ESPN is enlarging college football’s presence in movie theaters, setting a distribution agreement with Theater Sports Network for dozens of Atlantic Coast Conference games this season.
Building on a previous venture with major exhibitor Cinemark for the three-game College Football Playoff, the new pact spans about 75 games in all.
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ACC contests airing on ESPN platforms (including on the ACC Network, which is owned and operated by ESPN) will be eligible for theatrical play in the away teams’ markets, or in both home and away markets for neutral-site games. Local theaters will set ticket prices.
The ACC, which includes the likes of Clemson, Florida State, Boston College, Syracuse and North Carolina, is one of college football’s Power Five conferences. It could soon add even more clout by taking on Stanford and Cal, two of the universities left in limbo by the implosion of the century-old Pac-12. Reports have said conference potentates are nearing a decision about whether to add the pair of West Coast schools as well as Southern Methodist University in Texas.
Salt Lake City-based Theater Sports Network works with theater owners and rights holders across the country, using a flexible model to set screenings. Visitors to its website can sign up to be notified about the availability of upcoming games in their area, starting this coming Saturday.
In addition to the regular season, the new pact includes the “New Year’s Six” bowl games, including the semifinals of the College Football Playoff. The roster of games played on New Year’s Day or in the lead-up to the holiday includes the Peach, Cotton, Fiesta, Orange, Sugar and Rose bowls. The national championship on January 8 will also be part of the theatrical initiative.
Even before the devastation of Covid, theater owners had been experimenting with a wide range of non- film programming, with distribution made easier by technological advances. Academic classes, conferences, concerts and fine-arts events are among many alternative draws as theaters navigate a challenging marketplace made even more so by ongoing strikes by Hollywood writers and actors. Bucking the overall downturn in live TV viewership, college football and the NFL have continued to retain and even add to their robust live tune-in. The theatrical experience is also consistent with viewing parties and ritualistic gatherings at bars and restaurants for large groups of alumni, students and general fans, with legalized sports betting only adding to the allure.
“We believe movie theaters are the next great frontier for live sporting events, and we are elated with this unprecedented agreement with ESPN,” Theater Sports Network President and COO Scott Daw said in a press release. “We look forward to bringing these games to ACC football fans. We believe that theaters have the ability to generate excitement around live sporting events. These events will replicate the feel of a football stadium experience as fans gather and fill theaters to watch the games on the big screen. As we move forward, we hope to add games from additional college football conferences as well as other live sporting events.”
Theater Sports Network is teaming on the live streams with MetaMedia, a cloud-based delivery platform for cinemas, drive-ins and other out-of-home venues. MetaMedia has connections with more than 5,000 screens in the U.S. and Canada, including in the top 50 markets.
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