Ken Sugiura: In expanding again, what has the ACC done for its future?

Tribune Content Agency

After adding Stanford, Cal and SMU to its ranks, the ACC can rest assured in at least this much – the league’s future is well positioned if College Quiz Bowl ever becomes a revenue-generating sport.

The CQB Playoff will be an ACC free-for-all. Pointy-heads rejoice! Traffic in Charlotte, North Carolina – site of the conference’s new league office – will be snarled with all the Brinks trucks dropping off ESPN’s millions.

Vanderbilt and Northwestern will covertly plan to ditch their respective conferences and offer themselves as a package deal to the almighty ACC. Nervously, Florida State will hire a team of lawyers to scour the grant of rights contract to make sure there’s no way it can be voted out of the league. Commissioner Jim Phillips will pick up his phone to read yet another text from Notre Dame pleading to be let in as a full member. He’ll send a screenshot to his ACC president besties with a string of “crying with laughter” emojis.

Georgia message boards will bemoan Georgia Tech’s latest commitment from a five-star coding whiz and grumble “What else do you expect when they have a high-power electric propulsion lab and all we have is a journalism school?”

Is it really too much to ask?

Alas, you don’t have to have graduated from an ACC school to know the answer to that one.

There are ways that the conference’s addition of Stanford, Cal and SMU, made official Friday by a 12-3 vote of the league’s members, will help its schools when the three schools join in 2024. The feared travel inconveniences to athletes are real, but the league has already begun planning for it and it might not be as onerous as you might think. (Many varsity sports won’t be affected. Football teams will go to California every other year. Basketball teams will make two trips to the Bay Area every four years. Cal and Stanford will have it worse, with 3-4 trips east for football and basketball each season.)

As for Stanford and Cal being about 2,400 miles removed from the Atlantic Coast and 2,700 miles from its most remote ACC member (Boston College), it doesn’t align with the traditional concept and logic of conferences. But, for better or worse, the ACC is hardly alone. The University of Oregon and Rutgers (which will share Big Ten membership starting next year) are about 2,500 miles apart.

Because the three new members won’t be granted full shares of conference revenue for several years – SMU won’t get a dime of media-rights money for the first nine years, according to multiple reports – the existing ACC schools could each get an extra $3-4 million annually in the short term.

It won’t catch them up to the Big Ten and SEC. In the 2021-22 fiscal year, Big Ten schools received $58.8 million of TV revenue, the SEC $49.9 million and the ACC $39.4 million, and the gaps are expected to widen. But it will still help.

Stanford and Cal also bring their sterling academic reputations and superior all-sports programs. Both legitimately matter to the ACC and its member schools. Stanford has won 134 NCAA titles, the most of any NCAA school, while Cal has scored 42.

And, not least, in expanding to 18 schools (17 for football, as Notre Dame continues as an independent) for the 2024-25 academic year, the league has helped secure its future if Clemson, Florida State and others bolt. ACC’s contract with ESPN has a clause that allows for the network to re-negotiate its deal if the membership falls below 15, according to Brett McMurphy of Action Network. Clemson and Florida State are prime candidates to bolt if they can figure a way out of the grant of rights before it ends in 2026 or when the penalty for leaving becomes tolerable.

However, improving security, short-term financial health and the competitiveness of the ACC swimming and diving championships is one thing. Is it actually making the conference better?

The terms of admission give something of an answer. SMU, Stanford and Cal joined the ACC with reduced revenues in part because of leverage – Stanford and Cal were desperate to remain in a power conference. But the degree of their appeal was surely part of it, too.

If SMU, Stanford and Cal demanded a full share of revenue immediately, would they have been allowed in?

Almost certainly not – they wouldn’t have enlarged the revenue pie enough for it to make financial sense.

Further, and this is related, are they going to help the ACC become stronger where it counts the most – by fielding football teams with large fan bases that will be competitive enough to draw in the viewership that would improve the ACC’s media contract (and thus help it stay in the picture with the Big Ten and SEC)?

Nothing in the recent past would suggest it. Stanford averaged 10.2 wins per season from 2009-2018, but just 3.5 in four seasons since. Cal last ended a season in the top 25 in 2006. SMU has not won a conference championship since 1984, when its recruiting infractions brought about the NCAA’s “death penalty.”

Now they’ll have to compete in a league where their competitors are enjoying a revenue advantage of tens of millions.

Nor will they bring especially ardent fan bases. The highest-drawing team of the three last year was Cal at 38,596, which would have been 11th in the ACC.

If this was clearly going to benefit the conference, four of its schools – Clemson, Florida State, North Carolina and N.C. State – wouldn’t have been against it, with N.C. State flipping on Friday to provide the necessary 12th vote.

And now Phillips is presiding over a conference where the strongest football program (Clemson) and the athletic department that has been its most successful and is most linked to its brand (North Carolina) have a fundamental disagreement with the league’s direction.

Adding the three schools has helped solve some problems for now. Time will tell if it has created more in the process.