About a decade ago, before Twitter morphed into what it’s become and when sports blogs and message boards ruled Internet discourse (to an even greater degree than they do now), the ACC was on the verge of collapse. At least, that’s what a lot of speculative online chatter suggested.
This was around the time when people started paying attention to television rights deals in college sports — as if things like market size and households with cable TV would remain constant determinants. The Big Ten had launched its own TV network in 2006, and it was proving already to be a money tree. SEC football had separated itself as a piece of crown jewel TV inventory.
Those two conferences were starting to distance themselves from their peers, and soon enough rumors abound that Florida State and Clemson might depart the ACC for the Big 12. In 2010, I was one of the only reporters covering the ACC’s spring meetings in Amelia Island, Florida, where the most important things on the agenda at the time were TV rights and expansion.
The ACC’s media rights deal was about to expire and, nationally, the Big Ten and Pac-10 (it was still the Pac-10 then) were on the verge of expanding. John Swofford, then the ACC Commissioner, told me the league wouldn’t be caught off guard by a quickly-changing landscape.
“I don’t think any conference would be doing its due diligence if you stuck your head in the sand, so to speak,” Swofford said then. “And we will not do that.”
Fast forward 11 years. Every major (and even non-major) conference is much different than it was then. Indeed, the Big Ten and Pac-10, now Pac-12, expanded. So did the ACC. So did the SEC. And, perhaps most significantly, so did the financial disparity between the Big Ten and SEC and its peers.
Swofford and the ACC attempted to be proactive. The conference went from 12 to 14 teams. It lost Maryland and added Louisville. It pushed Notre Dame as close to full-time membership as Notre Dame has been willing to go. And, in 2019, the ACC launched a long-awaited TV network.
And yet, still: time is a flat circle.
A decade after the ACC stared down speculation about its future, questions have resurfaced, again, about its long-term viability. Years ago those questions emerged amid the inevitability of major conference realignment and financial disparities, and it’s not that much different now.
Texas and Oklahoma are leaving the Big 12 and all indications are that it will join the SEC, making that conference even more powerful and richer. The ACC, meanwhile, is already faced with a revenue shortfall in the amount of hundreds of millions of dollars, and no clear way to close that gap any time soon given its contract with ESPN lasts another 15 years.
So what now?
In some ways, the questions surrounding the ACC aren’t all that unlike the ones it answered 10 years ago. The league has a new commissioner, Jim Phillips, a slightly different logo, some new members and a young TV network, but the same old questions are back. Yet they feel more urgent, too. If Texas and Oklahoma join the SEC, the era of the true super conference will have arrived (if it hasn’t already). It would reinforce a truth proven over and over again throughout the history of college athletics: If you’re not growing, you’re dying (remember Big East football?).
On the verge of another round of realignment, the questions facing the ACC:
What are the ACC’s options?
“Are” is the plural of “is,” and it is a word that implies multiples, or at least a number greater than one. As such, it is an incorrect word choice here, for the ACC doesn’t have “options,” in the plural, but only one option that makes sense and would really mean anything. It’s Notre Dame, and that’s it.
Notre Dame is the only school that would raise the ACC’s football profile to a degree that would matter, relative to the only standard that has long mattered — which, if you weren’t aware, is television money. (Or, since the idea of “television” is somewhat antiquated, we’ll call it “media rights” money instead.)
Of course, the ACC and Notre Dame have been engaged in a long-term alliance for a while now, dating to 2013. That’s when the ACC agreed to a half-in, half-out arrangement that looked OK on paper, at the time. But now the relationship isn’t much unlike the kind that makes for awkward moments at Thanksgiving or other family gatherings, with Notre Dame in the role of the elusive, emotionally detached boyfriend who has always valued his independence above all.
Is he ever going to propose? Does he really see a future?
These are fair questions, especially given the ACC isn’t getting any younger.
Yes, but there are other options, though. Right?
Look, not really. None that would allow the ACC a clear way out of the predicament it’s in.
The ACC all of a sudden appears in trouble because the conference already faced a significant financial deficit, relative to the SEC and Big Ten. The ACC considers those conferences, and especially the Big Ten, to be its closest peers — and in terms of on the field or court competition, it’s true. Monetarily, though, it’s not true. The SEC and Big Ten have opened a considerable revenue gap that has only grown wider and wider in recent years.
And so the question most likely to drive the ACC’s decision-making as it pertains to realignment and expansion is this: Will this decision help the conference close the revenue gap with the SEC and Big Ten? If yes, proceed. If no — why bother?
There are several schools that fall into the “why bother” category, including every other Big 12 school should that conference fall apart without Texas and Oklahoma. None of the remaining schools would be a guarantee to bolster the ACC’s media rights money enough for it to matter.
West Virginia? Sure, it’d make for some compelling games against Pitt, but the Mountaineers are hardly a national brand, and it’s difficult to imagine ESPN executives rushing to redo its ACC contract should the conference add West Virginia.
Kansas? Hardly. Basketball no longer should factor into these considerations.
Oklahoma State? TCU? Texas Tech? None of those make any sense.
Houston? Not in the Big 12, but an up-and-coming program in a major market — but still one that wouldn’t do much for the ACC, which has not reaped much of a benefit (at least not one that’s been all that noticeable) of having a presence in major markets like Boston and South Florida (and let’s not pretend Syracuse has delivered the New York City market).
Outside of Notre Dame, the rationale of adding any other school that’d be available falls apart. The addition of those schools wouldn’t increase the ACC’s value and would instead require the conference to divide the pot into even smaller shares. That’s a losing combination.
Just how wide is that revenue disparity between the ACC and the SEC/Big Ten?
Let’s put it this way: The ACC during the 2019-20 fiscal year generated $496,715,510 in revenue. Almost a half-billion dollars, and still hundreds of millions behind both the Big Ten and SEC. The Big Ten generated $768.9 million; the SEC almost $729 million. (The numbers are from the conferences’ most recently available public tax documents.)
That a conference can generate almost half a billion dollars in revenue, and still be well behind its peers, says a lot about the state of college athletics and how far off the rails the entire enterprise has veered from its purported mission, which many in charge still argue is about education and opportunities. The real mission: Make as much money as possible, as quickly as possible.
The ACC is well behind the Big Ten and SEC for a variety of reasons: The other two leagues were quicker to start television networks; both the Big Ten and SEC are, in general, full of larger state schools with larger alumni bases; the other two leagues have more football history and brand, and so on. Even more concerning for the ACC than the revenue gap itself is the rate at which it’s growing.
Ten years ago it was wide but not like this. And with the ACC locked into its media rights deal with ESPN through 2036, there’s no clear opening to make a significant dent in that disparity any time soon. It will continue to grow. The “Power 5” moniker has become part of the American college sports lexicon to describe the five largest conferences but really it’s a Power 2.
The Big Ten and SEC are in a race to become the first billion-dollar-a-year conference. How’s that for amateur athletics?
Not a great financial picture for the ACC. But how stable is the league in the meantime?
How stable was the Big East in, say, 2002? How stable was the Southwestern Conference and Big 8 in the early-to-mid 1990s? Different scenarios, sure, but the point is this: Conferences are constantly changing. In college athletics, whatever the level, there are no constants.
The best thing the ACC has going for it is the so-called “grant of rights” agreement, which every member has agreed to through 2036. The gist is basically that if a school tried to leave the ACC before then, its television rights revenue would remain with the conference.
The ACC’s hope was that the grant of rights would keep the conference together and put an end to any talk of defection. But is it airtight? Might the legality of it be tested? What happens if the SEC casts an inviting eye toward, say, Clemson or Florida State? These are questions the conference couldn’t have anticipated emerging so early into its current deal with ESPN.
What’s the ACC to do?
Phillips, in his first months on the job as ACC Commissioner, will play whatever card he can in an attempt to persuade Notre Dame to become a full-time member. That much is obvious enough. The good news for the ACC: If Notre Dame is to join a conference in football, it’s contractually obligated to join the ACC. The bad news: The ACC doesn’t have any leverage. It had a bit of leverage around a year ago at this time, when Notre Dame would’ve had a lot of trouble playing an independent schedule in the midst of a pandemic.
The ACC swooped in to the rescue and it must have been nice for former commissioner John Swofford and other league officials, seeing the ACC logo on Notre Dame’s field and uniforms. But now what? Notre Dame got what it needed out of the deal and doesn’t seem to have any incentive to enter into any kind of long-term commitment.
Can Phillips convince Notre Dame that it’d have an easier path to a 12-team playoff in the ACC? That doesn’t feel like an easy argument to make. Would the ACC be willing to concede some media rights revenue and allow Notre Dame to continue its long-standing relationship with NBC? Possibly, but how would Clemson, Florida State and other schools that have long driven the ACC’s TV bus feel about that sort of agreement?
If Notre Dame doesn’t join in football any time soon — and that appears to be the most likely outcome — then it should surprise no one if the ACC stood its ground for all of the reasons described earlier. There’d be time still to try to figure out a more creative solution than panic-adding schools that wouldn’t add any value. Jay Bilas, the ESPN college basketball analyst, proposed one such solution during a segment on the network on Monday.
The idea: A merger with the SEC.
There’d be a lot to work out and untangle, but given the proximity of both leagues and most of their schools, it’d make a lot of sense. There are natural rivalries and relationships in place between a lot of ACC and SEC schools already. South Carolina and Clemson and the North Carolina ACC schools. Florida and Florida State. Georgia and Georgia Tech. Kentucky and Louisville.
The idea makes sense. Which means it probably won’t happen.