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Stanford, Cal and SMU to the ACC? We've gone through the looking glass

Eric Prisbellby:Eric Prisbell09/01/23


Imagine in late June, when spring officially turned to summer, someone had told you that within a few months two Pac-12 mainstays – Stanford and California – would lock arms with, of all schools, SMU, and essentially buy their way into, of all conferences, the ACC.

How fast would you have ended the conversation with laughter?

But that’s where we stand, with ESPN’s Pete Thamel first reporting Friday morning that ACC presidents and chancellors voted this morning to invite Stanford, Cal and SMU to grow the league to 18 teams.

In college sports, where gray-beards have long become numb to the outrageous and ridiculous, this strains the straight-face test.

But it’s official: We’ve gone through the looking glass. 

There’s a reason why you need to twist your mind into knots to find legitimate reasons why this expansion move makes sense for the ACC. That’s because it makes little sense for the league.

Yes, while the exact financial model ACC leadership has agreed upon has yet to be revealed, the league could generate between $50 and $60 million annually with the additions. Those funds will be divided up among existing league members, some of whom are likely to earn more because of success-based incentives.

And, yes, the additions could serve as protection of sorts if the ACC in time loses disgruntled big brands Florida State and Clemson. Action Network’s Brett McMurphy reported that ESPN’s rights deal with the ACC allows the network to renegotiate — and reduce the value of the deal — if the league drops below 15 members. With future departures of FSU, Clemson and North Carolina in play down the road, the ACC decided to secure power conference additions now rather than potentially have to settle for Group of 5 teams later on.

But it’s hard to make the case that establishing a West Coast outpost in a Bay Area market – one not coveted in the TV rights world – outweighs the challenges created. Olympic sports will need to travel some 3,000 miles to compete in mid-week games in the predominantly East Coast league.

“This is the latest example of how August 2023, as a whole, takes the cake for the naked hypocrisy of the leaders of college athletics saying they care about student-athletes and, instead, doing this,” Michigan regent Jordan Acker said. “I’m not opposed to expansion. I think for football this might make sense for these schools. But there is no way this makes sense for any other sport. I would really like the grown-ups in the room to stand up and say, ‘Okay, we have to fix this whole system.’ Every school here is operating in their own interest … But that doesn’t mean the whole system isn’t rotten, and it is.”

Schools ‘feel that they need that branding’

Other moves this summer made more sense.

The Big 12 achieved its best-case scenario, adding the so-called Four Corner schools: Colorado, Utah, Arizona and Arizona State. Once on life support, or close to it, two years ago, Brett Yormark’s league is now thriving, stretching from Phoenix to Morgantown, W.Va., and doubling down on innovation and basketball.

The Big FOX – err, Big Ten – relied on the robust financial muscle of media partner Fox Sports to help secure almost every major West Coast market – all but the Bay Area even though Stanford and Cal would have meshed swimmingly with the academic institutions in the Big Ten.

After watching the Big 12 pass the ACC on the outside to grab third in the race for super conference supremacy, and knowing that the SEC and Big Ten likely will only widen the financial gap to some $30 million annually in the coming years, the ACC felt it had to do something.

This qualifies as something. ACC sources confirmed that North Carolina State flipped its vote to, in the end, approve expansion. Florida State, North Carolina and Clemson held firm with ‘no’ votes.

But at least with the details we know Friday morning, it’s difficult to make the case that it dramatically alters the league’s stature. The ACC remains handcuffed to its media rights deal with ESPN until 2036. Having a linear partner until 2036 could ultimately look like a shrewd move given market uncertainty – as one longtime ACC administrator told On3 – but that’s unknowable right now.

What is knowable is this has ushered in the era of essentially buying one’s way into a power conference. Stanford and Cal are satisfied with accepting roughly 30% of a full revenue share initially. SMU, always buttressed by a cadre of deep-pocketed boosters, is content to forgo any broadcast rights revenue for up to seven years.

Mike Aresco, the AAC commissioner, has been waiting for what he called “the shoe to drop” with a potential SMU departure since before March Madness. Only back then, the Mustangs – along with San Diego State – appeared destined for an expanding Pac-12 fresh off securing a new media rights deal.

That possibility is out the door, along with embattled Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff, who briskly exited the CFP meetings in Dallas on Wednesday without offering eight reporters a substantive answer on how a 108-year-old conference disintegrated under his watch. The Pac-12 is now dead.

Leave it to Aresco, never a shrinking violet, to say the quiet part out loud. 

“I’ve talked about how destructive this whole P5 thing can be,” Aresco said. “It’s all about branding. It’s all about the P5 conferences. We heard, ‘Well, Stanford and Cal have no place to go.’ They had a place to go. It may not be the place they wanted to go ideally. But they weren’t orphans. They had a chance to go somewhere. There’s this desperation now because of P5 branding. That’s really what’s going on. … I understand the issue of money. It is based on TV deals. But guys are willing to go for virtually nothing because they feel like they have to have that – they feel that they need that branding.” 

We’ve come so far and endured so much realignment madness over the past two months that it’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day incremental machinations. It’s important to stop, zoom out 30,000 feet and assess where the chase for escalating TV rights revenue and P5 branding has now positioned college sports.

Say it aloud for emphasis: Stanford, Cal and SMU are joining the ACC.

We’ll still watch, of course. But without question, college sports has now gone through the looking glass.