In the span of a few days here, the ACC went from a dead conference walking (according to the social media chatter of the day) to a league of strength and fortitude, unified for the long haul. As usual with these things, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
A couple of things are clear enough: One, the ACC’s demise, at least in the short term, has been greatly exaggerated. If schools could leave for greener pastures (green being the color of money, and not grass, in this metaphor), it would’ve already happened. And yet the conference’s grant of rights agreement holds strong. The other point of clarity: Speculation about the ACC’s future is going to endure. That’s just the environment these days, in a time of constant white noise.
Jim Phillips, the conference’s commissioner, met with reporters here on Wednesday at the conclusion of the ACC’s annual spring meetings. There were no bombshells. No headlines, either, that were particularly noteworthy. Which isn’t to say that Phillips’ commentary wasn’t illuminating; it was, if only to hear from a major-conference commissioner who is trying to hold it all together in one of the more turbulent environments college athletics has ever seen.
Phillips’ primary message was clear enough, and understandable given the moment. The gist: the ACC is strong. The members are committed to each other. They’re all confronting the future, however uncertain, with the expectation and hope that the league finds a way. The reality of it all? Who knows. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to parse fact from fiction with any of this. And remember: Conferences have risen and fallen over the years in the shadows.
There has rarely been much notice about any major realignment news.
Which is cause for a lot of the anxiety surrounding the ACC.
Enough of the preamble. Here are five takeaways from the end of the league’s spring meetings:
ACC membership and administrators are unified. Just ask them.
The Tweet Heard Round the Ritz, as I wrote about here, dropped Monday afternoon, on Day 1 of these meetings. Phillips, on Wednesday, said it wasn’t news to him that schools have been exploring the strength of the ACC’s grant of rights — that, in fact, he and the conference welcome lawyers from any school to come to headquarters in Greensboro (soon to be Charlotte) and read the document for themselves.
“I mean, we feed them and all the rest of it,” Phillips said.
Indeed, it’s not revelatory that conference members want to know what they’re up against, if they’re trying to leave. Or know how strong the grant of rights really is, if they want the league to stay together. That schools are looking at the document, Phillips said, isn’t a sign that something bad is coming for the ACC — that (and I’m paraphrasing here) the conference is on the verge of collapse. Phillips spent a lot of time in his opening, and beyond, arguing for the strength of the conference, while also expressing empathy for ACC members who might want more.
“These are schools that are under a lot of stress and a lot of pressure,” Phillips said. “And I understand that, I really do. The reality is our conference is third in the country in (revenue) distribution. Third — and as we look at the projections, at least in this decade, we’re going to continue to be there.
“Now we want to close the gap (and) we need to close the gap between the top two conferences that have started to run away from us.”
Phillips also said: “The league is strong. The league is successful.”
And: “I feel like we have a really connected group. I really do. And I’m not just saying that.”
And: “If you’re going to get to an end result, then along the road, you’re going to have some of these bumps, and you’re going to have some of these things that you got to work through.”
And: “What I’ve been told is we’re all in this thing together. Emphatically. We believe in the ACC, we believe where we’re going. And we want to continue to work together.”
Pretty strong, indeed. Every athletic director I talked to, too — and I spoke with all three of the Triangle ADs (stories to come) — reiterated that point. Everybody, it seemed, put on the happy face for the betterment of the conference. Is it legit? True? Fair questions. Nothing to do but wait and see how all of this manifests.
An unequal revenue model is clearly on the way
The biggest news item out of ACC spring meetings — in terms of something that is actually, really happening now, as opposed to years from now — is that an unequal revenue sharing model is clearly on the way. The league’s athletic directors discussed it. Phillips discussed it with them. There were presentations, undoubtedly with nice PowerPoint graphics and high-end data and the like.
It’s coming. Some schools will receive a larger cut of the ACC pie than others. Only a matter of time. Now, how soon is it coming? Unclear. And how much of a difference, ultimately, will this make? Also unclear. When Phillips spoke of it all, he acknowledged the questions.
“How do we distribute revenue differently — potentially differently — in the future?” he asked. “So we have multiple ways where we’re trying to attack this and again, as you’ve as you’ve heard from me, I don’t think there’s one silver bullet or one move that you make that you close that financial gap.”
The revenue gap he referenced, the one with the Big Ten and SEC, is hundreds of millions of dollars wide. It’s only growing larger, as those two leagues command more and more football TV money. The ACC is unlikely to ever catch either conference. It’s unlikely, too, that any other league catches up to the Big Ten or SEC. And so you’d figure, then, that those ultra-valuable select schools most clamoring for every last drop of ACC money would be guaranteed to make more.
Who can be sure what the revenue sharing model ultimately looks like?
Nobody knows. It’s all undecided.
Maybe not the best of news for Florida State and Clemson and anyone else who assumes their value, and believes they deserve a larger share, automatically. I asked Phillips directly how a larger cut would work — how much more a school could potentially make — and the answer came without hesitation: “It’s too early to tell,” he said. “We’re not that far down that road.”
The formula will be decided by the league’s presidents and chancellors. A final calculation isn’t necessarily imminent. And, ultimately, the question remains: How much difference will this really make? The scuttlebutt here is that an unequal cut of TV money — based on, say, ratings — isn’t on the table. It’s far more likely that what’s up for grabs are future earnings from the College Football Playoff, or NCAA tournament.
Will that be enough to appease the likes of FSU and Clemson? Stay tuned.
It’s anybody’s guess where this is all headed
I asked Phillips for his prediction on where all of this (gestures broadly) is headed in college athletics. Continuous realignment? Consolidation? Wealthy and wealthier leagues, just basically trying to put each other out of business.
This will be a larger story, eventually, and so I don’t want to give it all away.
But, as Phillips put it: “Where does it go? I don’t know. I mean, I’ve said it before, I think you’ve got to have more than one healthy neighborhood. You have to have a healthy infrastructure. You want interstate competition, you want national competition from coast to coast, not just regional competition. ... So I think at the end of the day, we are all better off together than you know, a smaller subset.”
Yes. All fair points.
But does the Big Ten or SEC care about the enterprise at large? Or are they content to play College Sports Survivor, and try to be the last conference standing?
Oh, yes: Basketball
The league has a narrative problem, Phillips acknowledged. Among other problems.
But especially a narrative problem in men’s basketball.
“Some of the narrative has to be changed,” Phillips said.
More on that, and a lot more, to come soon enough. The ACC lives for another day (or decade).