In the giant game of Risk that has engulfed the college sports landscape, no league commissioner has been as cunning as the Atlantic Coast Conference’s John Swofford. A visionary who was first to foresee the present landgrab for major television markets, Swofford brought the once-proud Big East to its knees by swiping territories from Miami to Syracuse, initiating a coast-to-coast power struggle that has left the NCAA landscape with inexplicable and random-ass alliances.
Swofford’s luck ran out two weeks ago, though, when the cash-strapped University of Maryland, along with Rutgers of the Big East, joined the Big Ten. The charter ACC member was hoping that greater television revenues provided by the Big Ten's superior brand of football and national cable network would help its athletics department recover from a period of money mismanagement one might call MC Hammer-esque.
Though Swofford replaced Maryland almost immediately by plucking Louisville from (of course) the Big East the following week, there might still be reason for ACC fans to follow the advice of Maryland’s strangely earnest and goofy website for prospective students, and “Fear the Turtle.”
Here’s why you should be scared: At a time when football and its megabucks are steering athletics departments nationwide, Swofford has been unsuccessful in his efforts to build a gridiron powerhouse out of a conference whose identity has, for the past half century, been tied to men’s basketball and the four North Carolina schools who’ve dominated it.
If Maryland, a basketball school steeped in ACC history, can find itself in a position to leave its home of nearly 60 years, one has to wonder whether football-centric newcomers like Florida State and Miami might cough up the league’s $52 million exit fee and follow them to a conference where fans weren't selling tickets to its football championship game for $4 on StubHub.
“It’s a very, very uncertain, cloudy picture,” said Patrick Stevens, who writes about Maryland athletics and the ACC for the Washington Times. “You look at the state of the league, and even though you have UNC and Duke as consistent national powers in basketball, it’s a really patently average football league that’s generating the money.”
Though the move punctured the aura of stability that used to surrounded the ACC, the league is not about to go out of business tomorrow. Swofford’s addition of Louisville—which will be the most lowly-rated academic institution in a conference already featuring NC State—revealed the ACC’s nakedly financial motives after its years of paying lip-service to a commitment to scholastics. But Louisville's football program should at least improve a conference that would be the worst of the six BCS conferences if not for the ineptitude of the Big East it stripped bare.
And, of course, no ethically ambiguous business dealing would be complete without a few lawyers getting involved. The ACC can help keep its current members at home if it wins the lawsuit it filed in November that asked a North Carolina state court to force Maryland to pay the aforementioned exit fee. Florida State, which joined Maryland in voting against raising the fee in September, is keeping up with the proceedings.
“I really think it comes down to the buyout and what Maryland ends up paying,” said Chris Bennett, who blogs about the league at Inside The ACC. “If they pay the full amount, everything’s set, but if they don’t, I think we could see some problems.”
While a successful court ruling would be a blessing, the ACC’s biggest challenge will lie in rebranding itself after nearly 60 years spent forging a basketball-first identity that has left them in the dust as far as making money goes. Though the league now has appendages as far west as South Bend and as far north as Syracuse, its spiritual and physical headquarters have always been in North Carolina, where the Wake Forest-NC State-UNC-Duke quartet built the basketball league into one of the nation’s finest, and made ACC hoops as inextricable a part of the region’s cultural identity as pulled pork, James Taylor, or even Cookout.
For a long time, the pre-eminence of Tobacco Road and its pastime of choice rankled the noses of opposing ACC fans (the league is sometimes derisively referred to as “the All Carolina Conference”), but that didn’t keep any of its members from eating.
But as conferences began negotiating their own individual television broadcast rights deals in the early 90s, when ESPN and other cable networks were growing and fiending for more college-sports programming, football moved the needle more than any other game. Though March Madness continues to stack paper and suck productivity out of the American workforce each spring, the relatively meaningless regular-season games are much less important, and draw fewer viewers than football’s, where a single loss can squash a team’s national title and/or bowl hopes. This weird, gladiatorial spectacle now dwarfs other sports, making hoops your local hardware store and football your town's Wal-Mart.
According to an article published in the September issue of Business North Carolina magazine, the ACC’s basketball television contracts were worth nearly as much as its football contracts as recently as the 2010-11 school year. But a new deal negotiated in 2010 that went into effect in 2011-12 created a $110.3M/$36.8M football-basketball split.That deal was renegotiated last year, at about $17.1 million per year. (The contract shoud be renegotiated, again, now that Notre Dame, minus its football team, has joined the conference.)
That $17.1 million might seem like a lot of money to your average jerk, but it’s chump change compared to the $40 million the Big Ten expects to be paying its members by 2017. With the new math, Stevens says, even Duke, the most talked-about brand in college basketball, could be vulnerable to being left behind by the realignment scramble.
“I think if you’re UNC and you have the academic credentials, that’s going to help you. I think if you’re NC State, where you have a pretty large fanbase, I think that bodes well for you,” Stevens said. “If you’re Duke or Wake, you’d probably be in a more tenuous position, especially based on what kind of revenue they’d be generating for football.”
Though improving the football product has been at the top of Swofford’s agenda since he took over as commissioner in 1997, dude can only do so much to break the vortex of mediocrity that seems to swallow elite programs whole when they join the ACC.
Miami and Virginia Tech were both national title contenders when they joined the league in 2004, but have since fallen off faster than post-No Ceilings Lil Wayne. Florida State won two national championships in the decade after it joined the league in 1992, but recent years have dealt the school a string of disappointing finishes. The league’s traditional, pre-expansion powerhouse, Clemson, seems perpetually fated to lose to a shitty team at the precise moment you’ve started thinking it's a national player. (For more on this topic, see the Urban Dictionary entry for Clemsoning.)
Since 2000, the ACC as it's currently constituted has won five men’s basketball national titles, but has not put a single team in the top five of the AP’s end-of-season football poll.
“For all the criticism John Swofford has taken, he can’t turn lead into gold,” said Jim Young, editor of ACCSports.com, an independent news site that covers ACC football and men’s basketball. “The conference itself has never been very good at football. He’s doing his best to make that happen, but he can’t carry the ball, he can’t pass it and he can’t tackle anyone.”
Unless the ACC's football product ascends to the level of the Big Ten or SEC, more than a modest amount of improvement, it’s unclear how advertising execs will be able to brand an ACC where seven of the 15 members weren’t there a year ago. Even in a down year, an ACC championship tilt could once be sold as determining the very best the New South had to offer.
With this appeal now gone, and its members now eying each other suspiciously in the wake of Maryland’s departure, ACC football will need to improve exponentially to survive the next three to four years resembling the ACC of Michael Jordan, or evenof Kyrie Irving. It used to be that the Friday of the ACC basketball tournament shut down the entire state of North Carolina, but the days of the conference having that sort of prominence seem numbered.
As might the conference itself. “We still get a good chunk of our readership from the North Carolina area,” Young said. “Those are the people who are interested in and associate themselves with the ACC. If it becomes a massively changed thing, will there be that common identity?”
“If the league goes away, I’m out of a job. I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but it’s a very real thing at this point.”
@aptaube is a UNC grad who thinks NC State is a fine academic institution, but is bitter about the four straight football games UNC lost to State during his enrollment.