Ludwig: Commissioner Jim Phillips’ Wholesome Priorities Mean Bad News for Future of ACC
To say I was skeptical when moving into my college dorm would be an understatement. I had never met my new roommates, never shared a bedroom with anyone else and never actually lived with anyone but my family before. Now I was going to spend the next nine months living with two people I’d never met?
I met many people throughout my first year of college, but I always came back to my roommates at the end of the night. We became friends, spending time together and bonding in the way you can only by living with someone. But when I didn’t live with them the next year, it wasn’t because I didn’t want what was best for them, it was because I wanted what was best for myself.
I chose to live with some new people because I put myself first. It’s sort of like what the Big Ten did recently, and ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips acknowledged as much Wednesday during his opening ACC Media Days remarks.
“Listen, I’m proud of the work that (the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12) did in The Alliance,” Phillips said. “It was the Big Ten’s decision to do what they did. That’s not for me to judge. They did what they felt was in the best interest of the conference, but we did some really significant things together over the period of 12 months, including legislation that we just talked about earlier in my remarks.”
While Phillips wants to continue to status quo in college football, and look to continue the good ol’ history of college athletics meaning more about the student-athlete and developing life skills, that couldn’t be further from where college football currently stands. The Big Ten’s first expansion came courtesy of USC and UCLA from the Pac-12, effectively splitting a worthless “Alliance” right at the seams.
“The neighborhoods look different, but are we going to really try to do what we can to keep the community healthy? That’s a question we’ll all have to answer,” Phillips said. The answer to that question, clearly, is no. The SEC added Oklahoma and Texas, and the Big Ten added the aforementioned Pac-12 schools. SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey has already declared his conference as a superconference, and the Big Ten may reach an even more lucrative television deal. Both conferences added to their ranks from other Power Five conferences and the Big Ten poached from a fellow Alliance member.
Phillips can want college football to be whatever he wants, but that doesn’t mean he won’t get lapped, once, twice, or even three times over. The desire for the continuation of the Power Five conferences, with a healthy Group of Five representation, is likely what most college football fans would like to see. However, that isn’t the future of the superconference era of college football. Even if Phillips feels as if the ACC is the best conference in the country, his conference’s status is declining rapidly.
“I’m okay with living in different neighborhoods,” Phillips said. “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.”
The ACC itself will likely flatline at $40 million per school in annual revenue over the next 14(!!!) years, dishing out roughly $35-38 million to member schools in 2021, and that very long, very unflattering ESPN deal that lasts until 2036. Meanwhile, the SEC has reached a massive exclusive rights deal with ESPN (a jump of $55 million a year in broadcast rights from CBS to $300 million a year from ESPN) and the Big Ten’s new TV deal will only get more lucrative with the additions of USC and UCLA — one that will surely rival the SEC’s.
Phillips said that by all metrics, the ACC is one of the leaders in the country in the areas of everything except for revenue. However, unfortunately for Phillips, revenue is really all that matters right now when it comes to long-term stability for the conference and everything inside of it. And with the current ESPN TV deal, the ACC really is stuck.
“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 ’36, so we’re going to have to address it, no question.”
Phillips offered no other reassurances when it came to evaluating the current TV deal, not that there are really any ways out of it, other than that the ACC is looking at it. “We’re in engagement daily — almost daily with our partners at ESPN. I openly talk about ESPN because we are 50/50 partners on our network, and so they’re motivated, we’re motivated. We’ve come together 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.
“Revenue is certainly one piece and a really big piece as we move forward, but I will say it again, we need all communities healthy,” Phillips said. “When you think about where we’re at right now, we’re probably in the gated community as one of five. Maybe people have a different line of demarcation about who is in there. It really doesn’t take away from. We’re going to continue to try to find new ways to generate revenue for our conference.”
There it is again. The desire for all communities to be healthy. There are two truly healthy communities right now, the SEC and Big Ten. And if the current trajectory isn’t altered, the already unstable ACC isn’t going to be healthy for much longer.
Phillips isn’t at fault for the ESPN TV deal signed by outgoing commissioner John Swofford, but he is responsible for how it is handled in the years to come. The first year of Phillips’ run at the helm of the ACC was largely a success, and while he’s in a difficult position, action is needed. He admitted that the revenue gap between the Big Two and the ACC, which will continue to grow, must be addressed. But he also said that it can’t be at the expense of all of the other things going on in the conference. “So,” he said, “there’s I think a really good plan for us as we move ahead.” All options are being considered.
When it comes to the grant of rights, which in the ACC’s case is ESPN owning any and all broadcast rights and revenue when it comes the ACC, Phillips feels as though the grant of rights will force programs to honor their previous commitments before exiting, as evidenced, he said, by Oklahoma and Texas last summer and UCLA and USC this summer.
“So, you can follow the logic there,” Phillips said. “I would think that the significance of what that would mean, the television rights that the conference owns as well as a nine-figure financial penalty, I think it holds, but your guess is as good as mine.”
When it comes to TV deals, Phillips said he didn’t want to speak on others, but praised the ACC’s deep relationship with ESPN and the ACC Network that came with it.
“We’ll stay close because, in the end, (a TV deal) has to add value to your conference, and you can define value in different ways,” Phillips said. “You can define value from an academic standpoint. You can define value about athletic success and competitiveness. Are they an AAU research institution? You can also define it by money and does it have value to your conference? Would it have value to your conference?”
So… yeah. That is most definitely not encouraging.
And when it comes to expansion, potentially countering the moves made by the SEC and Big Ten and jumping the Big 12, who will not partner with the Pac-12, Phillips said that he wouldn’t touch upon any potential discussions. He said there have been a lot of good conversations inside the conference, which is the bare minimum at this point, but the ACC won’t make a move just to make a move.
“In the end, what is the value that ends up coming back to the conference if we were to expand? All of those things have to be under great scrutiny and dialogue and ultimately some kind of formation of what we think is best,” Phillips said. In the current 15-team conference (14-team in football since Notre Dame isn’t a member), Phillips said he loves the schools and is confident they will remain together based on what he’s heard in calls.
And when it comes to Notre Dame officially joining the ACC, as a full-time member and not just a basketball school, Phillips said that Notre Dame knows how the ACC feels in regard to wanting to add. And he feels like, having those Notre Dame bonds himself, the Fighting Irish would pick the ACC if push came to shove.
“Having worked there, having two children there, going to school right now, one a student-athlete, I know what independence means to Notre Dame,” Phillips said. “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.”
However, that is anything but the case currently. Notre Dame is reportedly pushing to maintain independence with $75 million in annual revenue from NBC, and even if that doesn’t result in a deal, why would the ACC be the preferred choice over the Big Ten? The Big Ten offers more money, more exposure and more security at this time.
Phillips said the ACC is in support of expanding the College Football Playoffs, with, “a 365-day calendar, health and safety, and several other items” that must be addressed before adopting a new model. However, the combined firepower in the Big Ten and SEC (21 of 32 playoff teams through the eight years of the format) are able to put together their own playoff. And while Clemson has been a regular participant, and technically Notre Dame was an ACC member during the 2020 season, that pales in comparison to the might of the Big Ten-SEC.
Oregon, Washington and Florida State are the only non-Big Two schools to make the playoff (other than Clemson) and all three only made it once and not since 2016.
However, the ACC’s switch to the 3-3-5 scheduling model came in large part because of the potential CFP Playoffs, allowing the two best conference teams to fight for the playoff spot.
“Now the ability for teams to line up in a singular division for there to be an opportunity to play within that singular division eight games and then we’ll crown the champion based on winning percentage,” Phillips said. “It definitely had the impetus for what we did.”
Regardless, at the current pace, the ACC’s contention for playoff sports may give way to the ACC simply competing for relevancy. In this day in age, it’s about money. The dollar is what’s important, and right now the ACC cannot and will not compete with either the Big Ten or SEC. The Big 12 recouped, but it remains to be seen what will happen when the next TV deal rolls around for a conference that lost a majority of its holding power. The Pac-12 seems even more hopeless than the Big 12. Phillips believes the ACC is strong, but that remains to be seen in the long run; it certainly isn’t true right now. The ACC may be looking at outside options and revenue opportunities, but it’s clear that money isn’t what’s on Phillips’ mind.
“Fundamentally we are all responsible for the greater good of the enterprise,” Phillips said. “Let me repeat that. We are all responsible for the greater good of the enterprise. 500,000 student-athletes. College athletics lives at a three-way intersection of competition, education, and entertainment, and all three must exist in a balanced way.
“Education matters. Winning matters. Resources matter. The ecosystem is not dissimilar to our respective neighborhoods that we live in. Keeping them healthy and diverse is a priority. There will always be a variety of communities: gated, upper class, middle class, or more modest.”
In 2022, while Olympic and non-revenue sports may hold strong among individual fanbases, it is all about football. Even basketball doesn’t hold the pure power that almighty football does when it comes to making a profit. And the path forward is still almost exclusively about football and basketball.
“We are not the professional ranks,” Phillips said. “This is not the NFL or NBA Light. We all remain competitive with one another, but this is not and should not be a winner-take-all or a zero-sum structure. College athletics has never been elitist or singularly commercial. It’s provided countless individuals with a path to higher education and, therefore, life-changing possibilities, access, opportunity at a modern rules-based structure, should all remain a priority as we continue to evolve.”
Unfortunately for Phillips, the current era of college football has become a winner-take-all format, and the ACC will need as much from a leadership standpoint to survive long-term. It remains to be seen if that is how the ACC will operate going forward though. I’m still skeptical, but it isn’t because of my roommates anymore.
“why would the ACC be the preferred choice over the Big Ten? The Big Ten offers more money, more exposure and more security at this time”
I believe (or have thought for some reason) that Notre Dame has an agreement in place, that since they play as an ACC member on other sports, that of football were to join a conference, it must be the ACC. I have heard that in the past. Can anyone she’s light on this?
I think Emmert was bad for the NCAA and things would be a little different if he had been pushed out earlier. Phillips can wish for his dream of the ACC & college football but, unlikely he will see it come to fruition. I am losing interest in college football and wonder whether other are to. Perhaps ESPN and others have overpaid and will regret their decisions to lavish these big $ on SEC and BIG. Nah, I’m more of a dreamer than Phillips. H2P !
I agree. I’m loosing interest in college football too. I only watch Pitt and a select few games now. I used to watch college football all day on Sats.
Just like MLB, they are going to ruin it, due to the select greedy ones who don’t like to share the wealth.
I’ll continue to watch college football as long as Pitt is playing in a major conference, but if it becomes a two super-conference sport without my team invited to the party, then I will be mowing grass and washing cars on Sat afternoons. Have to think that a hell of a lot of other college football fans will be doing the same thing too.