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  • Andrea Adelson

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ESPN Senior Writer

    • CAC reporter.
    • ESPN.com since 2010.
    • Graduate of the University of Florida.
  • David M. Hale

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ESPNcontributor

    • CAC reporter.
    • ESPN since 2012.
    • Graduate of the University of Delaware.

Since Jim Phillips officially took the helm as ACC commissioner last month, he has spent a lot of time getting to know people in the league. He likes to ask questions about the family, he says it’s a good way to bond. He’s trying to build his confidence, become familiar with the floor and listen to feedback from coaches and administrators on where to focus.

Individuals within the CCA were open about their assessments.

In light of this pivotal moment for the conference, ESPN spoke with 16 athletics directors and football coaches from across the league in recent weeks. They both believe Phillips is the right man for the job, but they also know his impact could affect the entire sport for years to come.

In fact, the CCA has a different financial trajectory than the other Power 5 conferences, which poses a challenge for the new Commissioner. Raising more money is a necessity, but to do that the ACC must prioritize football and rewrite the league’s image. To accomplish this, Phillips’ constituents will rely on his leadership in the process, from schedule revisions to departmental alignment, from television deals to expansion and the league’s long-term relationship with Notre Dame.

If Phillips gets valuable information and feedback to pass along to the athletic directors, decisions can be made on how to solve his biggest football problems. At least until now, several sports directors say: Everything is on the table. But before he makes a decision, Phillips must evaluate himself as he works on a plan of action for CCA in the future.

Is it just the money [that holds teams back]? Phillips said in a recent phone interview with ESPN. Or are we not being recruited either? Or do we need extra help from the maintenance staff? Yes, sales play an important role, but are we planning for it? Do we have a match? Are we playing in the right places? Can we have one-off events where we play some of our games in different locations to generate interest and possibly additional income?

There is no shortage of answers, but here are some concerns that have emerged after conversations with conferees.

Conformity to performance limits 5

Dabo Swinney made Clemson a strong defending champion, while the rest of the ACC fell way behind. Kevin K. Cox/Getty Images

On the football field, the competition was Clemson and all the others. The Tigers have won the conference six consecutive seasons, while numbers Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech have fallen far behind. The ACC also distributed just over half of the revenue from what the SEC sent to its member schools for the 2018-19 season, and that gap will grow unless the ACC can somehow convince Notre Dame to join as a full member.

The SEC and Big Ten remain the dominant financial powers in college football. Through television deals, merchandising, league championships and bowl revenue, the two conferences sent approximately $45 million and $54 million to participating schools in 2018-19 (the most recent year for which data is publicly available), respectively. At the same time, CCA has paid out at least $27 million per school this year.

The Big 12 distributed an average of $37 million to its 10 schools, down slightly from the previous year. The future of the television contract, including the Longhorn Network, is a clear turning point on the horizon, causing some athletics directors to reconsider the possibility of another round of conference realignment that nearly brought down the Big 12 a decade ago.

Total Pac-12 revenue increased slightly in 2018-19, with about $3 million more per team than the ACC, although the team failed to reach the College Football Playoff for four consecutive seasons and commissioner Larry Scott resigned in June. Although the league had its own concerns about revenue and problems with the TV network, one Pac-12 executive suggested there were clear opportunities for growth while the ACC went nuts. A number of ACC coaches and athletics directors who spoke to ESPN about this story agree with that assessment.

If we can’t get a TV deal comparable to the SEC and Big Ten, then it’s not a level playing field in the Power 5, said an ACC coach who wishes to remain anonymous. In my opinion, there will be no more Power 5.

2 Connected

Syracuse football coach Dino Babers compared the situation to a track game.

You’re going to run a 4×100 draft and you’re the first, he said. They come out of the blocks with their heads down and shaking their arms. You approach slowly and see that someone is already in the turn, which means your A-S-S is really far behind. That’s what I think about following the SEC and the Big Ten when it comes to money.

No time to wait, Babers said. It takes an absolute sprint to even get close to the fastest runner, and any talk of adding ACC members to the mix puts the league even further behind.

Meanwhile, Babers said the SEC and the Big Ten have their own goals: Never let the [CAC] get you down.

The league can’t afford to be passive when it sees its closest geographic rival improve again.

The SEC just approved a new 10-year deal with ESPN that will further increase revenue starting in 2024. Although the terms of the deal have not been made public, many media outlets have reported that the deal is valued at around $3 billion. The Big Ten’s current contract runs through the 2022-23 season and will likely receive a new, more lucrative television contract well before the current ACC contract expires (2036).

The ACC has a TV subscription window this spring as part of its contract with ESPN, and while discussions between the league and the network aren’t expected to drastically change the current deal, Phillips thinks those discussions are valuable. Many athletics directors have spoken out about the upcoming showcase and feel that everything should be put on the table to improve the football product and make the league more attractive to television partners.

TheConference is not immune to the financial problems caused by thepandemic.

Notre Dame spent last season in the ACC, and some in the ACC are still upset that the league did not use its influence to admit the Irish as a permanent member. AP Photo/Brian Blanco

In the aftermath of the COWID-19 pandemic, schools in all conferences are facing serious financial problems and must either cancel sports, lay off or downsize athletics staff, or borrow against future revenues to make ends meet.

At Virginia Tech, AD Whit Babcock said the athletics department generated about $47 million less in revenue than expected for fiscal year 2021, due to significant losses in ticket sales and the cancellation of events such as NCAA basketball tournaments. Because Babcock was able to cut costs, he expects the final figures to show that the Hokies lost about $15 million. While some schools have been forced to borrow against future revenue, postpone planned projects, or drastically cut staff, Virginia Tech’s deficit could be relatively minor.

We have 15 teams coming into the pits, and we’re all exhausted, said Babcock, who used a racing analogy to explain the league’s financial situation in the context of the COWID-19 pandemic. Some have $20 million in damages, others $40 million, but we’re all underwater. The next race will depend on how we get out of the pits.

Another ACC athletics director said the same thing about the cost. Sure, the SEC gets more money, he said, but many SEC schools spend that money before the checks come in. He said a smarter approach to spending – investing in assets with a financial return rather than boring new facilities, avoiding massive buyouts after unsuccessful coaching hires – could help close some of the gap between the ACC and the SEC.

For a long time, everyone thought our league was more jumpy than sharp. … Has our league ever really thought about the future of football?

ACC Football Coaches

All of these small changes can have a cumulative effect, but they also draw attention to an obvious problem with the league: The ACC just doesn’t have the football success to attract TV affiliates or continually fill large stadiums. Clemson was circling the rest of the league, and just as the ACC Network was getting going, top teams Florida State, Virginia Tech and Louisville finished the season at 12-19.

And with Duke and North Carolina, two big names in men’s basketball, in close proximity to the ACC’s base in North Carolina, some coaches and administrators have long suggested that the league’s priorities should shift away from football, which provides the bulk of its revenue.

For a long time, everyone thought our league was moving toward the bounce ball instead of the point ball, one coach said, but college basketball is not what it was 10 years ago. Are we suffering? Has our league ever really thought about the future of football?

Phillips does not see the decision as a zero-sum solution, but believes the ACC should prioritize its largest revenue source at any school, football.

We can have it all, Phillips told ESPN. We’ve had our moments in the ACC, but we all want to see more sustained excellence, because both sports are important to the commitment we have as a league.

Almost every athletics director and coach we spoke with said the huge revenue holes are causing serious problems for their schools, affecting their ability to retain assistant coaches, hire support staff and satisfy fans and sponsors, while the SEC and Big Ten have much deeper pockets.

I have no illusions that we’re going to close the gap and overtake the SEC or the Big Ten, another ACC AD told ESPN. I am optimistic that the gap can be maintained at the level of increase that the SEC just got, and that the Big Ten will get in the next round. If we can prevent the gap from widening and reduce it in other ways, I think that will be a success.

But there is not yet a consensus among the league’s athletics directors on the right strategy.

I don’t know if you’re trying to make a point: It’s a golden egg that’s going to change everything, Miami athletics director Blake James said. But I think as a league we have to be willing to look at everything, to work with our television partner and figure out how best to position the ACC for the future.

All about the table.

Could Texas and Oklahoma be ACC targets? Brian Terry Network/USA TODAY

To really make things happen, many in the conference believe that the ACC needs to think big, which inevitably shifts the conversation from where it was nearly a decade ago with conference realignment.

And several changes, inspired by the 2020 COVID-19, offered a glimpse of possible options.

First, the ACC drafted Notre Dame for one season as part of the COWID-19 waiver. As a league member in every sport except football, the Irish needed the ACC to play a full football schedule during a 2020 pandemic, and some in the ACC are still upset that the league did not use its influence to include Notre Dame as a full-time member.

Last year we had the perfect ultimatum, one coach said. We had them. They had nowhere to go. What would they do? Why would we do that? Because we know that this is our lifeboat from where we are now. And honestly, isn’t that Notre Dame’s lifeboat? Will they be able to survive when the Big Ten and the SEC start groping everyone? Instead, we let them run out the front door, grab all our stuff, and run out the back door.

As a non-football member of the ACC, Notre Dame’s payments from the league as well as the 2018-19 deal with NBC TV totaled about $22 million, less than the full package for ACC programming, so the Irish certainly increased their TV revenue as a full member in 2020. But Notre Dame remains staunchly pro-independence, which means there has been little real movement behind the scenes. Notre Dame’s television contract with NBC for 2025 has already expired, and talk of a possible expansion of the playoffs that could reward conference champions means the incentive structure could change.

The ACC also played more championship games – 10 games were scheduled for each team, compared to the usual eight – and dropped the divisional format. The result was an extensive roster of quality games and two teams that made the playoffs, Clemson and Notre Dame, a one-year visitor. Discussions about expanding league rosters or splitting divisions are nothing new, but 2020 is a litmus test. Maybe that’s why ACC athletics directors are already talking about rethinking the divisions (leave them alone? reconfigure them?) and the schedule to improve their product for the first time in years.

There is a longer game, but what can we focus on now? Phillips said. With 14 football schools and Notre Dame playing five times, what does the ACC look like? Where are our opportunities to increase that revenue, including distribution and reaching families we don’t have, in a format that allows people to see us? I don’t think there are any good or right answers at this point, but I am cautiously optimistic about where this research can go.

In addition, programs like Georgia Tech and FSU, which compete with the SEC every year, are reluctant to add another conference game to their schedule, which could cost them an easy win, make bowl eligibility more difficult, and deprive them of the revenue from an additional home game. Many administrative directors and coaches doubt there are enough votes to change the situation now; even if the ACC were to drop the dividers, it would still have to ask the NCAA for permission.

Running away from what we have now makes no sense, said Clemson athletics director Dan Radakovich, who remains a proponent of the league’s eight-game schedule because of its annual rivalry with South Carolina. If it makes sense for us to switch to a different format, it should be discussed with that value in mind. We’ll pay you X-plus if you do anything else. Okay, let’s evaluate the X-plus and something else.

What was good for Clemson wasn’t necessarily good for the rest of the ACC, and some coaches and administrative directors complained about the elephant in the room – or at least in the Atlantic Division – and assumed a shakeup was in order.

These are the kinds of conversations we can have as we try to evolve and make sense of the best of what we’ve learned in the past year: It’s a good way to massage that to do well in the future, another ACC athletics director said.

Several athletic directors have mentioned the Texas Longhorns, as well as Big 12 rival Oklahoma, as another possible option to close the gap between the SEC and the Big Ten.

Right now the conversation is mostly theoretical, but as the smallest and most geographically homogeneous league, the Big 12 was a prime target during the last wave of conference realignments a decade ago and is now looking at its own uncertain future with a new TV contract on the horizon and the precarious status of the Longhorn Network. This would make the two biggest brands in the Big 12, the Longhorns and Sooners, a perfect fit in the ACC or Pac-12 and immediately make the broader conference a bigger player in the TV debate.

But Texas lost control of its own league, as well as a seemingly endless stream of revenue, and the old Pac-12 dances were ultimately useless. Could that change in the future, if the dominoes of TV money and expansion of the playoffs fall into place? This was a common theme among the CCA DAs who suggested that Phillips at least do the due diligence.

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