How will the ACC react to its first taste of realignment attrition? It's too risky to do nothing, but it may be riskier to make the wrong move.
Leave it to Maryland to upset the apple cart again. With the Terrapins accepting their invite to the Big 10, and Rutgers expected to do the same early this week, the college football nation dives headway into Conference Realignment 3: The Quickening.
The Lead-up to Maryland’s Departure
Since the fall of 2011, things have been relatively quiet in the conference realignment landscape after two separate attempts to kill the Big XII both externally and internally. When the ACC television deal was announced last spring, though, rumors of Florida St. and Clemson to the Big XII immediately began to surface. Let’s not kid ourselves, ACC fans, that ESPN contract was atrocious for the conference, especially considering its structure, what the schools were giving up to ESPN at that price (all third tier rights to football and basketball games), and what conferences like the Big XII and Pac 10 had each pulled in the months prior. Still, the ACC seemed to maintain the general attitude that it was a bit untouchable in the realignment game.
But there was some teeth to the FSU rumors, even if they weren't very sharp, including a well respected (well, at least in Tallahassee) trustee blasting the new conference television contract and urging the school to look into the Big XII option. The Big XII appeared open, so long as FSU had a viable dancing partner. Clemson shut the door on that reasonably quickly. One can only speculate why the Big XII didn’t move more aggressively on Florida St. if they were available. The best explanation I’ve heard, and it's consistent with the Big XII party line, is that an 11 team league wasn’t an option, and a 12 team league only worked if it was the "right two teams" (to butcher a quote from DeLoss Dodds, Texas’ athletic director). Louisville, who already had its pants down for the Big XII while being actively pimped by Oklahoma athletic director David Boren, wasn’t that team. . . yet. Yes, it may be more simple in that Florida St. simply never had any intention of making a move move, but that seems pretty naïve at this stage of conference realignment considering how far things wend in the media.
In September, the ACC pulled a pretty nice coup and took on Notre Dame as a partial member, plus 5 football games per year. While this was a great move for the ACC, the new playoff structure going into effect in 2014, and Notre Dame’s gridiron success this year, makes Notre Dame’s full membership in the ACC a bit of a pipe dream. Which brings us to what happened today…..
Round 3 of Realignment – Initial Punches Thrown
Today, the Big Ten stunned the ACC with a stomach punch by bringing on Maryland, and played Billie "The Blue Bear" to the Big East’s Maggie Fitzgerald (more apt than Drago/Creed) in stealing Rutgers from the Big East. Rumors of Maryland as a viable Big Ten candidate had been around since 2010, but conventional wisdom had thought both that the Big Ten could do better, and that Maryland was, despite their reputation, an ACC loyalist. In fact, despite two years of rumors of the ACC’s exposure to predatory realignment, the conference as a whole had remained remarkably unified during the whole realignment process (at least up to this latest TV contract), and, in fact, has been quite a predator itself.
Cracks in the ACC’s resolve started to show, though, when Maryland, along with Florida St., voted against the exorbitant $50 million exit fee earlier this year. So while it became harder for teams to exit the ACC, two teams clearly preferred that the door stay open. Enter Kevin Plank, Under Armour CEO. It may or may not be coincidence that Kevin Plank just cashed out $65 million in Under Armour stock recently, but it known, and no surprise, that Maryland’s version of Phil Knight is firmly behind the move. Mr. Plank’s alma mater resides in a conference where the two flagship schools, Duke and North Carolina, are head over heels in the tank for Nike. I imagine he sees a broader market for Under Armour apparel, and perhaps even licensing deals, in the Big Ten, while doing whatever he can to turn Maryland into Oregon-East. But any thought that the exit fee was too steep for Maryland should go out the window – the Terps have the necessary sugar daddy. And by preserving its no vote on the exit fees, Maryland may even have grounds to argue that the fee is unenforceable with respect to them. I am not an expert on the ACC bylaws, but after watching four former Big XII schools pay far less than their contractual exit fee, I imagine that Maryland’s final payout could be something south of $30 million, if not $20 million or less.
But why would the Big Ten make this move and split their pie into smaller slices with two middling to poor college football programs? Location, location, location….. and if you believe the conspiracy theorists, also as a big "F. U." to Notre Dame in an attempt to weaken the Irish’s new alliance. But is Jim Delaney *really* that vindictive? To me, this is clearly a play for more markets for the Big Ten Network to be on a basic cable sports package, which means more viewers, which means more money from the partners and cable companies that help put the Big Ten Network on the air. It’s the most demographically strategic play, without regard to on-the-field results, in realignment thus far, and not without risk. It will either pay massive dividends for the Big Ten, or saddle the Big Ten with two lousy athletic programs that fail to deliver the markets they reside in.
All Eyes on Tallahassee
Back to the ACC, once Maryland’s exit fee is finally determined, all eyes will point to Tallahassee, the other school that voted against the exit fee, and the only other school to have officials openly contemplate changing conferences. Florida St’s vote on exit fees is why the ACC must fight tooth and nail to squeeze every dollar out of Maryland that it can. Jim Swofford can wish the Terps well, but he needs to also try to make them pay every penny the ACC is owed. Failure to enforce this new exit to the fullest extent possible creates a precedent that Florida St., and potentially, schools like Clemson, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, will certainly use against the conference if they start to feel a little wanderlust. It should be costly to leave the ACC, and even costlier to fight the exit fee.
And while I don’t necessarily espouse appeasing the Seminoles at all cost, I do think that the only good move for the ACC right now is to immediately invite Louisville and head the Big XII off at the pass in any attempt they make on Florida St. If the Big XII (i.e. Texas) can swallow accepting Louisville, it would be a slam dunk for the Big XII to add Louisville and Florida St. to move back to twelve members. By inviting Louisville now, however unpalatable it may be from an academic sense, the ACC removes any even semi-attractive options for the Big XII to add a twelfth team to go with Florida St. - other than ACC schools that voted affirmatively for the $50 million exit fee. If the schools that voted "yes" for the $50 million exit fee start courting other conferences, then I’m afraid there really isn’t a solution and the ACC should probably join whatever self-help group the Big East is currently in. But we aren’t there yet, and the ACC should take bold steps to grab the strongest available team out there right now – and there isn’t any doubt that it is Louisville.
UConn is the wrong choice for a multitude of reasons, and the ACC needs to avoid the panic move of adding a potentially moribund athletic program let by its women’s basketball team. The ACC cannot behave like the Big East and simply "fill spots" as they become open with teams that don’t add anything to the bottom line. In fact, the conference would be better off letting Florida St. leave and stay at 12, than taking the dead weight of Uconn and watching Florida St. leave anyway. One of the failings of the Big East was taking on all comers, regardless of quality. Louisville might not be ideal, but they are profitable, and in very good shape in both revenue sports.
At any rate, interesting times are ahead once again. It’s sad to see a charter member leave the ACC, but if I had to pick one, Maryland, it would certainly be you. Good luck. I know you Terps will look forward to comparing notes on post-game rioting with Michigan St. and Ohio St.