By Itoro N. Umontuen
Saturday night, Raycom Sports signed off for the last time as the ACC Tournament concluded in Charlotte, North Carolina. The network was the bedrock for ACC football and basketball throughout Atlanta, the Carolinas and throughout the ACC footprint for the past 37 years. However, their humble story from small beginnings to sports industry giant was amazing.
Back in 1981, before cable television became ubiquitous and all-pervasive, Raycom Sports, along with fellow syndicator Jefferson-Pilot Sports (yes, that company that created the 12:00 eastern SEC game of the week), submitted a successful joint bid to broadcast the ACC and began airing games in the 1982-83 season. Unlike ESPN, Fox Sports and other regional sports networks that followed in the 1980s, Raycom built their partnerships through local affiliates. WRAL in Raleigh, WBTV in Charlotte, WFMY in Greensboro and the former WTCG in Atlanta (now known as Peachtree TV) were the networks that agreed to air Raycom games.
Its first ACC Tournament was at the Omni in Atlanta in 1982, where North Carolina State and coach Jim Valvano began their magical run to the NCAA Championship. One upstart sports network needed to raise their national profile and they decided to air that broadcast. That network was ESPN.
“We all grew up with it,” Freddie Kiger said to the Raleigh News and Observer. “That was a Saturday mantra. You huddled around the television and watched the game of the week.”
As the upstart ESPN grew in profile, Raycom proved to be the launching point for prominent broadcasters. Jay Bilas, Tim Brando, Brad Nessler, Mike Patrick, Len Elmore, and the polarizing Billy Packer each got their starts broadcasting games for Raycom sports.
For each of the past 37 years, Raycom remained true to themselves and their roots. They controlled all of the ACC’s television rights, they sold the commercial time, which meant Food Lion (which is based in Salisbury, NC) would receive prominent ad placement. As ACC basketball exploded in popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, Raycom was able to sell prominent games to CBS and ESPN, while blacking out national broadcasts in order to maintain their hold on their local footprint.
“Raycom had rights to five or six conferences in that time period, but the bread and butter, the money maker, the one that carried us all, was the ACC,” said Jimmy Rayburn, Raycom’s chief operating officer. “Just because it had been done for so long. Everyone else was starting from scratch. TBS and some others had tried to do something, but nobody with the success Raycom and JP had with the ACC.”
In the 1990s, Raycom and ABC formed a partnership in which the network would air games that would be produced by Raycom and called by ABC announcers like Keith Jackson, Brent Musburger, Terry Gannon, and Dick Vitale.
As the 21st century signaled an entrance into the great beyond with respect to the rise of digital media, streaming, a la carte programming options and wireless broadband internet services, Raycom’s old school approach was going the way of the cathode-ray tube television.
In 2008, Raycom and Jefferson Pilot aired their last SEC Tournament. Fast forward eleven years, Raycom has broadcast their final ACC Tournament game. The ACC Network, powered by the former upstart, ESPN, will replace it.
“It was unique and it was ours,” Raycom Sports and current Atlanta Falcons Radio play-by-play Voice Wes Durham said. “That’s the thing. That’s kind of what we’re losing. We’re losing something that those of us who grew up in the original footprint of the five states, that’s kind of what we feel like is leaving at the end of this year.”
As part of the ACC Network deal, which saw Raycom relinquish the syndication rights it still had through 2027, Raycom received a long-term production agreement with ESPN to produce around 100 ACC games each season for the network, in addition to the ACC games Raycom already produces for regional sports networks like Fox Sports South, which includes 28 men’s basketball games and 17 football games.
While the ACC Network will have the shine, the luster and slick production; the legacy Raycom Sports leaves behind won’t be forgotten in ACC Country. The pilot will continue to sail in our hearts and minds, 1,664 games later.
This article originally appeared in the Atlanta Voice.