A Realignment-Related Decision You Won’t Hate: Bravo, ACCPosted by Chris Johnson on April 23rd, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
There are scores of issues in the present configuration of college sports. The NCAA is probably the largest, and the most heavily-critiqued; the entire enterprise is littered with various points of contention. It almost feels like a breaking point – the moment when schools decide they just can’t proscribe themselves to the current rules and regulations, that an entirely new system must be constructed to preserve their continued participation – is being reached. The ongoing Ed O’Bannon lawsuit could bring the very severance and utter dissolution many schools have feared and/or resigned themselves to for years. Others will welcome the potential revolutionary financial shift the O’Bannon suit purports to engender. Successful or not, something is going to happen. It’s ominous and inevitable and suspenseful, akin to the slow and sleep-inducing introductory clutter of a Russian novel, or the first two rounds of the NBA playoffs. An apex is coming, you’re just not sure exactly sure when.
A similar logic is just as easily transferred to another flashpoint in college athletics: conference realignment. I know, I know: You cringe at the very mention of the two-word phrase. It has, over the past however so many years, terminated traditional rivalries and ripped proud leagues to shreds and completely redefined the substantive meaning of league membership. Cultural and academic harmony, let alone geographic proximity, are so very blasé. If you’re not chasing football money or a bigger “footprint” or a more lucrative broadcast rights deal, you’re a real-live college athletics conference anachronism. Get with the times, man. None of this stuff is fun to talk about, and at this point you’re probably considering clicking away in fear of whatever new conference switch may have taken place.
Good news: there are no new realignment moves to report. As a matter of fact, the news is unambiguously realignment-related, and it’s unambiguously positive! You heard it here – realignment got its long-awaited comeuppance Monday upon hearing the ACC – the presumed next domino in the realignment puzzle, with all signs pointing to the Big Ten snatching Virginia, Georgia Tech or North Carolina to become the first 16-team league and officially usher in the era of super-conferences, plus an added boost to its already awe-inducing Big Ten network cable revenue – had inked a grant of media rights deal through 2026-27, spanning the length of its current media rights deal with ESPN and forcing all schools to surrender cable revenues to ACC coffers over the next 14 years. Pooling money with conference HQ in the name of league solidarity sounds nice and egalitarian, and any conference-wide cooperation in today’s skepticism-warped age bears mentioning, but the crux of this deal promises something far more powerful: It makes switching conferences financially impractical.
Beyond the league’s roughly $50 million exit fee, the same traffic rules apply: The ACC isn’t saying Georgia Tech can’t bolt for the Big Ten, for example, just that doing so would deplete its athletic department of the same TV money propelling pretty much every one of today’s realignment decisions. Leave at your own financial peril is the clear and foreboding message. This brings stability to the ACC, without question, but it also hinders the potential for another multi-league realignment poaching fest, wherein an ACC team’s departure would trigger other reactionary realignment shifts from smaller leagues down the conference food chain.
Realignment moves come in waves, not singular isolated incidents. If the ACC was going to allow one of its teams to join the Big Ten (and according to various reports the Big Ten had inquired, even formally extended the terms of entry, to at least one other program), there would have been massive repercussions not just for the two leagues involved in the exchange, but for the American Athletic Conference and Conference USA (I don’t see a difference between the two) and whoever else just so happened to get antsy amidst all the moving parts and impulsively join the festivities. That’s how simple, and how precarious, these realignment moves truly are. They simmer under the surface, detectable only to a select few industry insiders, before sprouting out of the ground and blitzkrieging every bit of lingering normalcy or temporary stability. The ACC moved in unison to prevent that disconcerting but reality-based sequence of events from ever happening on its watch again.
Conference realignment is dead! Or dying, or on the decline, or evening out to an ephemeral pause. The lowering levels of certainty should serve notice: A major realignment move is less likely today than yesterday. It is not, with my sincerest apologies willingly adduced, dead – no, I’m not anywhere near ready to conclude the inconclusive.