Rejoice! ACC Grant of Rights should halt conference realignment
I don't want to jinx it. And I've certainly been wrong on this matter before. But after nearly three years of endless silliness and shuffling, it appears major conference realignment may be over for the foreseeable future.
The ACC announced Monday that its presidents have signed a Grant of Rights agreement through 2026-27. That means the conference now owns its 15 current and future members' television rights for the duration of that period, effectively blocking those schools from joining another conference (because what conference would add a school if it can't cash in on its television revenue)? The Big 12's own six-year Grant of Rights agreement reached in October 2011 (and since extended through 2025) greatly stabilized that then-tenuous conference, allowing it to add TCU and West Virginia and ink an eventual long-term deal with ESPN and FOX.
While there had been little talk recently of any further realignment among the power conferences, both fans and industry insiders felt another move would come soon enough -- and nearly all speculation centered around ACC schools.
First, the Big 12 supposedly wanted Florida State and Clemson (not true). Then, the Big Ten wanted to continue its eastern push by adding North Carolina, Virginia or (insert message-board speculation subject here), but was waiting to see how Maryland's pending lawsuit over the ACC's $50 million exit fee played out. Even last fall's addition of Notre Dame as a partial member (the Irish will play five ACC teams each football season beginning next year) did not seem to dampen the perception that the ACC was vulnerable in the wake of a television deal that's slightly less filthy-rich ($17 million annually per school) than the Big Ten, SEC, Big 12 or Pac-12 deals, which all net at least $20 million per year per school.
But Monday's news, which reportedly coincides with planning for a possible ACC Network that could help push teams' annual revenue to that $20-million mark or beyond, puts the ACC on the same stable ground as its competitors. Remarkably, of the five aforementioned leagues, only the SEC does not have a Grant of Rights agreement. (The SEC does not even have exit fees. It's not too worried about teams leaving.) While a school that really wants to leave could theoretically test the contract in a court of law, the downside of losing with a Grant of Rights in place would be infinitely costlier than a $50 million exit fee. Hence, this is a pretty big deal.
Now, if you're one of the people who simply can't get enough conference shuffling and can't fathom the end of expansion speculation, you're left holding out hope for one of these less exciting scenarios:
• The ACC, now in a more comfortable spot and eyeing more inventory for a possible conference channel, adds one or two more schools to get to 16 in football and 16 or 17 in basketball. Connecticut and Cincinnati fans eager to ditch what's become the American Athletic Conference (the old Big East) are certainly holding out for this. To this point, however, the ACC has only been interested in those schools as backups in the event that it suffered more defections.
• The Big 12, no longer satisfied with having 10 members, gives BYU and perhaps Boise State another look. However, as hard as it for many to believe, Big 12 leaders have repeatedly insisted that they're happy with 10 and only planned to consider expansion if the other conferences got even bigger, which now seems unlikely. There are no other candidates that would be guaranteed to increase the league's per-team take.
• Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, undeterred in his quest for East Coast domination, adds Connecticut and maybe Cincinnati. Granted, never in a million years did I think he'd take on financial disasters Rutgers and Maryland, but never in a billion years do I think he'll add two schools with 40,000-seat stadiums in television markets the Big Ten already mostly claims.
It really could be over. Can you believe it?
For all the doomsday predictions, the ACC is once again sitting comfortably. While still lagging in terms of overall on-the-field football quality, it certainly improved itself by adding Louisville, and its basketball league will be a monster. Its members will have plenty of TV money and exposure.
Interestingly, the very conference that's caused much of the chaos over the past decade (twice decimating the Big East, despite no direct threat in either instance) may be the same one that now cements some long-term calm.
If in fact this is the end of movement at the top, let it be noted that things ended with an appropriately clunky result. After three years of impetuous moves made primarily by university presidents who have little grasp of athletics, we're looking at possibly 12-15 years in which three of the five most powerful conferences will be stuck at 14 teams. Twelve is a logical number. Sixteen, while unwieldy, at least provides for symmetry. But as the SEC began to learn last year, 14 is an unnatural number that leads to scheduling headaches and imbalances.
Of course that's how this whole thing would end. But mercifully it's ending, and that's the most important thing.