Are the Atlantic Coast Conference’s days numbered – at least, as a major athletic conference? The notion might not be as crazy as you think.
Yes, I know – Clemson and Florida State are both in the top five in football, and there’s a chance that one of these two could play for the BCS Championship. Duke is expected to once again be a major factor in the national championship race in basketball, and Pitt and Syracuse have bailed on the sinking Big East to join the league this year. Defending basketball champ Louisville, riding high in both major sports, jumps in next season while Notre Dame will begin their unusual semi-membership status.
All of this is positive, yet I submit all of this good news is simply disguising more foundational problems – problems that are not lost at the highest levels inside the conference’s single most important member, the University of North Carolina. As reported in the Raleigh News and Observer this week, right after Maryland announced that the Terps were joining the Big Ten, UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham said in an email that North Carolina was “looking at all options.” In context, those options meant considering a move to either the Big Ten or the SEC.
The email was uncovered as part of a records request The News & Observer filed in February, seeking emails and other documents from November 2012 through February 2013.
But Carolina not in the ACC?
While that might still be a bridge too far at the moment, consider the consequences if such a discussion even gains traction. When Maryland leaves the ACC, it’s just a school that has always had an inferiority complex vis a vis Duke and Carolina throwing a tantrum. Maryland has chronically complained about not being a major presence in the ACC and even the centrality of the N.C. schools. Paradoxically, they are now jumping into a league where they will be geographically and culturally an asterisk. Besides, with apologies to ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt, Maryland will still be in the shadow of D.C. – and D.C. will never be about Terp sports.
However, when North Carolina even whispers such, a Pandora’s Box is thrown open and all sorts of unthinkables start to be considered. If Carolina bails, the ACC is done as a major player for a whole host of reasons. But more to the point, if Clemson, Florida State, Miami and some others just get spooked at the Carolina rumor, the league could implode by dominos the way the Big East did even if the Heels never really think about leaving.
Consider: If Carolina goes, the ACC loses its most prestigious member and moreover, it’s number one franchise: the Duke-Carolina basketball rivalry. And oh, by the way, Coach K will retire in just a few years, and that might mean an end to this rivalry having the national relevance it enjoys today. You can bet every single athletic director in the conference knows it too.
On the other hand, if Florida State and Clemson were to jump to a mega SEC, the ACC loses almost all of its current football credibility, not to mention its two biggest revenue stadiums and biggest two television draws. Considering that football revenue – in stadium and on TV – is what now drives college athletics, and is where the ACC is weakest, this would also be devastating.
Which brings us to the seminal issue: those football revenues, and above that, football’s televised image. Even with Florida State and Clemson, the conference is barely hanging on as it is in these categories. As Cunningham’s email trail makes clear, he is aware of this, and concerned about it. And he should be, as for all the positive developments taking place now, the foundational uphill climb is still daunting.
This is the first in a three-part series (Part 2 to follow).