Thanks to the power of giant television contracts, football remains the driving force behind conference realignment in college athletics.
As the SEC and Big Ten look to expand their horizons — with each new move churning the rumor mill of a Tar Heel-ACC split — UNC could financially benefit from moving to a more lucrative conference. However, a potential move wouldn't come without drawbacks.
North Carolina hasn't changed conferences since 1953, when the school left the Southern Conference to join the newly-formed ACC. At the time, UNC didn't offer any varsity sports for women and only had 12 varsity sports in total.
Now, with UNC boasting 28 varsity sports, questions arise about how the school can properly fund its football program to keep it competitive while still having room to finance other sports.
According to UNC’s last financial report from 2020-2021, football made $44.4 million in revenue, while the men's basketball program generated only $13.4 million.
In the fiscal year ending in June 2020, the Big Ten and SEC both reported numbers north of $700 million. In the same time frame, the ACC generated around $500 million of revenue.
“It’s happening within the NCAA — this dynamic mostly around the collectivization of the elite broadcast rights,” USA Field Hockey Executive Director Simon Hoskins said. “You obviously want to be in the best-funded, best-resourced conference.”
One example can be seen in the case of future Big Ten member UCLA. Due to COVID-19, the program's declining football attendance and a lack of income from other sports, UCLA would likely have had to cut varsity teams if it did not switch conferences.
If UNC doesn’t make a move of its own, its varsity teams could potentially be in a similar situation. But despite the lucrative potential of a move to the SEC or Big Ten, a change in conferences would heavily impact Olympic sports.
"Financially there's a gap and we're doing everything we can to close that gap," UNC Director of Athletics Bubba Cunningham said in an interview with the UNC-produced Carolina Insider podcast. "The execution of incorporating some of those new schools into new leagues, I think will be a challenge for [the Big Ten and SEC]."
One of the reasons the SEC and the Big Ten are enticing for UNC is their new television contracts with ESPN. Each SEC school is expected to receive about $68 million, while ESPN will only pay ACC schools $17 million. In the Big Ten's new deal, schools could see returns north of $70 million after UCLA and USC complete their moves to the conference.
Some — but not all —Tar Heel athletes could also see their earnings rise with a move.
According to college sports website On3, which uses football and men's basketball players in its metrics, the SEC has the nation's largest average name, image and likeness valuation per athlete at $52,806.54. The Big Ten sits at third with $32,717.16. The ACC currently ranks last among Power 5 conferences at $28,448.83 per athlete — about seven thousand dollars less than the national average.
While the Big Ten does have most of UNC's Olympic sports, the SEC doesn’t sponsor sports in which UNC has a deep history, such as men’s and women’s lacrosse, field hockey and men’s soccer.
“I think it’d be challenging in terms of moving conferences, which I hope UNC’s smart enough in the sense that they don’t do that,” former UNC women’s lacrosse goalkeeper Taylor Moreno said. “I do think that (moving conferences) would benefit football and basketball, but it would certainly take a toll on a good handful of Olympic sports, more specifically the female side.”
Playing in the ACC also offers the chance to play in long-lasting rivalries against other North Carolina schools that might not be as enticing to other conferences, like Duke, N.C. State and Wake Forest.
Former UNC field hockey assistant coach Robbert Schenk said UNC leaving the ACC would take away the history of those rivalries.
"Who’s not excited to see a UNC-Duke game in any sport? It would be devastating," Schenk said. "I know you would have some scrimmages here and there, but if you take away the rivalry for money, it’s hard.”
Additionally, the travel to away games would significantly increase. While the majority of ACC teams are located along the East Coast, the expanded conferences have programs as far west as Norman, Okla. and Los Angeles.
Former UNC women's lacrosse defender Caroline Wakefield said travel is already hard on athletes.
"You have to fly out on Thursday to compete on a Saturday. You want to get acclimated to the time change and you want to get acclimated to where you’re at," she said. "Traveling takes a toll on your body, and then missing class, it’s big.”
If North Carolina chooses to leave the ACC, the program would likely reap the rewards of larger TV deals, and some players could profit from bigger NIL agreements.
Despite this, it will be the athletes who will have to deal with the potential consequences of what comes with realignment — the positive, the negative and the unknown.
“It looks good on the outside to move to a bigger conference because you think it’s going to be better for your sport,” Wakefield said. “If football brings in more money in the SEC, then lacrosse gets more money. At the same time though, I don’t think we understand what the repercussions are going to be for smaller sports."
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