The Question: What is the Future of the ACC?
We finished the first two articles in the summer series about Tech football, and now it’s time to take a jink over one and look at how Tech fits into the latest heating up of the college football realignment game going on behind the scenes. Well, it’s going on behind the scenes, but like a “privacy booth” with a short curtain and uncertain fit in the stall door, we are seeing hints of the worrisome showing as we wait in line for something to happen.
Folks, the ACC is in serious trouble for the long term. (That’s ‘long’ as in 2-3 years long.) There are four major systemic issues with the conference, and no rational methods of correcting the errors without involving lots of lawyers, suits, and courts. There are two contractual issues matched up with two operational problems that are actually nearly impossible to solve without a complete reorganization and renegotiation of conference’s “constitution” (for lack of a better word).
The first problem is that the league contract is governed by the “Grant of Rights” that locks the programs into a relationship that might or might not benefit each individual program. The second is the ACC media contract with ESPN which also, long term, locks the teams into a revenue model that is already substandard and obsolete. The third problem is the radical differences sport priorities and capabilities for the programs, and the final is the overall program strength within the conference as it relates to the other top end conferences (eventually the failed Power 5).
Contracts Signed in a Parallel Universe
Without any doubt, the current condition of the poorly launched ACC Network (The Mouse, folks) is probably the primary influence in the looming league disintegration. Without going into boring details, the first two seasons of the ACCN were left on the floor of a disaster of being left off of a major cable provider, Comcast/Xfinity. Then there was only a single ACC broadcast channel provisioned, relying on limited access streaming for the remainder of the product delivery. The result is pretty predictable. The broadcast network has time slots for only a marginal percentage of its teams. This pushes some teams to streaming only, and some teams off the network on to other ESPN owned and branded channels or even non-ACC Network owned independent broadcast groups. The hodge-podge of broadcast availabilities negatively affects advertising revenue relegating less advantageous media to 2nd and 3rd tier advertisers. Several fans have commented that the ACCN schedule is so difficult to navigate and located so high in the channel stream that they just don’t bother. It’s like the network doesn’t really exist at all.
If the exposures weren’t bad enough, the length of the media contract is dragged down further by its parsimony. The ACC is a dead-end league with an inferior media revenue profile, a meritless revenue distribution profile, and a crippling lack of incentive to grow.
Grant of Rights or Prison Shackles?
For your reference here is an available copy of the ACC Grant of Rights contract posted online by WRAL. Instead of just doing some unreferenced summary, it’s important to show the actual text of the agreement. Here are the relevant dates listed in the core article: Here’s a copy of the contract keeping the ACC together—for now :: WRALSportsFan.com
WRAL obtained a copy of the ACC’s 2013 Grant of Rights agreement, which was based on a contract extension between the ACC and ESPN dated May 9, 2012. The agreement covers all 15 current league schools, runs through June 30, 2027 and was signed by former UNC Chancellor H. Holden Thorp on April 19, 2013.
There was a glimmer of slim hope in the original contract as shown, the end date was 30 June 2027, but the ACC Network deal of 2016 extended that term until 2035-2036. So, under the current contractual coercion, programs probably run by administrators and college presidents who didn’t sign it, are bound to it until 2035-36. That means under current conditions for the next decade and a half, ACC programs must live with fixed revenues while the other reorganizing associations rake in the dough, the coaches, and the recruits.
It’s about as close to legal extortion as the original negotiators could have ever imagined. The law of unintended consequences comes true, here. The current contractual agreements, instead of being guarantees of stability presented a death sentence for the ACC as a functional Tier 1 football conference. (We’ll do away with the Power 5 moniker since it will be obsolete after 2025.)
The biggest rub here, is that the revenue surrender of the existing ACC programs is bad, but given the massive economic necessity to collect merge partners, the Grant of Rights presents a suicide pact. No rational top-flight program is going to join the ACC under those conditions, period. If the ACC cannot shrink, and it cannot grow, it’s going to be relegated to a rapidly dwindling 3rd tier revenue status. Though money isn’t a guarantee of program success; it is an absolute necessity for it.
The bright spots are relatively small in this case. Most conferences have grants of rights, but they are for much shorter terms, and many offer more complex terms in exercising program participation prerogatives. A quick search in any search engine of “ACC network contract” will net you hundreds of analyses of the situation, and I have yet to find anything approaching even modestly positive to describe the ACC’s actions.
Enter the “Magnificent 7”
The Atlantic Coast Conference was always a basketball league. This isn’t just a personal opinion. It has always been a known and perceived reality by many college sports fans and analysts. The old politically incorrect phrase for the conference was “Tobacco Road.” The core programs were UNC, Virginia, and Duke at the top, NC State, Clemson, and Wake Forest (Maryland and South Carolina were also original founding members) in the middle, and there was little room for anyone else in the consideration train. The conference’s first major football related additions were Georgia Tech in 1979 and Florida State in 1992. Up until the Yellow Jacket/Gamecock exchange the conference was small and included only the 1953 founders.
The following programs are members of the ACC (With a notable and irritating to the ACC exception):
- Boston College
- Florida State
- Georgia Tech
- North Carolina
- North Carolina State
- Notre Dame* (Not football, not on anyone’s life, football)
- Virginia Tech
- Wake Forest
One wonders the double and triple legal, contractual backflips necessary to allow Notre Dame to join without adding the football program, but money talks, and Notre Dame football is its own league with its own huge media contract.
The upshot is that without major changes to the ACC Network and Grant of Rights contracts, the ACC is stuck in this weird 15 team everything but football configuration, where football is the absolute monster ruler of everything else, but most of the league isn’t good at it.
So enters the “Magnificent 7” into the fray. There is a huge disparity in the distribution of potential revenues and program interests in the conference. Half of the teams benefit greatly from the current revenue flow configuration and exposure, and half see that the existing situation is untenable for them. The writing is on the wall, so to speak. The Power 5 is disintegrating into much larger super conferences of a minimum of 20 teams each, and the momentum is largely unstoppable.
That means the 20 team leagues being formed by the core SEC and B1G conferences will absolutely dominate big time college football, playoffs, and most significantly revenues. No one is fooling anyone. After 2025, if you aren’t in the SEC super conference, or the B1G super conference you aren’t playing for more than the thrill of picking a 3rd tier booger bowl.
Who are in the M7? Clemson, Florida State, Miami, UNC, NC State, Virginia, and Virginia Tech banded together this Spring to form a cohesive block of teams with the biggest chances of doing radically better in one of the two super conferences forming. Again, no fooling, this isn’t about expanding the ACC or reforming the conference revenue flows based on some audience share calculations no matter the public stances. This is about the reality that these program Athletic Departments see the reality with which they are faced. They either get out of the ACC and join a super conference, or they languish as 2nd or even 3rd Tier programs. That’s pretty brutal, but business can be cut-throat and brutal, can’t it?
Operational Incoherence and Championship of What?
There was a window of opportunity to, perhaps, make the ACC an attractive Tier 1 merger target, which I suspect was the reason for doing away with the conference’s divisional distribution. But the primary target of that move in football, was getting Notre Dame to finally join the conference. The round robin limited conference scheduling allowed for enough flexibility for Notre Dame to schedule traditional rivals and still compete in some formula for the conference championship. The scramble up probably did way more harm than good, though. One suspects that Notre Dame’s belly laughed in private, and was polite in public. Notre Dame’s football media contract is nearly as lucrative as the entire ACC’s and they don’t have to share.
The upshot is that the organizational move made by the ACC will result in even more chaos, confusion, and hurt feelings since there will be no true ACC championship. With the divisional organization the winner of the division at least played all of the teams in that division. Now, no team will truly be the champion of anything because they played too low a percentage of teams within the conference to prove much of anything. At least the champion of the Coastal facing the champion of the Atlantic resulted in a battle of champions. Now we see the contest between the #1 and #2 percentage winner. What happens when the #1 played all cupcakes, and #4 played the most difficult and challenging schedule and beat the toughest teams in the conference? We were supposed to be moving away from polling and subjectivity in choosing winners and losers.
The ACC Loses... or It Loses… and then Loses, Again
What happens to a contract when half of the signatories call “no longer acceptable,” and file suit to have it vitiated? I am not sure that the conference can stand that sort of legal pressure, and I certainly don’t think that Swaffordian ten-speeding and gas-lighting will butter over the realities.
First, the ACC loses because it’s, in effect, a closed league that cannot grow due to the substandard nature of its contractual architecture. Short of a complete dissolution of the conference in an attempt to merge with another conference, it has no ability to gain the potential audience numbers and prestige enough to compete with the two forming super conferences. It certainly hasn’t a chance to attract more than mid-tier consumer interest – especially from the bottom half of the conference’s membership.
Second, it is going to isolate and channel itself into a permanently bifurcated competition base where only four or five teams dominate the play, player, and coaching talent. And that will be operating from a lower talent quality since the two 20 team first tier conferences will draw off the great bulk of the player and coaching talent with bigger revenues, pay, and NIL deals.
Finally, if the “Magnificent 7” do manage to back the conference into a corner and get it to offer some settlement, UNC, which IS the heart and soul of the ACC, is in that group looking to bolt. Where does that leave the conference once those seven programs head for the exits? That’s an interesting question since not all programs have a solid anticipated landing spot. Tech and Virginia are strongly thought of as heading for the B1G to join Maryland as ACC defectors. The SEC will get the remainder, and NC State will be on some bubble or be the new king program of the middle tier ACC after a merger. The BIG XII and PAC 12 will look like Swiss cheese, with the headless horseman that is the rump ACC. That league might work at some level, just not the first tier.
The only chance to keep a marginally intact conference with the existing teams and maybe six additional of the better programs from the CFB Twilight would be for the ACC to voluntarily tear up and renegotiate the ACC Network and Grant of Rights Contracts. That would allow, under the auspices of a merger of leftovers to form a 20- team conference that competes under more equitable circumstances. It would also avoid costly litigation, and potentially rancorous relations with various athletic departments. Trapped programs aren’t going to be happy, and programs that want to stay are going to suffer. Holding on to this fantasy of “Tobacco Road” highlighted by dreams of perpetual March Madness is missing the reality that basketball drives some revenue, but not even a significant dent in the football cashflow.
Tell Us How You Feel It’s Going to Go
Think out five years. Does the ACC remain an intact conference? (Don’t worry about Power or Group on this one.)
This poll is closed
No. Clemson, Miami, and Florida State will bolt for the SEC Super as soon as there is a crack in the door. Tech and Hoos go to B1G. ACC rump merges with the BIG XII and becomes a decent 2nd Tier Conference.
Yes. For at least a big part of the next five years. Then the revolt against the current paltry revenues will finally gain enough steam to change things, but too late to join the super conferences.
No. But more than predicting a few landing spots for SEC bound escapees, it’ll merge with some teams from the PAC12 and most of the BIG XII, to form the core of its own super conference.
It will change, it has to, but what it will look like, and which teams stay is like predicting a flood in heavy rain. The flooding is a given, what gets flooded isn’t. It’s a huge WAG and no one really knows the answer.
Long Live the King!
Football is the King of College Sports it seems to be finally dawning on some of the folks running the athletic departments in the doomed ACC. Maybe the popcorn and adult soda pops are better served at the observation galleries of the front offices of the conference programs and their legal teams. That’s where the real action is going to be in the ACC for the next few seasons. If 2025 rolls around and the huge buck contracts and mega conferences happen without ACC teams moving to join, the ACC might as well settle in for a “Group of 6” experience.