ACC becomes latest super conference, expanding cross-country by adding Stanford, Cal and SMU
By AARON BEARD and RALPH D. RUSSO
The Atlantic Coast Conference voted Friday to add Stanford, California and SMU next year, providing a landing spot for two more schools from the disintegrating Pac-12 and creating a fourth super conference in major college sports.
The move provides the ACC a windfall of revenue for its current members.
"It really is a transformational day for the ACC," Commissioner Jim Phillips said.
Starting in August 2024, the league with Tobacco Road roots in North Carolina will increase its number of football schools to 17 and 18 in most other sports, with Notre Dame remaining a football independent.
The ACC needed 12 of its 15 members to approve expansion, and the vote was not unanimous.
“I can tell you when we left that call today, everybody was in a really good place and felt really good about the process,” Phillips said.
North Carolina and Florida State both voted no. The Seminoles said the move did not fully address its concerns about the ACC's revenue distribution model.
“All three schools are outstanding academic and athletic institutions, and our vote against expansion does not reflect on their quality," Florida State athletic director Michael Alford said. “We look forward to earning new revenue through the ACC’s success incentives initiative, based on our continued excellence. We’re grateful to the league for continuing to listen to our concerns.”
Like the Big Ten and Big 12, the ACC now will have members in at least three time zones.
It will span from Boston in the Northeast to Miami in South Florida, out to Dallas in the heart of the Southwest and up to Northern California, where Stanford and Cal reside. Notre Dame is currently the westernmost ACC school in South Bend, Indiana, with Louisville the farthest west among football members.
The ACC becomes the fourth league, along with the Southeastern Conference, Big Ten and Big 12, to have at least 16 football-playing members, starting in 2024.
The formation of the sprawling leagues has raised concerns about everything from the impact on athletes' travel to the changing recruiting landscape and the lost rivalries treasured by fans now facing different destinations if they want to cheer on their teams.
Stanford said it expects 22 of its 36 sports to have either no or minimal scheduling changes as the 2024 schedules are set.
“The ACC is really interested in using Dallas as a place where teams might come together to have games to minimize the impact of travel on both eastern members and Cal and Stanford,” Cal Chancellor Carol Christ told reporters.
The move seems to signal an end to this wave of realignment among the nation's wealthiest and most powerful conferences after three years of turbulent movement that has whittled the so-called Power Five down to four.
“We've gone from regional-based conferences to national, coast-to-coast conferences," Phillips said. “Either you get busy or you get left behind.”
For the Bay Area schools, it was a marriage of desperation after the Pac-12 was picked apart by the Big Ten and Big 12.
“Conference affiliations and the broadcast revenue they generate provide key financial support for the wide array of sports that Stanford offers,” athletic director Bernard Muir said. “Joining the ACC will ensure the Power Conference competitive infrastructure and long-term media revenues that are critical for our student-athletes to compete.”
For the ACC, adding three schools will increase media rights revenue from its long-term deal with ESPN and allow the conference to spread much of that new money to existing members.
New conference members typically - though not always - forgo a full share of revenue for several years upon entry.
Cal and Stanford will receive a partial share of ACC Tier 1 media revenue - estimated at about $25 million annually - for the next nine years before getting a full payment in the final three years of the conference’s deal with ESPN, according to a person familiar with the terms. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because the ACC and the schools have not disclosed the finances.
Cal and Stanford will get a 30% share in the first seven years, followed by 70% in year eight and 75% in year nine before getting the full amount, the person said.
Another person with direct knowledge of SMU's decision said the Dallas school currently in the American Athletic Conference will forgo all ACC media rights distribution for nine years. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the school was not making its strategy public.
SMU President R. Gerald Turner said the school's revenues will be higher over time, and that ACC revenues will be part of the increase.
All three schools will immediately get full revenue shares from the ACC Network, the College Football Playoff, bowl games and NCAA men’s basketball tournament units.
“You have the championships, the CFP fund that are coming in, part of what they’ve created is an incentive plan that we’re all in,” Turner said, referring also to Stanford and Cal. “There are more ways to get funding than just the media plan.”
The ACC has been generating record revenue hauls, yet is trailing the Big Ten and Southeastern conferences and staring at an even greater gap as those leagues have new TV deals kick in. The ACC's deal runs through 2036.
The ACC reported nearly $617 million in total revenue for the 2021-22 season, according to tax documents. That included distributing an average of $39.4 million to full members, with Notre Dame receiving a partial share (roughly $17.4 million) as a football independent.
Yet the Big Ten reported $845.6 million in total revenue (an average of $58 million in school distributions) and the SEC reported about $802 million in revenue ($49.9 million per school) for that same time period.
The ACC outgained the Big 12 (by roughly $136 million) in total revenue for third among the Power Five that season, though Big 12 schools received more money per school (roughly $43.6 million) with the league having just 10 members.
The angst over revenue led the ACC to announce plans for schools to keep more money based on their postseason success that has typically been evenly distributed to league teams.
The sticking point on expansion had been how much of the new money from ESPN for three more members will go into the new performance-bonus pool and how much would be shared equally among existing members.
Phillips declined to provide details, but did say some of the new revenue would go into each of those buckets.
Clemson, Florida State, North Carolina and North Carolina State had been opposed to expansion when the conference presidents chose not to vote three weeks ago on adding the three schools. A person familiar with the vote, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AP that North Carolina State changed its stance.
Stanford and Cal are the ninth and 10th schools to inform the Pac-12 they are leaving the self-described Conference of Champions.
The Big Ten lured away Oregon and Washington earlier this month. That came a little more than a year after Southern California and UCLA announced they were leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten in 2024. The Big 12 has poached four Pac-12 schools for next year: Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah.
The Pac-12 is down to Oregon State and Washington State. Officials at both schools have said their desired path forward is to rebuild the Pac-12, but without Stanford and Cal that becomes more complicated. Joining the Mountain West becomes more likely.
American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco released a statement saying the AAC would no longer be pursuing expansion with Oregon State and Washington.
Stanford and Cal have athletic programs with rich histories of producing Olympians, all-stars and hall of famers, including Super Bowl-winning quarterback John Elway and swimmer Katie Ledecky from Stanford and NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers and swimmer Missy Franklin from Cal.
The Cardinal won the women’s NCAA basketball tournament in 2021 and last year earned for the 26th time the Directors’ Cup, which measures overall athletic department success. Victories has been harder to come by in football lately for the Big Game rivals. Stanford is just 14-28 the last four years while the Bears have three winning seasons since 2010.
For SMU, the ACC is a return to major conference football for the first time since the program infamously was shuttered by the NCAA as part of sanctions for paying players back in the early 1980s.
While the schools are a long way from their new conference mates, they do have some similarities to smaller private schools such as Duke, Wake Forest and Boston College, along with flagship state schools such as North Carolina and Virginia, that make up the ACC.
“This is a great moment for the ACC, it really is,” Phillips said. “And I think there's no question that as we welcome Cal, Stanford and SMU in, that group will be together.”
AP Sports Writer Josh Dubow contributed to this report.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll
Updated September 2, 2023