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Poachers, beware: ACC enjoying unprecedented stability

Commissioner John Swofford, left, is flanked by ACC coaches as he announces an ACC/ESPN Network during a news conference at the Atlantic Coast Conference Football Kickoff in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, July 21, 2016. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton) NCCB102
Commissioner John Swofford, left, is flanked by ACC coaches as he announces an ACC/ESPN Network during a news conference at the Atlantic Coast Conference Football Kickoff in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, July 21, 2016. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton) NCCB102
Published Jul. 22, 2016

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The official reason the ACC opened its Football Kickoff on Thursday with a celebration was the formal announcement of its ESPN-backed TV network, which will bring more exposure and income when it launches in 2019.

The bigger reason applause broke out at the Westin Charlotte was the other deal that came with the TV contract: the 20-year grant of rights agreement that all but secures the league's long-term stability in a college sports landscape that remains unsteady.

"We're where we should be," conference commissioner John Swofford said. "It feels good to be there."

Especially considering where the league was not too long ago, and where the Big 12 is today.

It was only four years ago that the ACC was lagging behind the other major conferences financially, causing founding-member Maryland to bolt for the Big Ten. The chair of Florida State's board of trustees openly suggested that the school should look into the Big 12. Rumors bubbled that Clemson might, too.

"I never really was terribly concerned that any of that was going to happen," Swofford said. "But just knowing that it could brought you — brought me — some sense of uneasiness."

Swofford no longer has to worry, and neither does FSU nor Miami.

The new TV network and its online component accompanied a grant-of-rights agreement between the league's 15 schools that expires with the ESPN contract in 2036. Any program that leaves the conference — including partial member Notre Dame — will give up the millions of dollars it receives from TV contracts. The deal makes it nearly impossible for the ACC to be poached by the SEC, Big 12 or Big Ten.

"I think what this does is totally take the ACC out of any kind of conversation of that nature," Swofford said.

Instead, Swofford and the rest of the league's power brokers can talk about their conference's rapid growth beyond men's basketball.

The Seminoles are only three years removed from winning the national championship and the Heisman Trophy. Clemson is coming off of an appearance in the title game and returns preseason Heisman favorite Deshaun Watson. Only the SEC has had more NFL draft picks (154) over the past three years than the ACC (115).

Even the offseason coaching carousel upgraded the league. Miami hired one of the most respected coaches in the game (Mark Richt), while Virginia Tech and Syracuse landed two of the hottest young coaches on the market (Justin Fuente and Dino Babers).

"The league got a lot tougher," Richt said.

The upcoming TV deal should keep that trend going.

Swofford wouldn't reveal the expected financial gain but said it should put the ACC's revenue in the "upper echelon of the Power 5 conferences." ESPN plans to launch the network nationally and broadcast 40 live football games a year, broadening the conference's reach and boosting its recruiting. There's a reason the network has been a constant question within the league for as long as FSU athletic director Stan Wilcox can remember.

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"That's over now," Wilcox said.

And so, too, is any concern over the ACC's future.

The only questions that remain are whether the league will add a ninth conference football game, or whether Notre Dame will grow from a partial to a full-time member. Both are relatively minor compared to the other big college sports story this week.

A day after news leaked about the ACC Network, the Big 12 decided it was lagging behind and needed to expand. Four years ago, that conference might have targeted FSU, Clemson or Louisville. With ACC programs now off the table, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby will have to consider a sea of imperfect candidates, including USF and UCF.

"Having been through all that several times myself," Swofford said, "I'm sure Bob Bowlsby will be glad when it's resolved one way or another."

And it won't be resolved at the ACC's expense. That's reason enough for Swofford to celebrate.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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