We Interrupt the Roster Reviews to Talk About Business
This series of articles just keeps getting longer and more stretched out, but the accelerating event stream regarding conference realignment is creating a looming problem for many programs. After 2025, where are they going to be, who are they playing, and what are they playing for?
Here are the major event streams that have gotten the college football world of FBS and Power 5 to the point where the entire concept of P5/G5 is about to evaporate like a huge but shallow puddle in a shopping mall parking lot on a hot Summer day.
The PAC 12 Dies
The first major alarms started going off two years ago when we saw the G5 go through major re-alignments, and then hovered into a stasis of activity as poaching opportunities faded. The Group of 5 conferences are static for now, but given the happenings of the last two seasons in the Power 5, the churn is just at a pause state. The PAC 12 is now suddenly the PAC 4 and drops out of rational contention for the planned 12-team playoff. It also drops out of being an actual conference.
The remaining four Oregon State, Cal (UC-Berkley), Stanford, and Washington State) will have to find somewhere to go, the reality is that they’d have to merge with some surviving conference. Do they go as a group, or does each program cut a deal with some other conference? Hint: Oregon State is talking with the BIG XII.
Suffice it to say that the PAC 12 and therefore the Power 5 has ended as of this past weekend.
What’s the ACC Angle on This?
Right now, the ACC is S-T-U-C-K. The ill-advised and revenue crippling Grant of Rights extension of the 2016 contract has stymied the ACC’s top end programs in the realignment game. But contracts are legal things and legal things can be dealt with by attorneys and money. Whether or not there are two options as the referenced article states, the status quo ante in the ACC is not sustainable as a business model, and make no mistake, folks, this is big... huge... business, now.
The current situation is still the slow weeping fallout from the Magnificent Seven meetings this past Summer. The M7 are Clemson, Florida State, Miami, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Virginia, and Virginia Tech. So far, the eighth school which would get the impulse and move to the magic number of more than half of the ACC programs. That means the Seven needs to cajole one of the remaining seven (or more would be better) programs into joining the move to radically modify or toss out the current Grant of Rights agreement. The rumors are that there are actually “remain” minded programs who are considering making the move. All it would take is a program behind the revenue power curve, or close, to decide to jump the fence.
The question will be, who does it? Duke, Wake Forest, Pitt, and Syracuse all have decent fanbases or better-quality football programs - with Duke leading the pack in basketball. Which one or more of them finally decides that they can do better revenue and recruiting wise?
My guess is both Pitt and Duke are probably on the fence and might get pushed over if the cost benefit ratio gets to the point where they absolutely have to make the move. A move of one or two will probably cause a mass move, and a pulling of the ACC plug.
One thing is for sure, it probably all goes down before 2025 because after 2025, the new Power 3 Super Conferences will be coalescing and room for further expansion will be tight. What’s shaping up is a Tier 1 pair of super conferences of 20-24 teams with their core memberships being SEC and B1G programs. The Super Conference soaking up most of the middle of the pack former Power 5 programs will form a Tier 2 Super Conference based on the rapidly reforming BIG XII. The final Tier 2 conference (won’t have enough for a super league) will grab the remainder of the cats and dogs from the ACC, PAC 12, perhaps the better AAU programs, and a couple of better programs from the still scrambled Mountain West. The game, here, is not getting stuck into that Tier 2 league level.
The reality is, if Florida State, Clemson, and Miami manage to sue, and pay their way out of the ACC, the big revenue programs will be gone and the revenue flows from the ESPN contract will be severely strained by much reduced advertising revenue. Virginia Tech does pretty well, but the drop off between the top three and us is pretty steep, too. You’ll see win/loss-based commentary poo-poohing the idea that FSU and Miami are really SEC material, but it’s not about Ws and Ls. It’s all about the audience and the advertising market rate. Let’s say Wake Forest starts routinely winning 10-game seasons. Wake’s fan base and viewership share is just too small to get a ton of attention from the networks. Notre Dame playing routine 6-6 seasons will draw 10 times that audience. Audience share is what it is all about.
The ACC Either Dies Whole, or Evaporates like the PAC 12
So, the conclusion is that the ACC as it stands now is toast. If the Grant of Rights cannot be broken, the ACC and its membership end up relegated to 2nd or 3rd Tier status, piddly revenues, and very limited if not impossible National Championship opportunities. It’s just a matter of time. It’s also a matter of program attitude, desire, and long-term evaluation of capabilities, now. Which programs are capable of sustaining themselves at a higher level in a new structure?
Let’s add some other sticks on the growing pile on the camel’s back.
Have No Fear Congress is Here!
The word in the sports world is that the NCAA is quietly getting louder about all of this. They agreed to the 12-team playoff scheme and pushed the ACC hard to get it, in an effort to blunt the current merger madness. It’s pretty obvious that it didn’t work as planned. Now, the NCAA has a limited charter, and a Congressionally limited power structure over its member programs. The constant drip of court decisions regarding player employment status and Name Image and Likeness rights has pushed the body into a frantic reactive state in regard to the entire concept of “amateur” athletics.
Now we have word that Congress is floating legislation, again, in an attempt to stabilize, regularize, and save the entire concept of amateur collegiate sports. There are four bills currently being bandied about by serious people in the bowels of the dome on the only hill above old Georgetown. Prior attempts to regularize and recharter the NCAA’s functions have failed on the rocks of both partisanship, and lack of serious interest from the NCAA as a governing body.
That interest has suddenly picked up. Between the conference mayhem, 3rd playoff format in a generation, and money situation (ad revenues, NIL, player compensation - employment, etc.) the current limitations of the NCAA as a governing body are dragging it down. Super conferences would leave the NCAA holding a bag because with that size of competition base and the revenue streams, the reformed conferences would effectively be their own leagues, and could decide to completely sidestep the NCAA. Of course, it would benefit football and men’s basketball. However, other non-revenue sports that depend on the earnings of those two sports (and especially football) would face some level of jeopardy. No NCAA, no Title IX. No NCAA, no requirement for AD sport revenue sharing. You get the picture.
The pressure on Congress to do something, has shifted from No thanky... to Yes! Please, with sugar! We shall see how that effort goes, there are lots of things in those proposals, but most of them are largely on the same page.
Let’s Toss in Problems with The Mouse (ESPN)
In another related trip sideways but in a way probably the critical factor in the Grant of Rights and ACCNetwork debacle, is the health of Disney and ESPN as a whole.
Just do a search in any engine for “News about ESPN Problems”. The hits will just keep on coming. Disney (ESPN and ABC Sports Parent Company) has been hemorrhaging money due to many factors, but revenue losing movie and TV products are just two of them. ESPN has been seeing reduced revenue flows, but is still profitable, and the Mouse sees an opportunity to either sell off the entire unit, or a major portion of it to help alleviate the stress on itself.
Disney is reportedly looking to shop ESPN to someone, anyone, with ESPN desperately looking for a streaming partner because the cable TV revenue stream is beginning to dry up. The room for growth has turned into a straight jacket as more people cut the cord, and even stop watching mass media productions altogether.
How these problems fit into the picture is that ESPN is the carrier and producer of the ACC Network and a huge partner in the Grant of Rights. Does ESPN crack down and pull in the ACC to guarantee their profit margin on limited payouts with growing revenues, or does the ACC Network begin to fade in viewership as the top end programs sue to leave the conference and the nework has to help pony up the money for litigation? It seems that the ACC’s overall viewership is still pretty small, and given that it has only one channel on most cable outlets, high up, and not in most normal surf patterns, is it worth the fight?
Would a re-established ESPN in cooperation or co-owned by Meta, or Google/Alphabet, or other major streaming service, even be willing to deal with the relatively small potatoes of a 12 team or 11 team single division ACC?
That’s for the corporate strategists to figure out, but it does push directly against the ACC figuring out an easily negotiated legal agreement.
Conclusion is Unsatisfying
There are two (and possibly a third) thing that will happen with Virginia Tech in all of this. It is a largely middle of the road, middle class, middle audience draw program. It’s respectable, but not gang busters. Let’s talk the three things that could happen and then we’ll ask you.
- The ACC stays largely intact because of the Grant and ends up being sued by its top three programs to leave the conference. It’ll be forced to come to some financial settlement, and FSU, Clemson, and Miami will leave. The remaining teams will either be unbound by the agreement or bound - depending on the court finding. If bound, finding three other teams to join the league will mean fishing down, not up for programs. The limited revenues will not attract programs that think they can make more other places. In this Tech stays in the ACC as they form into a Tier 2 conference.
- The eighth team signs on to the Magnificent 7, they all sue to end the Grant of Rights, ESPN doesn’t protest, and all eight teams leave the conference for the Supers or leave to form an entirely new 2nd Tier league from various leftovers from the merger madness. In this scenario, Tech would go to the expanded B1G - where other ACC teams go, I won’t hazard a guess. But B1G bait would be Pitt and the Hoos besides Tech.
- The ACC struggles for two or three more seasons intact but limping as talent flows to the new super leagues. The wear of the court fights and the reduced (in comparison to the other media contracts) revenues and audience share continues to bump the conference down leaving it nearly completely out of the collegiate sports revenue flows. The ACC eventually starves, but with nowhere to go, now it’s forced to look for a merger partner at a lower level. In this scenario, Tech becomes the cream of the crap. The new Tier-2 or 3 league that forms, produces modest competition and modest revenues in a modest sort of life in the modest middle.
Special note: The Hokies aren’t going to the SEC with this Athletic Department and this University President. It was made pretty plain at the NOVA Tailgate interview between Whit Babcock and Mike Burnop. There is still an academic prestige “thing” associated with the conferences. The ACC is very academically prestigious with top end programs representing a broad spectrum of collegiate educational disciplines. It was obvious that Babcock was conveying that Virginia Tech, if it’s not in the ACC, sees itself with the more academically prestigious B1G programs, like Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue (where Sands came from), and probably Notre Dame (when they finally have to join a conference for football).
Caveat: On a 1-10 scale 1 being just above completely and absolutely NO, and 10 being an absolute YES. this administration might hover in the 3 range or lower. It is a business decision, too, and if push came to shove $$$-wise Tech would make the break to the SEC - IMHO, anyway.
Your Turn to Chime In
What do you think is going to happen?
This poll is closed
1. The ACC stays largely intact with Tech remaining and forms a Tier 2 conference with most things in limbo for quite a while and no National Championship hopes.
2. The Magnificent "8" clears away the Grant of Rights, the Teams that want to merge, leave the ACC with Tech heading for the B1G with UVA and Pitt.
3. Nothing just yet. The court fights and swirling mergers go on around the ACC while the conference is left with few options too late once things are settled. Tech doesn’t leave and leads a new Tier 2 league formed of the cats and dogs.