CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The calm is almost jarring. The energy is different.
Two years ago, Texas and Oklahoma jumped to the SEC right in the middle of the ACC’s annual football kickoff, throwing the world of college athletics back into another spasm of realignment. The tension on that fault line eventually produced an earthquake, when a year later, weeks before the ACC gathered again, USC and UCLA moved to the Big Ten.
Both moves not only reshaped the landscape but provoked a sort-of existential crisis within and around the ACC. Could it keep up with the two new superconferences? Would its most valuable schools chase glory elsewhere? Was the grant of rights holding the league together truly impermeable? How long would the ACC even exist?
A year later, the storm seems to have passed. The grant of rights, so far, has proven unassailable, at least until we get closer to 2036. Retrenchment in the television rights market has given the Big Ten and SEC little incentive to go poaching. (Jordan Cornette, a charter member of the ACC Network, was a notable absence Tuesday after being discarded in ESPN’s latest round of cost-cutting.) And the university presidents’ version of a players-only meeting at Amelia Island in May seemed to release whatever steam had been building up internally.
In other words, the sense of imminent crisis that has pervaded this event the past two years has faded, even if the issues that led the ACC there have not gone anywhere, thanks in large part to the closed-door, cards-on-the-table airing of grievances at the ACC’s annual meeting
Which isn’t to say there aren’t pressing issues. Jim Phillips’ previous tenure at Northwestern certainly threatens his mandate as ACC commissioner amid the hazing scandal there, and the revenue gap hasn’t gotten any smaller yet. But what Phillips called “healthy, honest, and direct conversations” between the schools with options elsewhere and those without, commissioner-speak for anything short of fisticuffs, certainly seems to have cleared the air.
Forced to share their rhetoric with their peers, the loudest mouths have since gone silent, chastened.
“I really believe it helped us. I do,” Phillips said. “It was painful to go through. Nobody liked it, but it really started to develop this honesty and candor. Not that it hasn’t been an honest group before, but more candor than anything else about, hey, here are the issues we have or here is what we’re concerned about.”
Since then, the presidents have met on a weekly basis, opening lines of communication that didn’t exist before. And rumblings about testing the grant of rights from the general direction of, picking an ACC city at random, Tallahassee, have quieted. From the outside, at least, there appears to be a unanimity of direction that wasn’t there at this time in 2022, or 2021, although the agreement to abandon the ACC’s 70-year standard of equal revenue-sharing certainly helped grease the squeakiest wheels.
(They’ll start squeaking again right about the time they realize a performance-based system designed to steer revenue from Duke and Wake Forest toward Florida State and Miami ends up benefiting … Duke and Wake Forest.)
This sudden togetherness may also stem from a newfound realization that has mostly eluded their power-conference peers, which is that the goal of all this isn’t to die with the most toys. The prioritization of revenue above all else seemed to guide the Big Ten’s pursuit of USC and UCLA, which has the distinct potential to enrich administrators at the direct expense of the quality of athletes’ lives. The adults get the bag. The kids get jet lag. Twas ever thus.
The ACC, which despite being left out of the CFP last fall, still won nine NCAA titles in 2023 with another seven finalists, and had its eighth Final Four team in the past eight years. The cash-rich Big Ten, meanwhile, remains championship poor.
“I think one of the presidents said it best: Are we chasing a dollar amount, or are we chasing success?” Phillips said “I think there’s a difference there. If you are chasing a number, it takes you down a different path. If you are chasing success competitively in football and basketball and all of our sports, then I think every institution has an idea of what they need.”
The question is whether that’s sustainable if or when the revenue gap grows from $15 million to $50 million, especially when a chunk of that pie eventually starts going to the athletes themselves. If the Big Ten and SEC can afford to distribute more of the money they make to the people whose performances actually generate it, then the ACC will find itself at a significant competitive disadvantage.
That’s still some years away, since it certainly appears the NCAA will have to be dragged kicking and screaming to that inevitability. Whether the ACC can keep up in that scenario is merely a hypothetical at this point, it certainly appears in this moment like it’s collectively more interested in giving it a try than going separate ways.