In part one of this series, I established that in spite of good news for the ACC surrounding new member schools – and having a couple of teams in the top 5 in football – that North Carolina’s athletic director Bubba Cunningham was among several high level conference officials who were suffering some heartburn about the ACC’s ability to compete going forward. The idea of Carolina perhaps joining another conference was even hinted at. These concerns were uncovered as part of an information dump obtained by The Raleigh News and Observer as part of a freedom of information filing.
And while the newspaper’s interests were elsewhere, this admission of potential weakness in the conference from its flagship member is the intriguing story. It demonstrates that Cunningham has an eye on the ACC’s potentially fatal foundational flaw: demographics.
It’s not just that the ACC is primarily a basketball league in an era where football’s influence on the entire landscape is more pronounced than ever – though that’s certainly a major problem – it’s that the ACC’s member schools’s enrollments, not to mention their non enrolled natural fan bases, are simply minuscule when compared to those of the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12.
Size matters, and the member schools of the other major leagues are all significantly bigger on average than the ACC member schools are. Moreover, these other leagues dominate wide geographic areas by having “the university” of so many states. The SEC has the dominant school in nine states: Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee and now Missouri. In addition, they have one of the two dominant schools in South Carolina and a close runner up in Texas. In Alabama and Mississippi, they have the second most dominant schools as well. The SEC dominates 11 states, all of them sports crazy and two of them having huge populations. Just by the name of the schools involved, the natural fan bases in all of these states migrate to the SEC members.
Similarly, the Big Ten dominates a similar footprint in the Midwest, dominating nine states and boasting several of the nation’s largest enrollments – and, like the SEC, has only one small private school.
The ACC is in a totally different situation. With four of its members concentrated in North Carolina, the league’s footprint dominates only North Carolina and Virginia, and they’re about to lose Maryland. Georgia Tech, Florida State and soon to be added Louisville have no where near the followings of Georgia, Florida and Kentucky, while private Boston College and semi private Pitt remain merely afterthoughts in pro dominated cities.
Duke, Wake Forest, Syracuse and Miami, yes Miami, are small private schools with small alum bases. You might say that while the ACC casts a long shadow with the high profile Duke-Carolina rivalry and a fading memory of having invented the conference basketball tournament, the league’s footprint is still shallow.
So what does all this mean? It means that the ACC simply cannot compete with the four big leagues in terms of stadium revenues or television revenues in football. The fan bases are simply not there to fill the seats or view the screens in football. Tennessee, even in a down year, will out draw Duke, Wake and Miami combined in football. And that’s just their orange-white spring game.
Without a doubt, ACC hoops is still a great TV product–and does well in the arena and on television–but basketball revenue is just a rounding error compared to football in the big picture now.
Moreover, there’s more to this competition than just the ticket and television revenue. There’s the ESPN-driven fact that the ACC faces a daunting image problem with regard to televised football. Stadiums that hold 75 to 109 thousand fans, and which are full, simply make for better TV and a better player atmosphere than small stadiums that are not full – and in Miami’s case, large stadiums that are almost empty.
Simply put, an SEC or Big Ten game simply looks, sounds and feels different on the tube than any ACC game not in Tallahassee, Clemson or Blacksburg – all of which have great game day atmospheres. Again, it’s not that ACC fans are not good fans or don’t love football – it’s that there simply are not many ACC fans compared to the fan bases of the other four leagues.
There’s a saying in politics and geography that “you can’t fight demographics.” Unfortunately for the ACC, the league is going to have to try – if they want to remain one of the major conferences in the coming years. (Part 2 of a 3 part series).