Only a few years ago, Wallace Wade Stadium still felt barren. The running track around the field was gone, but with what looked like little more than a few trailers atop the stands on the home sideline, the home of Duke football was incomplete.
Fast forward to the start of the 2016 season, a glistening Blue Devil Tower opened to the public. And for all the club areas and luxury seating inside, the Tower was also the start of a new era for broadcasting at Duke. Just a few months earlier, the ACC had announced the launch of its own linear channel, the ACC Network, but few outsiders knew what that would mean for the conference's 15 member schools.
Kevin White, Duke vice president and director of athletics, had made sure his university was going to be out in front.
"We heard the buzz about the ACC Network happening, and we were ahead of the curve," Chad Lampman, executive director of Blue Devil Network, said. "It was us, Florida State, Clemson and North Carolina that had a control room—this was 2013. We were going to keep up with them in order to do an ESPN3 show. And then, we were the first ones to dive into construction, but it was a perfect storm with everything we were doing."
Nestled up on the fourth floor of Blue Devil Tower is the future of Duke Athletics for the entire world to see.
Getting off the ground
The Atlantic Coast Conference was far from the first league to put together a linear television channel. Big Ten Network was announced in 2006 before fully coming online in 2007. The Pac-12 Network was next, launching in 2012.
ESPN then wanted to get some skin in the game after its initial deal with the Big Ten fell apart, so it partnered with the Southeastern Conference in 2014 to launch the SEC Network, headquartered at the Worldwide Leader's Charlotte offices.
Granted, each of those leagues had something the ACC did not—a big-time football reputation. Before 2013, the conference had won just one national title on the gridiron in the previous 20 seasons.
The ACC had, however, developed a reputation in a number of other sports. Men's basketball, without a doubt, was the conference's centerpiece, and soccer and lacrosse weren't far behind.
White, the chairman of the ACC's television committee and a member of the NCAA's men's basketball selection committee, knew the league was overdue for its own network.
"There’s an inter-market—and that’s the 11 states that have institutions and 52 percent of the national television audience—but then there’s this thing called the outer-market that covers the rest of the country," White said. "I actually think that with our basketball, we really have a chance to have some impact in the outer-market more than some of the other conferences within the Power 5."
Unlike the SEC, few schools in the ACC were ready to make the linear channel happen, at least in terms of technology. Whereas the SEC spent about $30 million total to gear up for its network launch, the ACC's members will spend somewhere in the range of $6 million to $10 million per school, according to Sports Business Journal.
At the time of the announcement, Duke's Blue Devil Network had little more than a small production trailer that got wheeled around campus for different sporting events. And only a few years prior, when Lampman was hired in 2010, BDN's entire staff consisted of him and an intern that was shared with Duke's sports information department.
Now, Lampman handles a staff of 11, including Dave Harding—a former Blue Devil football captain—who currently serves as the color commentator on football radio broadcasts and runs the digital side of BDN.
"It was a little different than it is now," Lampman said with a laugh.
End of an era
If you looked up toward the rafters at Cameron Indoor Stadium during the Feb. 20 game between Duke and North Carolina, you probably noticed Dan Shulman and Jay Bilas in the crow's nest, handling the television broadcast for ESPN.
But just a couple of sections over in the corner, there was another set of announcers, as Tim Brando and former Blue Devil Mike Gminski covered the game for Raycom Sports.
The network, which syndicates games nationwide but primarily reaches areas within the Southeast, will go off the air once the ACC Network takes over in August. Raycom got the conference's television rights in its first year, back in 1979, and was a major reason why the ACC was able to establish itself as a basketball power.
"Nobody in the country had primetime TV [for college basketball]," Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "To give our sport that exposure at the time has led to the exposure we have today, and it's kept us ahead."
The ACC Network does not have all of the contracts in place just yet to be in nearly every household like ESPN or other cable channels. It does, however, have exclusive events that should eventually attract subscribers—the channel's first football game will feature defending national champion Clemson as it hosts Georgia Tech.
On top of football, the network will televise a total of approximately 1,300 sporting events per year, and its start will be boosted by an expanded men's basketball schedule as the ACC will jump from 18 to 20 league games beginning next season.
"It’s going to raise our awareness around the entire country, not just our immediate footprint, and it’s going to generate a lot of resources for the Olympic sports," White said. "That’s where a lot of the resources will be dedicated and that’s where they’re needed. On top of that, it gives the opportunity for those Olympic sports to get on television, and it will impact recruiting, and it’ll pave the way for us to become more competitive. That’s what we want."
Work left to do
All 15 member schools, as Lampman explains, will be ready to go once the network goes live in August.
That doesn't mean it took the same amount of time, effort and money to get there.
Duke had the benefit of advanced knowledge. The University unveiled Kennedy Tower, the centerpiece of the Olympic sport projects, back in 2015, allowing for full TV coverage of soccer, lacrosse and track and field for both men and women. It also took advantage of its athletic complex construction plans to add all the necessary cabling to bring high-definition broadcasts from all over campus back to the hub inside Blue Devil Tower.
Pittsburgh brought in an outside broadcast company to help put all the pieces in place. Notre Dame's athletic department partnered with its university side of things to work out of a shared "command center." Wake Forest and Boston College, on the other hand, have just one control room apiece.
Duke's setup might not be perfect, but it's as good as any in the league.
"I don’t want to use it as an excuse, but we used to have a trailer, and that trailer could only be at one place at one time," Lampman said. "Now we have three control rooms, so we can do a lot more, but that’s more pressure on us to do a lot more.... For our sports, it’s opened up opportunities to get on different platforms like ESPNU because we can provide that now and save ESPN money of not having to bring a truck in. We can be the truck."
Not everything is complete, though. Duke is still working through some difficulties with the City of Durham as it tries to figure out how to lay the fiber so that it can broadcast games with the same quality from the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, which sits about three miles away. There's also the issue of staffing—Lampman said he hopes to bring in two more full-time employees to help with all aspects of broadcast coverage before the start of next year.
But as part of the ACC Network deal, the league locked in its TV rights with ESPN through the 2035-36 academic year. For all the minor bumps that have come along the way, Duke and the ACC are in a position of financial security, and both are poised to take another major step in just six months.
"The advent of the channel will be historic and very big," White said. "Not just in resources but also in raising awareness of the conference. It’s going to be priceless, it’s going to be really great, and so, I don’t know if the conference has ever been healthier."
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A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak."