Despite being a Big Ten guy that would personally love to have Jim Delany add Florida State, I’ve repeated the following statement many times on this blog: the ACC is much stronger than what people give it credit for. It’s not that I’m a fan of the ACC at all, but simply a reflection that it has never been as open for poaching as so many conference realignment observers thought or wanted it to be. Despite perceived TV contract problem, it’s a conference with strong brand names and good-to-great academics in arguably the most demographically desirable geographic footprint of any league in the country. So, it wasn’t a surprise to me that the ACC finally solidified its position to the outside world with its members unanimously agreeing to a grant of media rights to the conference through 2026-27. For the uninitiated, the “Grant of Rights” is a key tool in protecting a conference’s membership since each school individually grants its media rights to its league for a set period of time, which applies even if such school ends up defecting. For example, if an ACC school now attempted to leave for the Big Ten, SEC or Big 12, the ACC would still own that school’s media rights until 2026-27. That effectively makes ACC schools worthless from a raiding conference’s standpoint since they either can’t get access to those media rights or would have to pay a large buyout to the ACC to obtain them. The Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 schools have already agreed to a grant of rights to their respective conferences.
With 4 of the 5 power conferences having a vested legal interest in seeing grant of rights agreements being upheld in court (and the 5th power conference that doesn’t have a grant of rights, the SEC, being so strong financially off-the-field and competitively on-the-field), it’s likely that we have seen an end to power conference realignment for the next decade or so. There’s a chance that the Big 12 may be compelled to expand back up to 12 or more members from its current 10 or that the Pac-12 could eventually find a current Mountain West Conference member attractive, but the shifting between the power conferences themselves is probably over. From the Big Ten’s perspective, it’s probably all well and good. As much as I personally wanted the Big Ten to look at a school like Florida State, it likely only had eyes for the AAU likes of Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia Tech, all of whom would have been extremely difficult to poach (particularly UNC). The SEC also was set on looking at UNC and maybe rival Duke as a pair, which also would have been a monumental task to pull off. Much like the Big Ten was better off seeing Texas stay in a weakened Big 12 as opposed to heading off to a stronger Pac-16, if Jim Delany can’t nab his alma mater of UNC for himself, maintaining the status quo is much more preferable than seeing UNC head off to the SEC (as unlikely that would have been). From both the conference financial and fan perspectives, there isn’t any Big Ten expansion scenario that makes any sense without 2 or more schools from one of the ACC or Big 12. I’m sure that Mike Slive and SEC fans would feel the same way about SEC expansion.
The conference realignment game has been particularly cruel to American Athletic Conference* orphans UConn and Cincinnati. Their most realistic paths back to power conference status were all via further raids of the ACC opening up more slots. Neither school fits the profile of what the Big Ten and SEC would be looking for, the Pac-12 is out of geographic reach, and the ACC isn’t likely going up to 16 with either of them and would only be interested in them as backfill candidates in the event they ever do lose other members. The best hope for UConn and Cincinnati at this point (and it’s a bit better for the latter) is that the Big 12 ends up having an urgent need to expand again. Using 20/20 hindsight, the Big 12 might rue the day that they passed over taking Louisville and a 12th school (either BYU or Cincinnati) as the ACC surprised a lot of people in grabbing what has ended up being a fairly valuable football and basketball chip off of the table. A Louisville/BYU combo was likely financially viable to the Big 12 in a way that any BYU/Cincinnati/UConn combo probably can’t be, so the Big 12 seems stalled at 10. That might be perfectly fine for the conference’s university presidents and athletic directors at this time, but having a lack of viable expansion options is a much more acute long-term problem for a 10-school conference than ones at 12 or 14 members. I’ve never been a proponent of any conference expanding simply for the sake of expanding, yet it feels like the Big 12 didn’t take advantage of a momentary position of strength after they signed their new TV deal with ESPN and Fox last year. Now, to be sure, I never bought for one second that the Big 12 had any legitimate chance at Florida State and Clemson (the former was really only interested in shaking the money trees of the Big Ten and SEC). However, adding Louisville and BYU would have been a solid expansion both athletically and geographically for the Big 12 and that’s an opportunity that has slipped away. The ACC’s choice of Louisville over UConn and Cincinnati effectively blocked Big 12 expansion, whether John Swofford intended for that to happen or not (and I tend to agree with Andy Staples that Swofford is a ninja that has been underestimated by a lot of college sports fans).
(* My vote for the new AAC logo is here.)
As for the ACC itself, there’s little point in entertaining expansion for the foreseeable future. Contrary to the belief of a surprisingly large number of sports fans, the fact that the ACC has an odd number of basketball teams as a result of Notre Dame’s non-football membership has absolutely zero bearing on conference realignment. The only time that an odd number of schools matters is for a football alignment, which wouldn’t apply in the case of the ACC. Therefore, the conference certainly wouldn’t add a single all-sports member to create an odd number of football schools, and it’s doubtful that going up to 16 is appealing with the ongoing hope (however misguided that it might be) that Notre Dame might join the league as a football member within the next 40 years.
Speaking of Notre Dame, the Irish have managed to solidify their independence for the foreseeable future with an extension of their contract with NBC through 2025. If one thing has been made clear through conference realignment over the past 3 years (to the extent that it wasn’t already clear), it’s that Notre Dame’s ironclad principle is to maintain independence above making the most TV money (which, to be sure, is still quite good for them), scheduling concerns or any other factor besides being structurally foreclosed from winning a national championship (which will be far from the case in the new 4-team playoff format). The ACC is honestly a perfect setup for Notre Dame – the Irish get access to a power conference for non-football sports and a full slate of bowls with a partial conference scheduling commitment that consists largely of schools that they would generally be willing to play, anyway. They’re not going anywhere for a loooong time.
Now, conference realignment for the world outside of the five power football conferences is far from over. The formation of the “new” Big East is spurring a large scale realignment of non-FBS Division I conferences (starting with the Atlantic 10 adding George Mason and Davidson and the Missouri Valley Conference taking Loyola). Many FCS football programs are finding themselves in financial purgatory where they are looking to move up to FBS homes. There might even be a full scale realignment of the college sports world with a possible breakaway of the top football leagues from the NCAA. Still, it feels like the big conference realignment moves (outside of that possible NCAA break-up) have been completed… except, of course, for Johns Hopkins going to the Big Ten.
(Image from ImageEvent)