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The Daily Tar Heel

UNC finds itself caught up in debate over conference realignment as ACC looks West

UNC then-senior wide receiver Antoine Green (3) catches a pass during the 2022 Subway ACC Football Championship Game against Clemson at the Bank of America Stadium on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022.

Editor's note: This is a part of the realignment series. Read part one, part two and part three here.

On Aug. 9, leaders from all 15 ACC schools met to discuss the possibility of adding California and Stanford to the conference. 

11 of the 15 schools voted in favor of adding the two Pac-12 programs in an unofficial poll, falling one vote short of the 75 percent required to move on to a formal vote according to reporting from Sports Illustrated. 

The schools that said no?

Clemson, Florida State, N.C. State and North Carolina – four of the league's higher-earning programs that are bound by the ACC's airtight grant-of-rights contract with ESPN until 2036. Under that contract, each ACC school brought in an average of $40 million last year alone.

Meanwhile, the Big Ten and SEC will have new TV contracts beginning this year and next year, respectively. The contracts have been estimated to bring in an average of $67 million annually for each Big Ten team and $51 million annually for each SEC team.

“The SEC and Big Ten dwarf ACC revenues,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas told The Daily Tar Heel. “[The ESPN contract] locks each school into the ACC, so it was done for a positive reason, but there are certainly negatives that go with it.”

The case for expansion

California and Stanford are in search of a new athletic conference after six Pac-12 teams left the conference this past month.

The ACC is having discussions about adding the Bay Area schools for multiple reasons including their academic profiles. According to U.S. News, California and Stanford are two of the top 20 universities in the United States.

“I'm sure part of the intrigue of those two schools is their academic reputation,” former UNC athletic director Dick Baddour said. “I mean – two of the finest institutions in the country – you want to be associated with those kinds of schools.”

Additionally, Stanford has a similar varsity sports profile to North Carolina — and a successful one at that. Since the 1993-1994 academic year, Stanford won 26 of the 29 Directors’ Cups, awarded annually to the university with the most successful overall athletic program in that academic year.

California and Stanford would give the ACC a foothold in the Bay Area, one of the top 10 largest television markets in the country. 

Two weeks ago, SMU was also introduced as a possible addition to the ACC, which carries weight because put the conference in the fifth-largest market in the country in Dallas-Fort Worth. Adding these markets would be lucrative because of the increased revenue from TV carriage fees and advertising.

So, if these three schools could bring in more money to the ACC, why are some of the current schools in the conference not in favor of expansion?

The case against expansion

While venturing into new television markets appears favorable on paper, it would force schools to foot the bill for increased travel costs.

Baddour explained that if an athletic program's share of the revenue from bringing in additional schools isn't equal to its new travel expenses, then expansion would be a net negative for that program. Expensive long-distance flights would no longer be limited to the revenue sports like football and basketball — they would have to be provided for all 28 of UNC's varsity sports.

The ACC's suitors have offered to take less money at first to account for the change.

According to reporting from ESPN's Pete Thamel, SMU has expressed willingness to defer its broadcast media revenue for seven years while California and Stanford have expressed willingness to begin with a reduced percentage of the league's revenue shares. This money could then be divided among the other ACC schools through performance-based incentives. This would help alleviate travel costs.

Thamel reported that the ACC will have a series of meetings this week to further discuss adding the three schools.

However, you need to look beyond the financials to find the greatest cost of expansion: the well-being of athletes.

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UNC women's soccer coach Anson Dorrance spoke bluntly on the subject following North Carolina's 3-1 win over California on Aug. 20.

"We would hate it," Dorrance said.

“If you want to completely destroy someone’s academic progress, have them fly across the country every weekend. That'll certainly compromise the academic standards of Stanford and Cal for their athletes," he continued. "I don’t think it benefits [California and Stanford] in any way and we don't need them. We're the best women's soccer conference in the country. Good luck to what remains of the Pac-12."

Three days after making the comment, Dorrance released a statement, writing that he has the "utmost respect for Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley."

According to Bilas, the concept of athletes’ well-being hasn't been discussed during conference realignment talks.

“[Administrators] stand up on their soapboxes, and I’m not saying they don’t care about athlete welfare and education, but it’s not the top priority,” Bilas said. “Money’s the top priority. That’s okay, but just be honest about it.”


@dthsports |