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Jim Phillips says ACC ‘evaluating all options’ in realignment, but choices seem limited

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ACC commissioner Jim Phillips talks with reporters on Wednesday, July, 20, 2022 at the Westin in Charlotte, N.C. at the 2022 ACC Kickoff. (Mitchell Northam / Pittsburgh Sports Now)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As he spoke in clichés and metaphors, dancing around questions involving everything from realignment to name-image-and-likeness, Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner Jim Phillips said a lot without really saying much at all.

In his annual appearance at the ACC Kickoff at the Westin in Charlotte on Wednesday, Phillips spent 52 minutes monologuing and answering a few questions about the state of the ACC, NIL, what the conference has accomplished, where it’s heading and – oh, yea – where it fits into the wave of realignment.

Through Phillips’ talk, at least one thing became clear: he views college conferences as an exclusive cul-de-sac, and he wants to make sure that two leagues (read: SEC and Big Ten) don’t kick the other residents out.

“I will continue to do what’s in the best interest of the ACC, but will also strongly advocate for college athletics to be a healthy neighborhood, not two or three gated communities,” Phillips said.

He went on, later adding, in a response to a question: “I’m okay with living in different neighborhoods. That’s not my point about – you have to be in the gated community. My point is the community is best when all neighborhoods are healthy. All of them. Some will never reach $25 million or $30 million in revenue to provide for their athletics department, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be a part of it, part of the system, part of championships at times. We’re talking about different levels within Division I. We’re talking about subdivisions and those types of things in the transformation committee.”

Realignment has been a hot topic at the past two media day events for ACC football.

A year ago, coaches were reacting to Texas and Oklahoma bolting from the Big 12 to go to the SEC. The trickle-down effect impacted multiple levels of college athletics. When the Big 12 poached away a few American schools – like Houston, UCF and Cincinnati (plus independent BYU) – the AAC then turned to CUSA to restock. When CUSA looked like it was dying, a handful of the remaining schools – Marshall, ODU, Southern Miss – found refuge in the Sun Belt.

And it didn’t stop there. James Madison, Sam Houston and Jacksonville State all jumped to the FBS from the FCS to fill available spots. Liberty relinquished its independence for a spot in the newly patched-together CUSA. Even at the FCS level, North Carolina A&T, Hampton, Monmouth and Stony Brook joined the CAA – which will leave the Big South with just five football-playing members in 2023.

Earlier this month, USC and UCLA announced their intentions to join the Big Ten by 2024. The incentive for two California-based schools to join a conference that is mostly based in the Midwest seems to be the same thing that drove Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC: money from TV revenue.

In the 2020-21 fiscal year, SEC members netted about $55 million per-school in revenue from television contracts, and that number is only going to go up. The Big Ten is currently negotiating its next TV rights deal, and reports and estimates from experts project league members to make anywhere from $62 to $100 million annually per-school.

Meanwhile, ACC members got $36.1 million per-school in the 2020-21 fiscal year. To use Phillips’ phrasing, figures for the Big 12 and Pac-12 were in the same neighborhood. And the gap between those three and the SEC and Big Ten is only going to widen.

Phillips said that the moves by UCLA and USC “set off a flurry of conversations both inside and outside of” the ACC.

“While the ACC is strong, we are continually evaluating all options that could further strengthen our conference, and we are engaged in ongoing dialogue with our media partners,” Phillips said. “We’re looking at our TV contract… We’ve come together (with ESPN) to have some discussions about what would be the next iteration for the ACC. It doesn’t mean we’re going to make a move. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to make a move, but all options are on the table.”

The problem is, ESPN has no real motivation to renegotiate a contract that had its ink dry a long time ago. The deal was originally set to expire in 2027, but it was extended to 2036 when the ACC Network launched – which the ACC and ESPN are 50-50 partners on.

If there’s a silver lining for the ACC and Phillips, it’s that he and the conference probably don’t have to worry about schools leaving the league anytime soon. That’s because of a grant-of-rights agreement all member schools signed in 2013, which essentially tethers each of them to the league for the duration of the current TV agreement with ESPN. Barring what would likely be a lengthy and expensive court battle, or a school willingly accepting a nine-figure financial penalty, the ACC’s membership is likely stay in-tact in the short-term future.

“We have total faith in Jim. He’s done a great job since he’s been here. But the league’s changing. Where it’s going is driven by television and network things,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. “With our grant-of-rights being protected, I think we’re in a really strong position as far as not worrying about teams leaving.

“It’s a concern. I mean, obviously if one school is getting $30 million more than another school, they can do more things with that money.”

But will the conference and its members really stand idly by as the college sports landscape changes in front them, and as leagues like the SEC and Big Ten gobble up giant bags of cash over the next 14 years?

“Everything is on the table,” Phillips said. “We understand what that means. We understand what that revenue means moving forward, but I will also say – as I look at the next few years – I like where we’re going. But, again, the window is through 2036. So, we’re going to have to address it, no question.”

One of those options could be an uneven distribution formula, where schools are rewarded for wins, TV ratings and the strength of their brand. A set-up like that would probably mean schools like North Carolina and Clemson grabbing a bigger share of the pie than schools like Pitt and Syracuse.

“When you look at revenue, you look at closing the gap, you look at generating more, you look at distribution, it all is part of a similar conversation,” Phillips said.

What else can the ACC do to not get lapped and left behind as its counterparts in the SEC and Big Ten rake in nearly double the amount of revenue?

Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson has an idea: a czar of the sport.

“If you want to get philosophical about it, we need to have a commissioner or a leadership group that looks out for the betterment of college football,” Clawson said Wednesday. “I don’t think anybody is necessarily doing anything wrong. The problem is there’s no oversight or no leadership that’s doing what’s best for the whole game. They’re eliminating people and they’re going to be denying access. And I don’t think that’s good for the health overall of college football.”

Others have pointed to Notre Dame perhaps being a savior for the ACC.

The Irish play basketball and other non-revenue sports in the ACC, but maintain their independence in football.

However, it is difficult to pinpoint why exactly Notre Dame football would ever want to join a conference – considering it hasn’t already – much less the ACC. The Irish currently have an exclusive football contract with NBC that pays them about $22 million per-year. That agreement expires in 2025, and a report from CBS Sports this week said that Notre Dame was targeting $75 million in annual revenue from its next TV partner for football.

And if Notre Dame can’t hit that target, it’d be better off joining the Big Ten – where the money will be greater, where it will have a built-in rivalry with USC, and where other opponents make more sense geographically in the Midwest.

The only other thing that would potentially drive the Irish into the arms of a conference is if they’re shutout of an expanded College Football Playoff.

Still, Phillips has hopes.

“We continue to remain close with Notre Dame. They know how we feel. They know that we would love to have them as a football member in the conference,” Phillips said. “I know what independence means to Notre Dame. So you respect it, and I know that if there comes a time that Notre Dame would consider moving to a conference and away from independence, I feel really good about it being the ACC.”

For the coaches in the league, there isn’t much they can do besides coach ball and try to have a successful campaign this season. Despite the large salaries that Division I college football coaches pull-in, the subject of conference realignment is largely above their paygrade.

“I don’t make those decisions. I don’t have anything to do with those decisions. I think, the ACC – in the near future – is strong. I think this year the ACC is going to be as strong as it’s been in a long time,” Boston College coach Jeff Hafley said. “You want to talk about revenue… I coach football. That’s beyond me.”

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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