How ACC went from one of most successful in college sports history to uncertain future

·16 min read
Logan Whitton/TNS

In an instant late last week, the ACC went from a period of relative stability — yet one not without significant questions, nonetheless, about its long-term future — to prognostications of doom and visions of worst-case scenarios. Pick a related metaphor and they all fit the perception that suddenly surrounds the ACC: a sinking ship; the Hindenburg engulfed in a fireball; the grim reaper knocking on the door, toting a scythe.

The ACC isn’t quite there, not yet anyway, but the vibes, as the kids say these days, are not good. The revelation that USC and UCLA intend to depart the Pac-12 for the Big Ten has reinforced a truth that is not new, necessarily, but one that is becoming more and more difficult to ignore. And that truth is this: In major college athletics, there is no longer any such thing as the Power Five.

There’s the Power Two — the Big Ten and SEC — and schools can either find a way on the train or risk the specter of being left at the station. Or, perhaps equally worse, risk the specter of taking less desirable trains to less desirable destinations (though, more literally, the likes of Starkville, Mississippi and Fayetteville, Arkansas, and Piscataway, New Jersey aren’t exactly resort towns).

That the ACC finds itself here, in a brewing existential crisis, tells one all they need to know about the state of college athletics in 2022. Over the past 20 years, the conference has increased its revenue by about 500 percent. The past 10 years, between 2011 and 2021, ACC revenue increased from $167.2 million to almost $580 million, a record for the league.

Few businesses anywhere, in any field, can match the ACC’s financial growth over the past 10 or 20 years and, yet ... it’s still not enough. Not in a college sports world in which the Big Ten and SEC have made even more money, and at an even more obscene rate of increase. Twenty years ago, the ACC was not the richest conference in college athletics, but it was close.

The 2001-02 fiscal year ended with the ACC having made $98.1 million — about $6.5 million fewer than Big Ten and $20 million fewer than SEC. That kind of financial gap was manageable and, at the time, the ACC had reason to believe that it was another TV rights deal away from closing it or even surpassing its rivals to become the wealthiest league.

And now? Well, now the figures tell a much different story. The ACC during the 2020-21 fiscal year finished about $100 million behind the Big Ten, and more than $250 million behind the SEC. The gulf between the two richest conferences and everyone else is only going to grow, too, given that both the Big Ten and SEC will soon have new TV deals. The ACC, meanwhile, is locked into its contract with ESPN through 2036.

It all makes for something of a bleak picture for the ACC, which now has to hope that its Grant of Rights holds up, and is enough of a deterrent to keep some of its more coveted schools (Clemson, Florida State, Miami and, yes, even ACC standard-bearer North Carolina) from defecting. Even if the Grant of Rights does hold, for now, it still feels like a temporary fix for a long-term problem.

Another metaphor befitting the ACC these days: the conference is playing the role of a weakening dam, foreboding cracks forming all over the place, doing its best to halt the flow of an ever-strengthening current. How much longer can it hold? And another question: How did the ACC reach this point, anyway?

Twenty years ago, the ACC was arguably the most powerful of the major conferences. Its basketball TV rights were still among the most valuable in college athletics. In football, it was still largely a one-school show, nationally, but Florida State’s dominance had elevated the overall product. The conference was about to poach three schools from the Big East.

The ACC was a hunter. Now it much more resembles the prey.

How did one of the most successful conferences in college sports history arrive at such a place of vulnerability? The factors are myriad and complex, with some of the missteps more avoidable than others. To understand the predicament of the ACC’s present is to understand the conference’s roots and history, both more recent and decades old. It’s to understand the weight of decisions whose consequences are only now coming into focus.

The reasons why the ACC finds itself here are many. Here’s a look at the most significant:

ACC Network took too long to launch.

In 2002, the ACC and the Big Ten were more or less financial equals, separated by about $6.5 million in favor of the Big Ten. About a decade later, the once-small and relatively insignificant monetary gap between the conferences had grown almost $100 million wide.

Looking back, the turning point is most obvious. The Big Ten in August 2007 launched its own television network, a decision that proved wise and financially rewarding, and one that allowed the conference, in essence, to print money.

By the mid-2000s, television had long become the dominant behind-the-scenes puppet master of college sports. Yet Jim Delany, then the Big Ten Commissioner, had the foresight to reduce the influence of middlemen and create a media company run by the conference, and for the conference.

While Fox Sports remains the majority owner of the Big Ten Network, the conference has been the biggest beneficiary of its success. It increased the league’s reach and placed the Big Ten into a different financial stratosphere, one that enabled it to lure Maryland from the ACC in 2012.

The SEC followed with the launch of its own network, in conjunction with ESPN, in 2014. Predictably, it, too, has become a money-making machine, one that has allowed the SEC to keep financial pace with the Big Ten. Both leagues have traded places in recent years as college athletics’ wealthiest, the distance between them and everyone else constantly widening.

The ACC, meanwhile, endured a long, laborious path to the launch of the ESPN-backed ACC Network in 2019. It took three years for it to go live, for one thing. And even long before the 2016 formal announcement that the network was on its way, the lack of movement on it became a running joke, with then-commissioner John Swofford answering the same questions every year:

How are those network talks coming along? Any idea when it might happen?

By the time the ACC Network came to fruition, the conference had fallen further and further behind the Big Ten and the SEC. Media consumption dynamics had changed, too, with consumers becoming less tethered to traditional TV channels and more adept at streaming content. There were distribution hurdles, with some important deals (including one with Comcast) slow to develop. The success of the ACC Network is still too early to judge — it has only been three years since the start of it, after all — but by the time it came into existence, the Big Ten and SEC had both taken advantage of a significant head start. The ACC lagged far behind.

League didn’t take advantage of its chance to add Notre Dame.

Few things in college sports history underscored the enterprise’s willingness to do anything for a dollar, or millions of them, more than the decision, of most conferences, to plunge headfirst into a pandemic and play a made-for-TV schedule. The 2020 college football season will forever be remembered for its weirdness and questionable ethics (even in an industry built on questionable ethics) and if the ACC falters it will be remembered for something else, too:

A lost opportunity.

The conference made a friendly, neighborly decision to allow Notre Dame into the league on a mutually agreed-upon one-season-only basis. In the process, though, the ACC surrendered any leverage it might’ve had to persuade Notre Dame to become a full-time, football-playing member once and for all. If the ACC hadn’t allowed Notre Dame temporary football membership in 2020, the Fighting Irish would’ve likely been out of ... luck ... as it were, in its pursuit of a season.

Instead, though, Notre Dame got exactly what it wanted out of the arrangement. The ACC, meanwhile, received what, exactly? If the conference was ever going to convince Notre Dame to join, 2020 was the window. The league stepped in and saved the Fighting Irish’s season that year and, as part of the deal, Notre Dame slapped an ACC logo on its field and uniforms and went along with the appearance of being an ACC member, if only temporarily.

Now the conference, in desperate need of the potential financial implications of Notre Dame’s full-time football membership, has even less leverage than it did. And Notre Dame, which has used the ACC to house its other sports for the past decade, has even less of an incentive to join — not with the ACC’s weakened position relative to its two rival conferences. The addition of Notre Dame in football has long been the ACC’s white whale, the conference’s hope of long term viability. The league might’ve just had it on the hook two years ago, before allowing it to escape for good.

Relevance and financial value of college basketball declined.

It is a difficult reality to accept, especially given the ACC’s roots and its history in gyms large and small throughout North Carolina, but it’s the truth nonetheless: College basketball doesn’t come close to commanding the relevance, financially or otherwise, that it once did. That reality has become more and more evident over the past 20 years, with the ACC’s finances offering proof.

Through the mid-to-late 1990s, the ACC’s basketball TV rights were more valuable than those for football. Basketball in those days fueled the conference’s revenue growth, and it was the league’s basketball money that helped compel Florida State to join the ACC in the early 1990s.

In 2001, the Jacksonville Times-Union published a retrospective story looking back at FSU’s decision to join the conference. In that story, Greg Phillips, then an associate athletic director at FSU, detailed how in 1990 the university evaluated the comparative financial benefits of joining the ACC or the SEC. The ACC’s basketball TV contract, Phillips told the paper, was the difference.

“The ACC’s basketball advantage was going to outweigh the SEC’s football advantage,” Phillips said in 2001. “Looking back, I think we’ve gotten more dollars from the ACC.”

Twenty years later, Phillips’ statement appears sadly comical in hindsight. While the exact breakdown is not public, it is believed that football accounts for at least 80 percent of the ACC’s contract with ESPN. The price of the rights to broadcast SEC and Big Ten football games, meanwhile, has placed both conferences in line to become the first to surpass the billion-dollar mark in revenue.

College basketball clearly remains a revenue-driver, and the NCAA tournament remains one of the most prized commodities in American sports. Overall, though, the sport has largely become a one-month phenomenon; a niche endeavor, commercially, with the exception of a few markets. The UNC-Duke rivalry is representative of the dynamic. In early March, the regular season finale between the schools attracted an audience of almost 4 million on ESPN, according to sportsmediawatch.com.

For the sake of comparison, there were 11 college football postseason games that captured a larger TV audience than Mike Krzyzewski’s final home game at Duke. UNC’s victory against Duke in the Final Four proved to be a ratings hit, predictably, but the biggest beneficiary there was CBS, which owns the rights to the NCAA tournament, and not the ACC. College basketball is still big business — but it has taken a clear back seat to football, and at a significant cost to the ACC.

Which raises yet another problem for the conference ...

Majority of ACC’s football schools haven’t delivered.

In the span of 13 years, from 1992 through 2005, the ACC went from a quaint, eight-school conference to a 12-team league with an emerging and necessary emphasis on football. All four additions made sense, in the moment, and to a point all of those moves paid off. But only to a point.

Florida State, which began playing football in the ACC in 1992, instantly provided the conference with some credibility in that sport. The Seminoles dominated the ACC throughout the 90s and forced other schools to at least try to keep up. Miami and Virginia Tech joined the league in 2004 and, in the moment, both appeared like coups. Boston College arrived the next year, and the ACC held its first football championship game in 2005, an FSU victory against Virginia Tech.

Soon after, though, the conference’s attempts to raise its football profile devolved into something of a comedy of errors. It was as if anything that could’ve gone wrong, went wrong — and at precisely the time when TV money began its exponential ascent.

Florida State, which for the better part of 15 years was college football’s most successful program, entered into a state decline in the mid-2000s in Bobby Bowden’s final seasons. Virginia Tech, which emerged as a national power in the late-1990s and early 2000s, remained strong but not quite strong enough to carry an entire league. Miami, which in early years boosted the ACC’s perceived football brand, at least, proved to be the biggest disappointment.

The ACC needed Miami to at least resemble the powerhouse program of the Hurricanes’ 1980s and 90s heyday. What the ACC received is a program that has more often than not resembled N.C. State or North Carolina instead of a national championship contender. The ACC, remember, set up its divisions in a way to ensure that Florida State and Miami would play in the championship game as often as possible. Seventeen years later, and it still hasn’t happened.

Clemson has done its part, to be sure, but outside of brief stretches — Clemson and FSU in the early 2010s, for instance — the ACC has never been able to reap the benefits of multiple nationally-relevant programs, competing at a high level at the same time. Clemson has had its way in the Atlantic Division for most of the past decade. The Coastal has been college football’s charming punchline, the George Costanza of divisions — harmless and sad and mildly pathetic.

It has all come at a cost, because while the networks are practically giving away football television money, the ACC hasn’t had nearly as much to sell. It’d be different if Florida State-Miami was still the rivalry it was in the 1990s. Or if Clemson-FSU had taken its place. Or if Virginia Tech had remained what it was, for years. Or if Georgia Tech or UNC or N.C. State could’ve picked up the slack. But none of those things have happened, and here the ACC is.

The conference’s most significant hurdle, though, is the one most impossible to address ...

Makeup of the ACC is inherently limiting.

Football television money drives college athletics these days, and ratings drive the money, and the size of the audience drives the ratings. And therein lies the ACC’s greatest challenge: too many schools nowadays deliver too small an audience in the one sport that matters most.

The most recent ACC football championship game tells part of the story. On paper, at least, it seemed like a compelling enough match-up, what with Wake Forest entering the championship game as one of college football’s surprise stories, and Pittsburgh arriving in Charlotte with Kenny Pickett, a Heisman Trophy finalist and the school’s best quarterback since Dan Marino.

Pitt’s victory, though, came before a television audience of 2.7 million — a decrease of 73 percent from the 2020 pandemic season conference title game between Clemson and one-time ACC member Notre Dame, according to sportsmediawatch.com. The meager ratings — the AAC title game between Cincinnati and Houston out-performed Pitt-Wake — underscored a problem for the ACC: outside of its bigger brands, the rest of the league doesn’t deliver strong viewership.

In most cases, there’s little to be done to amend this. In football, five of the ACC’s full-time members are private schools. Four of those are Boston College, Duke, Syracuse and Wake Forest, and none of them boast football followings that would be considered anything close to robust. The other private school is Miami — a national brand, still, but one that hasn’t been all that nationally relevant over the past 20 years.

The ACC’s public schools don’t exactly pick up the slack, in most cases. UNC and Virginia fancy themselves as public ivies, and their environments at home games on fall Saturdays would rarely be mistaken for the spectacle that is an SEC game at Georgia or LSU or Ole Miss, or one in the Big Ten at Ohio State or Michigan. N.C. State does have a passionate following, and an SEC-like tailgating scene, but the Wolfpack’s reach largely stops at the state’s borders.

Pitt, like Boston College, is overshadowed by the pro teams in its own market. Ditto Georgia Tech, except in Atlanta the Yellow Jackets are also overshadowed by Georgia. And so that leaves Clemson, Florida State, Virginia Tech and perhaps Miami as the only ACC schools with both a history and following strong enough to deliver the viewership broadcasters crave. And of those, only Clemson has consistently delivered over the past five years.

The ACC’s expansion moves made sense at the time. One can see how and why Swofford led the conference down the path it chose, especially in a time when everyone in the television industry valued market size above all. But Boston College never delivered the Boston market, same as Syracuse never delivering the New York City market.

In the mid-to-late 2000s, years when the ACC most needed to take a step forward in football, it instead retreated into a period of national irrelevance. Who can forget Wake’s epic 9-6 victory against Georgia Tech in the 2006 league championship game, or the chaos of the Coastal that resulted in all seven members taking turns winning the division over a seven-year period?

The ACC has been nothing if not entertaining. Now the question is not one concerning strength on the field, but the power of pen and paper. The ACC’s Grant of Rights will undoubtedly be tested in the days to come, if it hasn’t been tested behind the scenes already. If it holds, and buys the conference time to perhaps find a way, it’ll represent a victory for the ACC in a time when all of its shortcomings have been magnified.