And welcome to Amelia Island, just south of the Georgia line and home to some of the prettiest coastlines anywhere. The ACC’s annual spring meetings begin Monday afternoon at the oceanfront Ritz-Carlton (good rooms available this evening for $1,300 per night, at last check) and there’s no shortage of important matters on the agenda (not including, perhaps, whether Hubert Davis has packed swim trunks that’ll compete with these).
This continues, in a lot of ways, to be a time of transition for the ACC, both in terms of personnel and its place in the changing college athletics landscape, which is a phrase that has become code for: things are more or less bonkers these days and no one really knows where any of this stuff is headed. Jim Phillips has now been the ACC’s commissioner for more than a year, and these will be the first full-on, pandemic-restriction-less spring meetings of his tenure. New coaches and athletic directors bound. And the challenges facing the league, and college sports, feel especially urgent.
All of which is to say these particular spring meetings feel weightier than spring meetings of the past. With that in mind, some things to pay attention to over the next few days here:
1. NIL, NIL, NIL
For years and years the NCAA fought the inevitability that college athletes would win the right, one way or another, to profit off of their name, image and likeness. Instead of facing this issue head-on and preparing for a new reality, a defeated and beleaguered NCAA last summer more or less opened the floodgates, threw up its collective hands and said: “OK. You win. College athletes can now profit off of their NIL.”
Who could’ve predicted — except absolutely everyone — we would’ve so quickly returned into what’s essentially become a pay-for-play model. Sure, there is the impossible-to-enforce, half-hearted legislation, both at the state level and nationally via the NCAA, that says, in effect, NIL cannot be used as a recruiting inducement; that schools and their boosters can’t use prospective NIL deals to woo recruits. That’d be a no-no, according to the rules.
Of course, it’s happening, and happening all over. Many a school these days have formed so-called NIL collectives, through which those schools are making sure their athletes, especially in football and men’s basketball, are being taken care of. Which is smart. It’d be a competitive disadvantage in this environment not to have an NIL collective.
But the question now has become how to control any of this. Sports Illustrated last week reported that the NCAA intends to put a stop to boosters who’re using NIL as a cover to pay athletes a lot of money to play for a particular school. Meanwhile, a prominent agent representing dozens of college athletes told The Athletic in a story published earlier on Monday: “I think it’s adorable that the NCAA is acting as if they’re going to crack down on anything.”
You have to tend to believe the agent(s) here. The NCAA — which, remember, is nothing but a collection of the schools it represents — had a long time to come up with a workable framework for all of this. It didn’t. And this is the result, with schools and coaches and others who are losing power bemoaning a perceived problem that none of them wanted to confront in the first place.
You can bet NIL and all it has wrought — inducements, transfer portal tampering and all the rest — will be discussed a lot at the ACC’s spring meetings. There will undoubtedly be talk of working group this and proposed legislation that, but the toothpaste appears well out of the tube. Amid all the talk, what can actually be done? Perhaps these meetings here will provide an indication. Or, perhaps more likely, they provide a snapshot of the helplessness many feel amid something those in power failed to get in front of years ago.
2. The future of football divisions
Football divisions were all the rage back when the ACC expanded to 12 schools in 2005. And you can see why the league organized the Atlantic and Coastal divisions the way it did. The thinking, at the time: Just put Florida State and Miami on opposite sides and sit back and relax while the Seminoles and Hurricanes play each other every year for the conference championship, leading to an influx of television dollars surrounding the elevation of one of the sport’s great rivalries.
Except, well… that never happened. Here we are, almost two decades into the ACC football divisions, and Florida State and Miami have never eleven played each other for the conference championship. Pittsburgh and Wake Forest met in the title game last December, but Florida State and Miami? It’s never happened.
(And the Seminoles’ and Hurricanes’ inability to sustain football success is a big reason why the ACC faces some of the problems it does, but that’s another story.)
In recent years, for a variety of reasons, the thought of scrapping football divisions has gained momentum. For one thing, a division-less ACC would, overall, allow schools to play far more often than they do now. It’d more effectively (but not entirely) solve the problem of competitive imbalance between divisions. And it’d allow the two best teams, regardless of whatever division they happen to be in now, to play for the league championship.
This is a topic that’s been around for a while, but one that hasn’t gotten too far off the ground. Will it be different now, especially given Phillips has expressed his support for a division-less ACC?
3. Addressing the ACC’s widening revenue gap
First the good news for the ACC: It continues to make more and more (and more) money. Its revenue during the 2019-20 fiscal year was almost $500 million, and its per-school distribution was a little north of $30 million for each of the league’s 14 full members. The league’s overall revenue was a record. The money each school made from the conference was a record.
The problem is that the Big Ten and SEC are making even more money — and the financial gap between the ACC and the Big Ten/SEC is only going to grow wider. And wider. The Big Ten made about $770 million during the 2019-20 fiscal year, and the SEC made about $730 million. Both leagues’ main TV deals expire in 2023, which means they’re about to cash in on an even more obscene level than where they’ve already been.
The ACC’s television rights contract with ESPN, meanwhile, runs through the mid-2030s. It’s possible, and even likely, that the SEC and Big Ten will generate double the revenue of the ACC at some point in the coming years. Both the SEC and Big Ten can afford more of everything these days, anyway, when it comes to coaching salaries and facilities — and what happens when the revenue gap continues to widen and widen?
Certainly, it’s not as if the ACC is going broke. One needs to only look around at the salaries and facilities within the conference to understand that. The league is becoming wealthier and wealthier, itself. But that this is even a discussion point reflects a reality of college athletics these days: Getting rich and more rich and even richer than that is never enough. There must be more and more money made. The cycle is endless.
The ACC’s problem is two-fold: Its TV deal stretches on for 10 more years, an eternity as far as these things go. And there’s no readily-available way for it to close that gap. If Notre Dame were to join as a full-fledged member in football, that would undoubtedly help. But it doesn’t seem all too likely, especially given the apparent inevitability that the College Football Playoff will eventually expand. And so now what? Is the ACC doomed to become a second-tier conference while the Big Ten and SEC ascend to Power Two status?
4. The future of ACC headquarters
As our Luke DeCock and Steve Wiseman reported last month, the ACC has narrowed its choices for its league headquarters to Charlotte (#asexpected) and … Orlando? Yes, Orlando. And no, really, there does indeed seem to be real momentum behind the possibility of moving the ACC offices out of Greensboro, where they’ve been since the league’s inception in 1953, and putting them in Central Florida.
Does it matter, ultimately, where the ACC’s headquarters are? Perhaps not, as it relates to on-the-field (or court) competition. But moving out of North Carolina would certainly be seen as symbolic, and you can bet there’d be a sense of abandonment if the conference relocates to Florida. Staying in Greensboro remains in the mix, too, but at this point it’d be something of a surprise if the conference remained there.
You don’t spend however much the ACC is spending in consulting fees to not make a move. Or, maybe you do — this is college athletics, after all.
The question of where the ACC’s offices wind up will not be decided by the end of the league’s spring meetings here this week, given that the presidents of the conference’s schools aren’t here, and that it’s presidents and chancellors (and not coaches or athletic directors or anyone else) who will ultimately decide the location of the league office. Nonetheless, it’s likely to be a discussion point, and by the end of the week we could have a better idea of where things stand and why it matters.
This story was originally published May 9, 2022 1:14 PM.