend.” That might have been true, in theory, though McCollum acknowledged that schools needed to have the necessary equipment to facilitate digital broadcasts.

The studios have not been cheap, though some schools saved costs by renovating existing facilities. N.C. State did that and still spent approximately $6.6 million. UNC built a new studio, adjacent to the Smith Center, and spent $15 million. Both UNC and N.C. State will have to pay off that debt before realizing any profit from the network.

ESPN and ACC Network officials have tried to spin the on-campus studios as facilities that will benefit their campus communities, instead of costly overhead that could take years to pay for themselves.

The News Observer also noted that the manpower needed to operate these studios will be drawn from the student body:

“(They) will be used for student production groups, their student telecasts and things like that,” Aaron Katzman, an ACC Network producer, said of the studios. “So it’s enhancing everybody. Everybody’s winning.”

Another aspect of the on-campus studios: they are likely, to varying degrees, to be reliant on student labor — workers who may or may not be paid, depending on their agreements with their schools. For games produced on campuses, the network, Katzman said, “will rely on school production groups.” The games will be the ACC Network’s primary offering, its chief selling point.

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ESPN naturally would try to spin using cheap student workers as a win-win—getting rich off the labor of students isn’t exactly a new idea in college sports—but it’s short-sighted. Industry sources have told Deadspin that using student workers is a questionable labor practice, will likely result in lower quality broadcasts, and will necessarily force professional camera operators and directors out of work.

ESPN’s arrangement with the ACC is very similar to its set-up with the SEC Network, which launched in 2014. The SEC Network schools have for years been in an arms race to build on-campus studios. SEC schools also rely on student labor.

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If you’re a student or professional involved in broadcasting or streaming SEC or ACC Network games and would like to talk about your experience, I can be reached at laura.wagner@deadspin.com.