Would UNC, Duke remain tethered together if new league comes calling? It’s complicated.

·5 min read
Ethan Hyman/ehyman@newsobserver.com

Rivalries have proven to not be top of mind when conference realignment decisions are made.

Who remembers how big Oklahoma-Nebraska football used to be? Only the elders.

Texas A&M gladly left Texas when it jumped to the SEC from the Big 12 a decade ago. Only Texas’ money-driven decision to make the same move last summer brought the two together again.

So, as the ACC faces an uncertain long-term future, what’s to come of Duke, North Carolina and, in the opinion of many, college basketball’s greatest rivalry?

Just three months after the Blue Devils and Tar Heels met in the NCAA tournament for the first time, in a memorable Final Four game no less, the situation has never been more uncertain.

North Carolina, a flagship university with a mostly solid academic reputation and winning athletic programs in a growing state, would add to the powerful Big Ten or SEC should they come calling.

Duke, a small, private university, possesses impeccable academic credentials and an elite basketball program. It, too, lies in a growing market although large portions of its alumni live outside North Carolina.

Will the two schools remain conference rivals into the future? It’s a complicated situation.

Here are some of the issues working for and against it.

For: Ratings gold

Books have been written and published about the Blue Devils and Tar Heels playing basketball against one another, the two combining for 11 NCAA tournament titles (UNC 6, Duke 5) and their campuses being eight miles apart.

For all that hoopla, the series just delivers time after time in the TV ratings that matter and influence college conference decisions.

According to SportsMediaWatch.com, the Duke-UNC Final Four semifinal game April 2 averaged 17.66 million Nielsen-reported viewers. The number jumped to 18.5 million including additional streaming viewers.

The final regular-season game, on March 5 at Cameron Indoor Stadium, drew 3.98 million viewers. That’s the largest television audience of any regular-season game last season.

All three of the teams’ meetings during the 2018-19 season – prior to the pandemic impacting everything – topped 4 million viewers.

Though football ratings are what matter most since that sport’s television revenue brings in an estimated 80% of conference revenue, Duke-UNC basketball numbers remain significant.

So, of course, the Big Ten or SEC could find value in having those games under their banners and as part of their media deals.

Against: Duke’s financial commitment

Coach Jon Schyer’s basketball team would immediately be in line to compete for the championship in any league.

But men’s basketball aside, Duke would have to pump even more money into facilities, staffing and annual budgets were it to join the Big Ten or SEC.

The Blue Devils have plenty of well-heeled alums, of course. What Duke lacks in number of alumni it makes up for in overall wealth.

The school was the first in the Triangle to build an indoor football practice facility back in 2011. Duke had one before Florida State.

But would the school’s administration, more like-minded with the Ivy than the SEC, have the appetite to spend all that money on athletics? That’s a question without a firm answer.

Would the Big Ten or the SEC welcome a football program that would begin at the bottom of the league, on the field, without the commitment to fund improvements needed to compete? Not likely.

UNC would need upgrades, too, to reach that higher level. But that school has financial heft from a large, in-state alumni base to get it done. It already showed, by hiring Butch Davis 15 years ago, it was willing to do what it took to play big-time football, even with the baggage that came along with it.

For: Locking down NC

North Carolina is currently the ninth-largest state in the union, having zoomed past 10 million residents.

In terms of television markets, it houses No. 22 (Charlotte) and No. 24 (Raleigh-Durham-Fayetteville) nationally. Both are larger than San Diego and Baltimore, Kansas City and Pittsburgh.

The Greensboro-Winston-Salem-High Point television market (No. 47) is also among the top 50.

Adding Duke and UNC would give television value to the SEC or Big Ten’s already lucrative media contracts with partners ESPN and Fox.

Neither league has a member school in this state, so NC is fertile ground now and into the future.

Against: Is UNC tired of Duke?

As healthy as the rivalry is by a number of metrics, UNC is clearly a better stand-alone candidate for a new league compared to Duke.

Both are top academic schools, members of the prestigious American Association of Universities (AAU). That matters to the Big Ten.

But, what if UNC forged forward on its own?

Again, Texas A&M and Oklahoma moved on without their longtime nearby rivals. The Sooners are doing it a second time by leaving Oklahoma State behind.

Kansas and Missouri have been fierce rivals dating back before the Civil War when actual blood was shed. But in 2012, Missouri jumped to the SEC even if it meant no more annual grudge matches with the Jayhawks.

UNC was a basketball power before Duke got things going, winning an NCAA championship in 1957. Even though UNC sent him off to retirement with its Final Four win, Mike Krzyzewski’s brilliance allowed the Blue Devils to catch up with the Tar Heels, when considering a number of metrics, over the last four decades

Still, there’s a large UNC populace that never stopped believing the Tar Heels were superior to the Blue Devils.

Ridding themselves of that annoyance could be the ultimate victory, even if the TV networks would still clamor for a single, non-conference basketball game each season and pray for another Final Four matchup.