"you know, you got these claws and you're staring at these claws and your thinking to yourself, "How am I supposed to kill this bunny, how am I supposed to kill this bunny?" -line from the movie Swingers
Almost everybody is aware that the ACC has the 5th most lucrative TV contract among AQ conferences but, I'd like to put forth some things you may not know.
How many people know that, according to Nielson, the ACC is third in viewership per game behind the SEC and Big 10 in football? In basketball, the ACC is 2nd behind the Big 10.
How many people know that Greenville, SC was ranked as the #4 TV market for college football in the country by ESPN last year?
How many people know that of the top 50 recruits according to Rivals since 2002, the ACC has landed the 2nd most top 50 recruits? Specifically, the numbers look like this: SEC 132, ACC 84, Pac 12 73, Big 12 54, Big 10 44, Big East 5.
How many people know that, counting Pitt, Syracuse, and Louisville, the ACC currently has 11 schools ranked in the top 50 in winning percentage from 1990-2011. Three schools are ranked in the top 10: FSU (5), Miami (6), and Virginia Tech (8). The SEC has 8 in the top 50 and 2 in the top 10, Florida (2) and Tennessee (10). The Big 12 has 5 in the top 50 and 1 in the top 10, Texas (7).
How many people know that since 1980, the current ACC schools have won 9 National Championships? The SEC has won 11 and The Big 12 has won 3.
The point of all this is certainly not to present an argument that the ACC is an excellent football conference. No, the ACC is a steaming pile of wet garbage by current comparison to the SEC right now.
The point here is that the ACC football schools have a higher ceiling and higher TV viewership than they are given credit for financially.
The SEC will probably always be the better conference under today's NCAA structure. But, much like the current version of the Republican party, it's time for the ACC to step into 2012 and proactively address its level of competitiveness. How, though?
First, and most obviously, leadership.
I'd like to put forth some of the things I think the ACC did wrong in TV contract negotiations. We already know that John Swofford parlayed the 3rd most watched conference in to the 5th most lucrative TV contract. I believe that the ACC's inability to field an elite level football team over the better part of the last decade was a factor here, but I also see two important differences in leverage and negotiation that Swofford elected not to use.
First, Swofford pulled an ACC Network off the table before negotiations began. The reason that this creates so much leverage with ESPN is because having your own network puts the infrastructure in place to reclaim first and second tier rights at some point and keep the majority of the revenue within the conference (ie. cut out ESPN).
The ACC is the ONLY major conference that went into negotiations with ESPN without a conference or team network on the table.
Secondly, the ACC was also the ONLY conference to not involve another MAJOR network ( ie. CBS, FOX, NBC) in negotiations for 2nd tier rights. ESPN was more or less bidding against themselves for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd tier rights. Genius.
Swofford cites "increased exposure" as the major advantage of the deal. However, despite what Swofford said publicly, I believe he thought this deal was more about survival. Swofford willingly gave up all of the ACC's TV rights to the Worldwide Leader in order to assure that ESPN would be forced to protect its investment in the ACC. Simply, he wants the biggest money player in college football to ensure that the ACC is a relevant entity in playoff, bowl, and marketing opportunities.
The problem is that ESPN is the major provider of incentive for other conferences to poach ACC teams by allowing the conferences to renegotiate their deals. Nothing has changed. The proof of that is in the Maryland defection.
The future is not lost though. Just right now.
The ACC has renegotiated its TV deal at least three times by my count since 2003 and has gone from $2.2M per school to $13+M in 2012. That's a staggering 590% increase in TV revenue in less than a decade during a devaluation of the on-the-field product. And yes, we're the conference that got the short end of the stick on those increases.
I wouldn't expect a $590% increase over the next decade but, I would expect the situation to be fluid and for conference TV contracts to remain in a constant state of flux for awhile. The endgame here is many years away but I believe it involves that select group of 64 football powers and "NFL model" revenue sharing.
For now, it's a money grab. No conference will add a team that doesn't benefit them monetarily. Of course, since FSU and Clemson are underpaid and would benefit almost every conference monetarily, we are prime candidates to be movers.
Proactively moving to the Big 12 seems logical financially. We are cringing at the thought of 4 straight losses to South Carolina and what a prolonged financial disadvantage may do to our all our athletic programs. This hole doesn't need to get any deeper.
However, there are some consequences to a Big 12 move. Sure, the $50M buyout is certainly one, but has anybody thought about the aftermath?
The rest of the ACC's football bell cows would then have no choice but to align with other conferences to maintain football relevance.
For example, let's speculate VT and NC St. join the SEC. The 2nd largest college football TV market, GT, gets scooped up by (well, somebody, but let's say) The Big 10. Where does UNC end up? Miami? Do the Big East and ACC merge and form a Super-Super-Conference of 20+ teams out of necessity? What if the SEC adds Oklahoma and either Texas or Kansas St. a year after we join?
These conferences would then simply renegotiate their TV deals and any initial financial gains would be nullified by the expansion of every other conference. Not to mention that we just allowed the Big 12 and Big 10 to gain a television and recruiting foothold with the lifeblood of our potential...the southeastern athlete.
So, in the Big 12, we could make $7M more a year and still end up pretty far behind South Carolina in money. We let the Big 10 into the south. We have to recruit harder against the SEC in NC and VA, and, we align with teams that are not as good historically as the teams we are already aligned with now.
Whether or not moving to the Big 12 would immediately weaken our recruiting in the southeast as Dabo has said, is debatable. However, the simplicity that "moving to the Big 12 will fix all our problems" does not exist.
The flipside, though, is that some of the "aftermath" listed above is going to happen anyway unless we do something now to protect our interests.
We need to align with the 5 Bell Cows in Football in the ACC and effectively run the ACC.
"The Atlantic 5"
Clemson – 3rd winningest program in the nation from 1977-1991 that has recently recommitted to winning football. National Champions 1981.
Florida State – Winningest team in college football from 1987-2001. National Champions 1993, 1999.
Miami – Winningest team in college football from 1983-2002. National Champions 1983, 1987, 1989, 1991, 2001
Virginia Tech – 8th winningest team over the past decade.
Georgia Tech – 27th winningest team of all time located in the 2nd largest college football TV market in the country. National Champions 1990.
Much like the four North Carolina schools have been united in order to use their influence since the conference’s inception, this conference now depends on football-based leadership. No collection of schools has ever had more power and more of a calling to lead than these 5 schools do right now. In fact, it is borderline insane that this hasn’t happened yet. You see, the power has already shifted. We just haven't been using it.
The "Aligned 5" or "Atlantic 5" whether they know it or not, hold the entire conference’s future relevance, and Swofford’s job, in the palm of their hand. Maryland has defected and Swofford’s plan to have ESPN "protect the ACC" has failed. Notre Dame is not fully joining the conference unless it benefits them monetarily.
I don’t believe Clemson and FSU have enough clout to do this by themselves. The group must be large enough to break the traditional control from the North Carolina schools entirely. With these 5 schools, everybody else must fall in line.
Thanks to Maryland’s defection, the first thing the "Atlantic 5" should do is insist we start our own network and contact ESPN and see if they would renegotiate to a more lucrative TV deal. Or, instead, would ESPN rather the "Atlantic 5" collectively defect from the ACC, add football programs like Louisville, Pitt, Syracuse, Boise St., and South Florida, and sign with a competing network like NBC or Fox?
Again, this suggestion is for leverage in negotiations. It doesn’t matter what the North Carolina schools think. The weakest conference is going to die and the strong football programs are going to leverage themselves into other conferences. The only question is do we want to have it go down on our terms or do we want to endure an increasing financial disadvantage for a few years to get thrown into a similar situation in a conference based outside the southeast?
More things the "Atlantic 5" could do immediately to generate leverage:
1. The "Atlantic 5" could suggest they leave the conference if demands are not met which would end the ACC as an AQ in football. It would never come to this because the majority of the other schools would either have to follow suit and go with us or join the Big East. If we decided to join the Big 12, joining the Big 12 with 4 to 6 united football bell cows better protects our interests than just 1.
2. The "Atlantic 5" could vote for no-confidence in John Swofford based on the failed plan to prevent defection and failure in conference TV deal negotiations.
3. The "Atlantic 5" could gather information surrounding a super conference with the best Big 12 members. Somebody should inquire with TV networks to find out if a conference of the best 8 teams in the ACC combined with the best 8 of the Big 12 would command a "higher than SEC level" TV deal.
4. The "Atlantic 5" could also contact Penn St., Nebraska, and Notre Dame and ask about their availability. They just took Maryland, cordiality is out the window.
5. The Atlantic 5 could implement budgetary spending standards of competitiveness that must be met.
I'm sure there are other things that can be done if the conference was run correctly as well.
I do realize that this may seem "outside the box" to some because nobody has made a move like this. Well, that is, except for North Carolina, Duke, Wake, N.C. State (and Texas, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma St.) of course.
The point here is that only a proactive, aggressive move like those above will assure that Clemson will be able to control which schools/programs we associate with in the future and also control our short term financial competitiveness.
I believe that the reason this hasn’t been done is because the administrative types at institutions are for cordiality and respect ("Oh, let’s talk, football. Pass the pinot, James"). They are above this and don’t want to be perceived as money grubbing football mongers. It’s too late. The money is too big now (see 590% increase) for this to stop. The only escape from conducting intelligent football business is irrelevance (which I'm fine with if they are honest about it and lower ticket prices and IPTAY dues accordingly).
In light of "expansiongeddon" (36+ FBS teams have changed conferences in the past three years), a lot of this could be brought up in a cordial fashion that could be agreed upon with minor opposition.
And really, how difficult is the "Aligned 5" move to make? It’s so easy, I hope it’s happening right now.