ACC standing pat, for now, amid the chaos of college football realignment

CHARLOTTE, NC — ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips spotted Louisville football coach Scott Satterfield in the main hallway outside the interview rooms at the ACC Kickoff on Wednesday and hurried over to say hello as a full day of media appearances drew to a close.

The two exchanged pleasantries before Satterfield acknowledged the reality facing both the commissioner and the conference: Phillips has a tough job ahead of him.

That, of course, has been the reality since Phillips took over as commissioner in February 2021 and he has made some progress in addressing key areas, including full distribution of the ACC network last December. In fact, despite all the worries about the skies, the league generated a record $578 million for 2020-21, the short-term revenue gaps don’t seem to have doomed playoff contenders and programs like Florida State, Miami and Wake Forest to scupper all announced plans for large plant projects to be built in the coming years.

Still, the revenue gap remains Phillips’ most pressing concern and even he could not have foreseen the magnitude of the challenge when replacing John Swofford.

Rather than discussing the strength of the football teams in the league compared to the other Power 5 conferences, the only two ACC kickoffs Phillips has attended have been dominated by questions about their long-term future.

At that very event last year, Phillips and those in attendance had to react after Texas and Oklahoma announced plans to go to the SEC. This year, they faced the same questions after USC and UCLA announced they would join the Big Ten. Phillips spoke valiantly about trying to keep the college model healthy and good, but the stark fact remains: These days, it’s all about revenue generation and distribution.

The ACC is well behind the SEC and the Big Ten in this important area, and while the league won’t be closing its doors any time soon, the fact remains that this revenue gap is at the root of so many questions.

So many questions, in fact, that several schools have sent their legal counsel to the league’s headquarters in Greensboro, North Carolina, where a copy of the current copyright statement is available for perusal and review. Some schools do this, perhaps to see if there is a way to challenge the grant of rights in court. Some schools do this, perhaps to reassure themselves that the language is as safe as many believe.

The league’s new legal adviser also took a close look at the document. The rights deal — which runs through 2036 and essentially transfers each school’s media rights to the ACC — was originally signed in 2013 to keep members together, spurred after the state of Florida considered a Big 12 move and Maryland left for the ACC big ten. The league agreed to a new ESPN deal in 2016, including the creation of the ACC network, which extended those rights awards through 2036.

For that reason, the league is confident it’s in a far better position than the recently poached Pac-12 and Big 12, two conferences whose television deals are up for renegotiation. While no one wants to raise bobbles and yell, “We’re No. 3!” At least from a league perspective, that might not be so bad for the time being.

“I can only go by what history has told us about the granting of rights, even in this day and age,” Phillips said during his press conference on Wednesday. “People were talking about Oklahoma and Texas leaving immediately. I think that’s pretty well articulated now that it isn’t. They will wait for their permissions to expire.

“If you hear UCLA and USC, they will clearly stay in the Pac-12 until their rights issue expires. So you can follow the logic there. I would think that the meaning of what that would entail, the television rights to which the conference is entitled as well as a nine figure fine I think she holds. But your guess is as good as mine.”

Especially when several sources assume that the granting of rights will one day be challenged in court. It is not believed that this day will be in the foreseeable future.

“ACC is in a good position but it is what it is,” said Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi. “They knew something was going to happen after Texas and Oklahoma. There shouldn’t be any surprises.”

Phillips said “all options are on the table” for the league as it ponders its next move. That is, if there’s a move big enough to make it.

But here’s the thing, as one coach pointed out. The ACC had time to develop some options over the past year after Texas and Oklahoma left, which sent shockwaves through the sport. Instead, the coach feared the ACC was spending too much time changing its division format and not focusing enough on its overall plan.

But many options — particularly regarding expansion — have been explored and deemed insufficient to move the needle financially, or would take money from a school’s financial payout. As one sporting director put it: “We already have too many mouths to feed.”

Is that calculus changing now that two of the Power 5 conferences have expanded to 16 teams? Maybe. But the bottom line is that the ACC won’t do anything unless it adds significant revenue. As for uneven revenue sharing to keep some of the bigger brand schools happy, it’s an idea that was floated before the realignment, but is now being pursued as an option to be considered more seriously.

Once staunchly opposed to revenue imbalances, Phillips said he’s now more open to the idea as difficult circumstances dictate tough decisions. But he said it wouldn’t be his first option.

An ACC athletic director said he believes the idea has more traction than in years past, but said the league has not discussed specifics of a specific dollar-sharing plan. While the AD wasn’t sure any plan would garner enough votes, one manager who had previously been averse to the idea said he’d be open to it – if revenue payouts were based on success on the pitch.

However, this does not change the overall result here. The Big 12 had an uneven revenue split to keep Texas and Oklahoma happy, and they’re going anyway.

For now, the ACC is staying together and any talk of superconferences is all speculation. Nonetheless, schools are positioning themselves for any scenarios that may unfold in the future. History tells them they have to.

“I’m not worried about Carolina,” said North Carolina coach Mack Brown. “Everything will be fine. Virginia will be fine. But I’m worried about the rest, and maybe that’s not my place. But as a person who loves college football, I don’t want it to just go by a Path.”

Brown has been through it all before. He told that for a year and a half when he was Texas head coach, he had a plan to bring the program into the Pac-12, but the calculus changed when ESPN formed the Longhorn Network and Texas stayed with the Big 12 .

“We had set up a recruitment area, we had a schedule. We’ve had travel, all that, and I wasted all that time,” Brown said. “The coaches have decided that we’re not. We don’t know what’s going on. Nobody knows exactly what’s happening. I have to put all my energy into coaching this team. And I’ll worry about that later and whatever always happens.” it probably won’t happen in three years anyway, so most of the kids we recruit will be seniors before that even changes.

Perhaps the biggest variable within the ACC’s control when looking for ways to increase revenue is simply that its best teams play good football.

Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech — all traditional football powerhouses — have endured extended stretches of lackluster performances of late. If the ACC wants its TV affiliates to consider a box office boost, the first step is to revitalize those programs.

“If you came to Virginia Tech for years, you would win 10 games and have a chance to be in an Orange Bowl every year,” said Virginia Tech freshman coach Brent Pry. “We need to get that back to where those expectations are met. Imagine what that would be enough for [the ACC].” ACC standing pat, for now, amid the chaos of college football realignment

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