GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – To those who weren’t happy that the North Carolina General Assembly would budget $15 million to ensure the Atlantic Coast Conference would keep its headquarters in North Carolina, we ask this: How would you feel if there were no ACC anywhere?
That has emerged as a very much discussed possibility amid an earthquake of change that has undertaken the nation’s elite universities and the athletic conferences in which they hold memberships – primarily in relation to football.
Some of that seismic shift has brought the suggestion that the Big Four in North Carolina – University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke, NC State, Wake Forest – could be leaving the ACC as we know it for (choose your debate) the Southeastern Conference, the Big 10 Conference, the Big 12 Conference, the Pac-12 Conference or something that we haven’t even defined.
And there’s a chance that the Big Four would not remain all in the same conference, that UNC and Duke might go one way and NC State and Wake Forest the other, based on the interests of the conferences (you can make your guesses) and priorities of the universities.
There’s also a chance the ACC could get bigger rather than smaller and keep pace with what is happening with the SEC, the Big 10, the Big 12 and the Pac-12, all of which have seen drastic comings and goings. Then that $15 million would be needed.
This is being discussed because of three events (some more recently) that have changed, well, everything.
First was the announcement last year that Texas and Oklahoma, members of what is known as the Big 12 (though it hadn’t been 12 recently), were leaving for the Southeastern Conference in 2025 (if not sooner). They were being replaced in the Big 12 by Central Florida, Brigham Young, Cincinnati and Houston.
Last week UCLA and Southern Cal, those two longtime, crosstown rivals, revealed they were leaving the Pac-12, which they had helped to create, for the Big 10 (which isn’t really 10 and hasn’t been in decades). Yes, two schools from Los Angeles were going to join a conference whose most western outposts were Nebraska and Iowa.
And then on Tuesday the Big 12 struck again, with an offer to Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, Utah, Oregon and Washington to move over from the Pac-12. We’re not sure what that leaves for Stanford, Cal, Washington State and Oregon State, the last four of the “12.”
So you can see why the heads of those in charge at the ACC might be a-bobble right now, and if you think that such football powers as Clemson, Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech wouldn’t be courted, well, you might have the same naivete about basketball studs such as UNC, Duke, Virginia, Louisville and Syracuse.
Speculation has moved all those names to a variety of places, so don’t go to sleep thinking your venerable conference is safe from ruin. It is not. Remember, the ACC has made most of its reputation for its basketball and its broad base of success in many secondary sports. And it aspires to be academically elite. But this entire equation is predicated on football and what we had come to know as the Power 5 conferences, to which NCAA has become a 4-letter word.
So here are a half-dozen things you need to know about all of this.
1. Why is all of this happening?
That question simply does not get asked often enough (sarcasm). The essence really is three-pronged: There is money, which motivates everything, there are TV networks, which provide the most substantial chunks of that money and then there are the conferences, which believe in the “economies of scale” and that the more national reach and amassed TV audience they can assemble, the more powerful they are. And the more money they will receive.
Add to that the fact that live sports are significant TV programming magnets right now. In a world of streaming and batch viewing, most people will sit down at a specific time and watch a specific game/event. Thus, that has resonance with advertisers, which are what make TV networks tick. But this is where ACC members/states aren’t really as essential as the math might indicate.
Louisville, Greensboro and Charlotte typically are among the top three college basketball TV markets, but they don’t add much relative to football. As columnist Eric Crawford wrote on WDRB.com in Louisville, “When the Big Ten added USC and UCLA, the math worked out. The league added the No. 2 television market in America, and even if those schools might or might not do blockbuster numbers in their market, they’re guaranteed to provide more Big Game football inventory for the league’s networks to present to advertisers. More opportunities for big bangs. … The best scenario is for the ACC to remain viable, hang onto its membership, hang onto its affiliation with Notre Dame, and perhaps add a member or two.”
2. The “X” factor in all of this
Crawford mentioned the same “X” factor that always has existed in college football expansion discussions: Notre Dame. Still an independent technically and still with its own national TV contract and an enormous national fan base, Notre Dame long has been the cliché 900-pound gorilla. That the Irish are members of the ACC in everything BUT football (and hockey, FWIW) – and a scheduling partner in football – only adds to the questions about the league’s future. With Notre Dame aboard for football, the ACC could perhaps add a couple of more schools and join the SEC, Big 10 and Big 12 as the Power 4. But that’s far from certain. And it’s the same overture every conference is making: Please join us, Notre Dame.
3. How could the ACC just go away?
You probably don’t want to know that the ACC WAS part of the Southern Conference (the league where UNC-Greensboro now plays) until 1952. Clemson, Duke, Maryland, North Carolina, North Carolina State, South Carolina and Wake Forest split off, had a meeting in Greensboro and became the ACC. And they did it because of – get this! – academics! The ACC established minimum SAT scores for athletes. Those seven schools – with Virginia added a few months later – comprised comprised the league until 1971, when South Carolina left and eventually wound up in the SEC. In 1978 Georgia Tech came aboard. Then came Florida State, and after a big round of conference realignment earlier in this century, Miami, Virginia Tech, Boston College, Syracuse and Louisville, and then Maryland left for the Big 10. The Notre Dame “relationship” began in 2012.
But the ACC grew to enough national clout with the added TV audience brought by Syracuse, BC and the Florida schools – and then Notre Dame, sort of – that it has its own ESPN-affiliated network, to which the league is contracted through 2035-36. The SEC and Big 10 have their own networks, too. For any solution, ESPN/ABC and Fox hold chips and cards.
4. What about the idea the ACC could merge in some way with another conference?
Anything could happen. It feels like everything is being discussed. On Thursday night, John Canzano, a veteran columnist/reporter from Portland, Oregon, talking about the Pac-12’s future on his radio show and then in a post on Substack, said that the conference was discussing a “loose partnership,” presumably with the ACC or maybe the Big 12.
Wrote Canzano: “What would a ‘loose partnership’ with the ACC look like? It could include a shared media rights deal with ESPN, which currently works with both entities. Also, it could result in the 10 remaining Pac-12 teams sticking together and the winner of that “10-team division” playing in an ACC vs. Pac-12 championship game in Las Vegas at the end of the season. Also, there could be some attractive regular-season crossover games between the entities in football and men’s basketball.”
He also wrote that Oregon wants to be in the Big 10 or the SEC, presumably to satisfy its principal benefactor, Nike founder Phil Knight.
Wrote Crawford: “So for now, the best route for the ACC may well be to protect its flanks and buy time. Somehow. Until things change again. As unsatisfying as that sounds. But there are few good options.”
5. Could the Appalachian States and East Carolinas play a role in all of this?
Well, the so-called “mid-major” schools aren’t exactly coveted by the big conferences. Often they represent the No. 2 or No. 3 team from a particular state – in this case there are four ahead of them in North Carolina – and so they would bring insufficient TV audience to be meaningful or even add prestige (no offense for any of them – this is perception). And the larger/more established schools don’t want the added clout of their “smaller” brethren.
Sometimes that can change, Central Florida didn’t even have a major sports program 30 or 40 years ago, but now it’s in one of the so-called Power 5 (should we say Power 2+?) conferences largely because of two things: Orlando is a top-20 TV market, and UCF has one of the largest student enrollments (and burgeoning alumni bases) in the nation – about 61,500. A little on-the-field success in football didn’t hurt. But UCF would not be wanted by Florida in the SEC or by FSU and Miami in the ACC, so it shopped and hopped until it landed in the Big 12.
That’s indicative of what can happen to a “mid-major” but not something that happens routinely. Luster is hard to polish. Just ask Southern Mississippi and Boise State, which have seen that come and go to varying degrees. Appalachian State is starting to see it. On the other side are schools such as Tulane and Georgia Tech, which have big-city locales and academic standing but little else to show for it, continue to land well.
6. Isn’t there some way to address all of this with a global solution?
If the conferences seem to be diffusing our shared vision of college sports, let’s take this discussion to the next level: an equitable system that forgets the ACC and SEC and every other allegiance and creates a unified approach. Pat Forde, a veteran college sports writer who now works for Sports Illustrated, inspired by the hardship of the COVID-19 pandemic, drew up a plan to restructure 120 universities into regional football-based conferences of balance, equity and rivalry (with added financial sense, when it comes to non-revenue sports). This is a pretty solution but not a painless one. The Big East and other basketball-based conferences would have to devise their own futures. There would be some schools promoted to this level and some demoted to balance alignments. There would be 10 conferences of 12 schools each, with about eight members of the Power 5 in each one, including Notre Dame. This would keep North Carolina’s Big Four together in what Forde called the Mid-Atlantic, which also would pair them with App State and ECU (the others would be Clemson, South Carolina, Coastal Carolina, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Old Dominion). That’s a league of 12 teams from three contiguous states. Neat. His plan also called for each league to play a round-robin schedule and name a champion. Those champions would be part of a 12-team playoff that would include two at-large schools and four that would earn first-round byes. This is so fair and so sensible that it ultimately would not have a chance in Hades of being adopted. But stick around: Hades U. may move to the Pac-12 at any moment.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article was unclear about the founding teams of the ACC.