Through all of the college football expansion talk, one question has been the focus around the country: what will the ACC do?
OK, so actually maybe few people care. But, hey, I’m one of them.
The ACC is in a tough spot for a few reasons. One, there are several members that could be the subject of SEC interest if and when the SEC adds a 14th team. The program that makes the most sense for the SEC is Florida State, but I more and more believe that politics will prevent that from happening (there are several schools that will push to not admit a team from a state where the SEC already has a member, and I have a feeling that FSU won’t find any friends in Alabama, Auburn, or Georgia, all of which may feel reluctant due to their geographic – and thus competitive – proximity to the Seminoles). Still, Clemson, Virginia Tech, and others are candidates. And the Big 10 could eventually come calling as well.
Two, the ACC has a bad television deal. It turns out that there was more money out there than the ACC landed – a lot more – and that means that the ACC deal looks weaker than ever in pure dollar terms. On top of that – and this is the true failure of the league – the ACC’s TV deal just started this season and goes for 12 years. It was somewhat understandable that the ACC didn’t get a lot of dollars – they had little leverage at the time. The mistake the ACC made, however, was that they signed a long-term deal despite having little leverage and facing difficulties in both football and basketball at exactly the wrong time. They should have settled for a 4 or 5 year deal and hoped that the landscape was better down the road. Because of the bad television deal, however, the ACC may not be particularly attractive if this whole expansion rumble turns into an all-out free-for-all.
On top of all that, the ACC has several schools that are likely to turn up their noses at the whole expansion thing. I suspect there are still some schools that have never particularly gotten over adding Florida State – let alone the raid on the Big East that expanded the conference to 12. A conference like the Pac 12 may have had similar issues in recent years – until the lingering sense of superiority collapsed under the weight of bad television deals and underexposure. Eventually the Pac 12 decided to stop putting itself above it all and they hired Larry Scott, who was obviously brought in not because he was connected to collegiate athletics (he wasn’t), but because the Pac 12 knew he could make good deals and run a sports league. The result is that suddenly the Pac 12 has been as aggressive as anyone and they signed outstanding deals. The kind of deals that everyone in the ACC would love to have. The question is whether those schools in the ACC that like to think they are above it all will have the same “come to Jesus” moment as the Pac 12.
So they may be a target for big-time poachers, they have a bad TV deal, and there may be a lack of underlying conference unity. Not a good situation for the ACC.
If there is a saving grace, it would likely be in the form of some kind of opt-out clause in the TV deal that the ACC signed with ESPN. For example, most people believe that the SEC is willing to add Texas A&M and some other team because it will allow the SEC to renegotiate their contracts with CBS and ESPN, opting out if necessary, to get at least as much money per team as before, and likely more. If things start to get crazy in the expansion game, and if the ACC members start to get scared, it may finally present the “come to Jesus” moment for the schools that have not been on board with expansion in the past. It may force the ACC to get aggressive.
Now, if the SEC comes to poach schools from the ACC, there’s almost nothing that the ACC can do about it. Most schools likely to receive such an offer would take it. North Carolina is probably the one exception (Duke, Maryland, BC, et al would likely never get offers). On the other hand, it may be a closer question when it comes to offers from the Big 10 or Big East. Schools would only leave for the Big East if there was a massive amount of money involved. Right now that is not the case, and the Big East has additional problems thanks to its awkward football/basketball set-up. As for the Big 10, since they aren’t likely to pursue schools such as Florida State or Clemson, it remains an open question whether schools such as Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, or Duke – the likeliest targets – would be interested. You are talking about core ACC members there – some of them wielding outsized power in their present home.
But what if the ACC can force a re-negotiation of that bad deal by expanding? And what if the renegotiation of that deal helped convince the league’s fence-sitters to stick around? The only way that is going to happen is if the ACC expands. Now, the ACC may feel like they can live with matters as long as they do not fear losing any more than maybe one team to the SEC. On the other hand, if it looks like the ACC could get left behind in the expansion scramble, or if other conferences start poaching, then the ACC needs to have a contingency plan in place to hold things together, and that might require firing some quick shots of their own.
The ACC should have an expansion contingency in place, ready to go at a moment’s notice. There are really only a handful of viable options (no one is leaving the SEC or Big 10, and they likely won’t be able to go as far west as the SEC – the conference currently goes no farther west than Tallahassee or Atlanta). In my view, the top four options for the ACC are Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Louisville, and Rutgers. Pittsburgh should be the first choice, with Syracuse and Louisville neck-and-neck for the second spot, and Rutgers a few lengths behind the other programs. UConn is another possible choice, but lingering bad feelings between the ACC and UConn might make it unlikely (memo to politicians and school administrators that decide to throw a tantrum and get litigious: remember that you might one day want to partner with the people you try to sue). Schools such as West Virginia, South Florida, Central Florida, and East Carolina would meet a good bit of resistance from various factions in the league and are not likely viable options absent the ACC getting desperate.
By the way, since I’ve said in the past that football attendance is an important metric when considering conference expansion, here is the 2010 average home game attendance for my top four choices: Pittsburgh (52,165); Syracuse (40,064); Louisville (50,648); Rutgers (46,195).
Because there is such a steep drop-off between the top 4-5 picks and then everyone else, the ACC really needs to think about being proactive rather than finding themselves trying to rebuild their conference with the dregs left over from the expansion wars. In my view, that means they should make an immediate play for Pittsburgh and then take a little time to sort out the rest as the national scenario plays out. When the smoke clears, I don’t think it would be a bad deal at all for the ACC to end up with the following 16 team configuration:
I presume they would need to go to a 9 game conference schedule, with 7 divisional games and 2 inter-divisional games per team. That scenario adds four viable – though not top-shelf – football programs and three outstanding basketball programs.
Speaking of basketball, in a 16 team league I prefer a pod-type system in that sport. Break the league into four pods of four teams. Within the pod, each team plays each other twice every year. Then they play every other league team once per season. It would require 18 conference games. You can identify my suggested pods by looking at the divisions above – I have grouped them in order so the top four would be Pod 1, the next four Pod 2, and so on. [Update: The pod system is designed for scheduling purposes only. There wouldn’t be a Pod B Champion, or anything like that, and conference tournament seeding should be on pure overall conference record from 1 to 16.]
By the way, if the ACC wanted to try and dip their toes into a Pac-12 type regional network system, my projected pods might serve as the basis for four regional networks to begin.
I strongly believe that this scenario would make the ACC an overall much more valuable product (and the timing of deal-making would also improve given Florida State’s expected football resurgence).
PS: Where would my 16-team scenario leave the Big East? Simple: a merger with the remaining teams from the Big 12 (which sounds like it is already in the works). Assuming the Pac 12 expands to the Pac-16, that is. It would leave the Big East/12 with 10 remaining football members. If they wanted to add members, they could consider Central Florida, Houston, Memphis, SMU, East Carolina, and UTEP – among others.
Here’s a proposed Big East/12 16 team set-up assuming 4 teams were to leave the Big 12 and the four teams I suggested for the ACC leave the Big East:
Big East/12 North
Big East/12 South