Technically, the acronym still holds.
Just rebrand it. From the Atlantic Coast Conference … to the All Coasts Conference.
Boom. Saved you a $10 million consulting fee on that one, Jim Phillips. All yours, free of charge — unless, of course, you want to shell out any of that sweet, sweet cash headed the ACC’s way.
Because really, that’s what Friday’s news — that the ACC is adding California, Stanford, and SMU — is all about: money. Let’s not pretend it has anything to do with Cal and Stanford’s vaunted academic status, or their Olympic sports excellence, or any other flat-out falsehood. It sure isn’t about those schools’ football or men’s basketball success, because … well, they haven’t had much lately. It’s about squeezing the ESPN lemon for every last drop of juice, plain and simple. The whole exercise has been the conference equivalent of digging through couch cushions for spare change — no matter how tattered the bills or sticky the coins.
That’s exactly how gross it feels, that a league whose logo is the East Coast silhouette now extends to California and Texas.
These moves, like all the rest in the current realignment arms race, are made through a football-centric lens. Which, sure, makes sense, since football is the primary moneymaker for modern athletic departments; it’s the sun around which everything else orbits — and in many cases, the sun that subsidizes non-revenue sports. For conferences with historical and recent football success, like the Big Ten and the SEC, there’s convenient overlap between what they’re best at, what they care about, and what makes money.
If only the ACC’s Venn diagram were so neat and tidy.
That’s not to suggest that football doesn’t, or hasn’t, mattered to the league. Back in 2005, when the ACC raided the Big East for Miami and Virginia Tech, it did so to improve its national football profile, and to provide more commensurate competition for the league’s football powers at the time, like Florida State and Georgia Tech. It’s also impossible to ignore the league’s three national titles in a six-year-span in the 2010s — first Florida State in 2013, then Clemson in 2016 and 2018 — and Clemson’s overall run under Dabo Swinney. But — and of course there was a “but” coming — those pockets of success or individual moves haven’t fundamentally shifted the ACC into a football-obsessed conference.
As one high-major coach told The Athletic last week: “The ACC is a basketball league — always has been, always will be.” Ding, ding, ding.
Case in point: Over the last two decades, the ACC has three national football titles… and seven in men’s basketball. Since the onset of the College Football Playoff in 2014, the ACC has had seven CFP participants — six of them, in consecutive years, by Clemson — but eight Final Four appearances, by four different schools. (Oh, the irony of Miami boosting the ACC’s hoops profile more than its football one.) The ACC’s 15 national men’s basketball titles is the most of any league, as are its 49 combined Final Four appearances. The ACC was synonymous with Tobacco Road, with Hall of Fame hoops coaches, with blue bloods and legendary talents and historic moments.
Was synonymous. Past tense.
Frankly, the last several years, the ACC hasn’t been what it once was in basketball. It hurts me, a league lifer, to admit that, but it’s true. Per KenPom.com’s conference rankings, the Big 12 has been the nation’s best top-to-bottom league in eight of the last 10 seasons — and the ACC hasn’t finished better than second over that span. In fact, you have to go all the way back to 2007 for the last time the ACC was the country’s best basketball conference, at least analytically. (Yours truly would make an argument for the 2018-19 season — when the ACC had three No. 1 seeds, the national champion, the top pick in the NBA Draft, and 10 first-rounders — but that’s a conversation for a different day.) But since that 2018-19 season, the dip has been apparent. KenPom rated the ACC as the fourth-, fifth-, fifth-, and seventh-best league over the last four seasons, respectively; last season was a true bottoming out, when the ACC ranked behind the Mountain West in both KenPom and the NET.
ACC basketball rankings
Some of that slippage, obviously, came because of coaching changes. The retirements of Roy Williams, Mike Krzyzewski, and Jim Boeheim, and … whatever you want to call the Rick Pitino situation at Louisville. That’s four dudes with over 3,800 career wins and a combined 11 national titles. But pinning all the blame there isn’t just shortsighted; it’s untrue. Even with those coaches, the four traditionally dominant programs they represented — North Carolina, Duke, Louisville and Syracuse — have had down years recently, including arguably the worst modern-era seasons ever at UNC, Duke, and U of L. When a league’s dominant teams aren’t dominant anymore, what’s left?
But the other issue — and the one that brings us back to the ACC adding Cal, Stanford, and SMU — is perhaps even graver. Because while the ACC does still have great teams, including at least one Final Four participant in three of the last four NCAA Tournaments, it also now consistently has the opposite: horrendous ones.
Those are the teams sinking the conference and its reputation … and now, three more are on the way.
Under the current NET model for NCAA Tournament selection, nonconference success has been key; it’s what, roughly, determines a league’s national standing before conference play begins. The ACC has struggled in that respect the last two seasons, locking it into a difficult and self-defeating stranglehold. Basically, it goes like this: ACC teams lose in the nonconference slate, their NET rankings plummet… and then nonconference play ends, without any further opportunities to showcase themselves at the national level. By then, the league sort of is what it is, with limited mobility in terms of NET rankings — and therefore, quality wins under the quadrant system. Any team that played Louisville last season had nothing to gain in case of a win — the Cardinals were one of the four worst high-major teams in America, per KenPom — and everything to lose. Just ask Clemson, whose mid-February loss to Louisville might have been fatal to its NCAA Tournament résumé.
It’s a smothering cycle, one the league has been unable to avoid in recent years with its firmly-established group of cellar dwellers. And guess what? The additions of Cal, Stanford, and SMU are only going to exacerbate the problem threatening the soul of the ACC.
Here, for the unaware, are the men’s basketball records of those three expansion schools over the last decade:
• SMU: 205-108, two AAC championships, one NCAA Tournament win. The Mustangs are coming off a program-worst 22-loss season.
• Stanford: 174-150, zero Pac-12 championships, two NCAA Tournament wins. The Cardinal lost 19 games last season.
• Cal: 137-187, zero Pac-12 championships, zero NCAA Tournament wins. The Bears went 3-29 last season, ranking as KenPom’s second-worst high-major team behind only Louisville.
Oh, goody. ACC basketball is saved!
The ACC getting caught up in the national “football first, second, and third” mentality is clearly going to be a detriment to the league’s forever love, men’s basketball. And for what? It’s not like the ACC is perennially contending for football national championships, at least not outside of Clemson, S.C. It’s just a bunch of middle-of-the-road, fun-but-flawed programs.
In its futile pursuit of more football relevance, the ACC is threatening the thing it was founded on. Six league teams finished outside of the KenPom top 100 last season, the most of any Power Six conference. Adding three more lackluster programs does nothing to fix that problem.
So, why is the ACC doing all this? Well, because football dollars do matter significantly — more than at any previous point in college athletics history — and also sheerly for survival. The league’s revenue gap is well known by now, but for the sake of clarity, it’s worth reiterating: ACC teams are poised to receive up to $50 million less annually from television distributions than their SEC and Big Ten peers in the coming years. That’s money for coaching salaries, recruiting budgets, facilities, travel, you name it — money that ACC schools simply won’t have. Perhaps most importantly? With those “requisite” expenses covered, SEC and Big Ten athletic departments can instead direct their donors’ generosity elsewhere.
Like, say, to lucrative NIL packages.
It’s not hard to draw a line from that financial picture to impending reality. Good luck landing (and keeping) the nation’s best players if you’re $50 million a year behind. It’s no wonder that the ACC, and specifically its top programs, are worried.
Mandel: ACC needs Stanford, Cal and SMU, and they need the ACC
So how do Cal, Stanford, and SMU fit into that equation?
Because of ESPN’s pro rata clause with the ACC, the network will pay the league full additional revenue shares for each of its three new members. But as The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach reports, SMU will defer receiving any distributions for its first seven years of membership, and Cal and Stanford are expected take shares starting at around 30 percent. That means ESPN will be paying out the equivalent of three new membership shares … but most of that money won’t actually be going to Cal, Stanford, and SMU. It’ll be left, essentially, in a communal pot — about $72 million in newfound conference revenue, sitting there for the taking.
If you divvy that up equally, it’s not chump change — about $5 million per school — but it’s also not really making a dent in a $30-plus million a year hole.
So then, what if you don’t split it up equally? Now we’re talking.
The ACC has discussed multiple revenue-sharing options, but the one it keeps coming back to is performance-based. You do well in football and men’s basketball, you earn more. You invest more in those revenue sports, you earn more.
The exact details of that split matter, but the concept in itself is one of the ACC’s few chances of staving off future defections. (It doesn’t hurt that ACC Network carriage fees would increase in California and Texas, further supplementing league revenue.) So if the Clemsons and North Carolinas of the world have the potential to seriously close that revenue gap — maybe not entirely, but significantly — then all of a sudden, what’s the rush to leave a league you’ve been practically dominating? If there’s an automatic ACC berth reserved for the College Football Playoff, wouldn’t you rather stay where you are and compete for that, instead of subjecting yourself to the gauntlet of the SEC or Big Ten? If you’re one of those top-tier brands, it’s not a bad situation, even if it isn’t quite equal to the superconferences. There’s a pathway to winning at the highest level in that hypothetical, so long as a school’s revenue sports hold up their end of the bargain.
Any deal that coerces the ACC’s biggest and best brands to stick around is, obviously, a win. But here’s the other part, the one discussed in backchannel hushes rather than out in the open: What if, when the other leagues’ TV contracts expire, there isn’t more money? Housing prices were always going up, up, up … until they weren’t. And, in case you haven’t noticed, Disney — and therefore, ESPN — isn’t exactly on stable financial footing at present. What if the superconferences’ next deals are the same as the current ones? What if they’re reduced? It’s an entirely probable situation, and one that those in power in the ACC are monitoring closely.
Because if those deals aren’t more lucrative — if the financial gap doesn’t keep growing, or if heaven’s forbid, it actually shrinks — then doesn’t the ACC’s current media rights deal suddenly look a little rosier?
But that’s speculative, and something no one can know right now.
The only certainty is that in the ACC’s last-ditch effort for long-term stability, it is openly welcoming more mediocrity to the sport the league was founded on. Basketball may not rake in the same piles of cash as football, but it’s still the league’s identity, the thing its fans care about the most. That’s true even outside Tobacco Road, where the likes of Virginia and Miami have built their own basketball followings. How many times, during the course of an ACC basketball broadcast, have you heard stories of televisions being wheeled into elementary schools so kids can watch the conference hoops tournament?
That isn’t just folklore. That is how much the ACC cares about basketball — or at least how much it cared. Past tense.
Sometimes it’s better to be the best in your lane, rather than pivoting to something you’re not. Just ask the Big East.
The ACC clearly doesn’t feel the same way. At this point, all that’s left of the league that we loved — of a basketball-centric conference,for college hoops diehards — is that now-outdated acronym.
Maybe that’s not worth saving, either.
(Top photo: Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images)