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.