What the pair started, now grown to unimaginable proportions, helped to define the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The better-known pioneer was N.C. State coach Everett Case, a masterful promoter whose program’s competitive excellence shaped and elevated basketball in the new conference. But as the ACC and corporate partner ESPN shamble toward the debut of a league-centric cable network, it’s also worthwhile recalling Castleman D. Chesley, the visionary entrepreneur who married the fledgling conference to television, then an emerging and little-appreciated tool.
“His place in history is unmatched in a lot of ways with the foundation that it set,” John Swofford, ACC commissioner since 1997, says of C.D. Chesley, “and what it meant to this league and to the development of fans in this league and the prominence of basketball in the league.”
The resident of Grandfather Mountain had little competition vying to be the purveyor of ACC basketball for most of his 24-year reign. Chesley ran a modest operation. He worked out of a home office, didn’t own a production truck. He relied on handshake agreements, an arrangement Swofford says wouldn’t fly today.
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“I never had, like, a contract,” recalls Billy Packer, who got his start as a game commentator filling in on a Chesley telecast. Packer also didn’t have rate-cards when selling ads for Chesley, whose most memorable advertiser was Pilot Life Insurance.
Chesley, called “Chez” by associates, was a former football player and thespian who attended the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business before foraying into TV production of sporting events. In those days game telecasts were in black and white, with no replays or instantaneous cuts among multiple cameras. There was no cable or satellite television, three over-the-air broadcast networks, and a smattering of TV sets outside major cities. No one complained about TV’s influence.
Rights fees, if they existed at all, were a pittance. In fact, Chesley paid nothing for the telecasts on consecutive nights in late March 1957 that transformed his and the ACC’s fortunes.
UNC, Wilt Chamberlain
Spying opportunity in the success of Frank McGuire’s undefeated Tar Heels, Chelsey quickly cobbled together a five-station network that broadcast the NCAA semifinals and final from Kansas City back to North Carolina. (The term “Final Four” wasn’t coined for another 18 years.) Both games extended to triple overtime, enthralling viewers. UNC first knocked off Michigan State, then captured the NCAA championship by downing Kansas and 7-1 center Wilt Chamberlain, the game’s most dominant player.
The following season, Chesley began showing regular-season ACC games on Saturday afternoons on a regional network. The exposure provided a major edge for the league long before other conferences had similar arrangements. He was, says Packer, who regarded Chesley as “a real mentor,” “brilliant in his concept of what he wanted to do.”
Chesley also helped orchestrate a 1973 Super Bowl Sunday telecast of a contest between league powerhouses Maryland and N.C. State, a clash that outshone the football game and affirmed the quality of ACC ball on a then-rare national stage.
Despite undergoing a laryngectomy as a result of throat cancer, causing him to speak raspily through a cloth-covered hole in his neck, Chesley remained a masterful salesman and a hard bargainer. Each year he and his wife, Dottie, showed up at the ACC spring meetings at Myrtle Beach, where he schmoozed his way into the good graces of league decision-makers. He brought no lawyers, no presentation materials.
“He was great with the A.D.s, and it was necessary for him to do that,” says Gene Corrigan, a former Virginia athletic director and ACC commissioner (1987-97). “He knew damn well he had to have their vote.” Chesley’s reliability and payments, puny as they were by today’s standards, were regarded as “terrific” by league leaders, Corrigan recalls.
“Generally he would initial the proposal and then the league would respond in kind,” says Swofford, who attended league meetings in the mid-1970s while an assistant A.D. first at Virginia and then North Carolina. “For years that was the process. From the league’s standpoint there really wasn’t a whole lot of leverage.”
Homer Rice, UNC’s athletic director from 1969-75, remembers Chesley handing out “a contract that I’d never seen before.” Still teaching a leadership course at Georgia Tech, Rice, 91, says the pact was signed by “the athletic directors from before any one of us were there. He said he had a concrete contract and there was no way we were going anywhere.”
Swofford chuckles recollecting those negotiations, particularly as the league grew eager to cash in on the product Chesley had built. “When you got to the money part of it,” says the former Corrigan assistant at UVa, ”he would always take his right hand and he would put his hand on his forehead, like, ‘Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me!’ Chez, he had some drama in him and it was evident in those negotiating sessions.”
In 1981, as competitors swarmed and the economic landscape shifted, Chesley paid $1 million for ACC television rights. Then larger outfits supplanted him, reportedly leaving a bitter taste. “It wasn’t a good sendoff,” Packer notes.
Now the amounts of money involved are outlandish – the ACC recently spent $1 million on its TV consultant alone. Members are building pricey on-campus TV facilities in preparation for the arrival of a new ACC Network in August 2019. At Louisville, the broadcast center cost $8 million. At North Carolina, about $10 million. Somewhere short of $7 million at N.C State.
With many more millions of dollars to be had, and ACC revenues lagging behind competitors, everyone wants to look good and be ready when the all-sports shows begin.