Various message board and blogger "insiders" regarding the Big 12 expansion warned a few weeks ago that we were entering a silent phase, where leaks would dry up and misinformation would run rampant. We seem to be in that phase now, as for the majority of the Big 12 - FSU rumor saga, most insiders tracked pretty closely. Over the last two weeks, they're suddenly all over the place.
One thing appears to be clear though from various sources...something has queered the deal between the Big 12 and Clemson. Most are reporting that FSU is still locked and loaded, but I think it is arguable if that will contine to be the case if Clemson remains cold, and neither GT or Miami take their place as 2013 travelling partners. It is also arguable whether FSU should even be considering the Big 12 in 2013 without Clemson or Miami.
What appeared to be almost inevitible a month ago seems a lot more in flux now, which was not unexpected by people who have watched these dramas unfold again and again. But does this open a door for Swofford and the ACC to pull something out of their hat?
It's my opinion that long term, the ACC will not challenge as a top four conference without Notre Dame. The momentum, should Notre Dame join a conference, seems to be leaning toward the Big 12 now, but has that ship really sailed?
There are things about the Big 12 that make it a decent fit for Notre Dame. But frankly, the ACC is still the better home. It's a better academic fit, it has three notable ND rivals (Pitt, BC, Miami) and most importantly, it can put Notre Dame in three regions of the country every season in conference, the Midwest (at home), the Northeast and the Southeast. In addition Notre Dame has scheduled many of the ACC schools in recent years on their own. They do have series lined up with Texas and OU I believe, but I don't really see them playing Texas Tech, Kansas State, etc. We already know that playing ACC teams fits their national scheduling strategy.
But imagining for a moment that ND does want/need to join a conference, what are the roadblocks in the ACC? Setting aside the rumored instability for a minute, the biggest problem is probably the ACC policy of selling ALL football and basketball rights to one partner and splitting the money equally. The Big 12 allows schools to hold back certain rights to monetize themselves. At the extreme, it allows the Longhorn Network to exist, something that is probably feasible for only a few college football programs...Notre Dame being one of them.
Notre Dame simply wouldn't, and really shouldn't, just throw all it's value into the ACC to be split among a bunch of schools with little committment to football and little history of winning.
So here's the question...can Swofford and Notre Dame go to ESPN and ask them to tear up the current ACC contract if Notre Dame and another come in as full members? I think they might be able to.
Here's my thinking...the ACC/ND needs to go to ESPN looking for an offer of $20M+ per year (per team), PLUS..the ACC teams retain "third tier" rights to all non-conference games in football and basketball. In addition, the contract should allow the teams to buy back games from ESPN (at a price that's fair to ESPN) if they want to.
Why might ESPN consider such a deal? One, what they get (eight ND games) is probably more valuable than what they lose (primarily the FSU-UF, Clemson-SC games every other year, and some usually decent UM and FSU OOC games). I have a hard time believing that there is tremendous value in the OOC games for the rest of the ACC. I would think Notre Dame conference games would outweigh that.
In addition, this contract would NOT stipulate ESPN had to televise every game of every team. They would not have to find spots for every Wake Forest, Duke, and Syracuse football game. Whetever ESPN didn't want, those games, for whatever they are worth, would also fall back to the schools.
Also appealing to ESPN? They do this deal, and big time expansion is pretty much dead. They aren't renegotiating with the Big 12 the next two summers as they add two teams at a time, and then again with the SEC as they pick off a couple ACC schools. I think it's clear that ESPN is about sick of going back to the table over an over again.
This is especially important because ESPN is considered unlikely to win the Big 10 rights in the next negotiation. That's going to hurt, but it's going to hurt even more if the ACC starts to fall apart and GT, Duke, or especially UNC find themselves in the Big 10. It will be death to their basketball programming.
If this deal is done and stabilizes the ACC, where does any conference go next? The PAC is locked out of any other good prospects. The SEC would be too. The Big 12? Maybe BYU and Cincinnati, but who cares. They won't have Louisville, because Louisville is the ACC's 16th team.
Everyone is thinking UCONN, but with Pitt, BC, Syracuse and Notre Dame, the ACC needs another Northeastern team like it needs another BCS loss. Louisville equals UCONN basketball (in my mind exceeds it because it has had success with more than one coach), has a very strong, profitible athletic department, and has a decent football committment in a football-strong region of the country. It will also give us four SEC-ACC rivalries, and in locking the Big 12 at 10, give the ACC a chance to steal a proposed SEC schuduling agreement out of the hands of the Big 12.
How would it be set up? I can't possibly conceive all the details yet, but there are two vital points...tight, geographic pods, and an eight game conference schedule.
Geographic pods are essential, because the ACC has to develop the enthusiasm of the fans, and absolutely must develop a fan travelling culture, and all the stadiums need the boost of visiting fans. Yes, FSU's pod with GT, Clemson and Miami would be loaded. But it's not tougher than the SEC West. I am afraid we just can't get the perfect competitive balance and make this conference work and make it appealing. And so one or two pods may be weak? A weak schedule got VT a BCS invite last year. We've seen teams like Kansas, Georgia, Missouri ride a weak conference draw to high ratings and prominent bowl games. It may not be perfect for FSU, but it will not hurt the conference. And it will guarantee FSU two of GT, Clemson, Miami and UF every year at home, plus occasional attractive draws from other pods.
The geography is important also, because I think it's been shown that geographic and cultural proximity greatly benefits the conference experience.
Why 8 games? First, because that's the maximum ND will want to play. That will give them four games to play USC, Navy, and whoever else they want to play. It's also a small detail, but remember when Duke or I think Wake Forest used to be able to sell home games, and we played them in Orlando or whatever? That has to be allowed again, so Notre Dame, if they want, can buy a game against Duke and play on the moon or on an aircraft carrier or where ever.
Second, that gives ACC teams up to three home games to monetize every year, both attendence wise, but also as their own TV rights. That should help schools like Clemson, FSU etc. a great deal financially.
What happens to the rights to those games that fall back? The North Carolina schools can sell them to Raycom if they want. Several schools could package them as a network, or sell them to Fox or NBC, or even to ESPN. Who knows. All I know is no conference would have as good as a third tier rights arrangement for it's individual schools. That will allow the schools that try to compete at the highest level, and need the money, do so. FSU would have the UF game every other year, and probably two other games, to package. That should mean real money.
Does this kind of deal solve all problems? Definitely not. Remaining ACC issues:
1) Leadership. This one is easy. Landing Notre Dame gives Swofford the perfect opportunity to walk away as a king. He needs to them step away immediately in favor of a dynamic leader that will max out this conference's potential. In my mind, the number one thing he needs to have a plan for is..
2) Football competitiveness. This just has to be fixed. I like a suggestion I read on here recently that every school had to submit a five year plan toward improving football, with real penalties if they fail to follow through. Scheduling has to be rigged. The fact is, not only does the ACC produce the second most NFL picks, it is the second best recruiting conference by far. In the last seven years, which have been awful on the field for the ACC, 20 ACC recruiting classes have ranked in ESPN's top 15 classes. Notre Dame would probably add five more. That trails the SEC at 39, but the next highest is the Big 12 and Big 10 at 14, and the PAC at 12.
More importantly, past the SEC, no conference has more than two schools that have consistently shown the ability to recruit top 15 classes on a regular basis. The ACC would have four (FSU, Clemson, Miami, ND). It is almost ridiculous how bad the ACC has been relative to recruiting and draft picks, and that has to change, whether that's an emphasis on better coaching and staffs, smarter scheduling, or likely a combination. But the pieces are there for this new ACC to be good on the field.
3) Bowl Access. This is the real killer, especially with the Champions Bowl. The ACC lineup sucks. There isn't much that can be done here that isn't gradual. They definitely need to kill the rules that force bowls to not keep picking FSU and VT and Clemson, and let them pick the most appealing team they can. Other than that they are going to have to just prove themselves over time, and be agressive and creative about getting in on Bowl contracts when they become available. I wouldn't dare touch a proposed Losers Bowl with the Big East.
All this is moot obviously if ND insists on staying independent. A lot of questions revolve around whether the new BCS will "force" ND into a conference. I doubt it will. But Notre Dame will face this same question every time changes happen. They can keep kicking the independence can down the road six or eight years, and probably be ok for some time.
But here's the thing. The Irish are running out of options to choose an attractive conference home and will eventually be out of choices. They don't want to join the Big 10. I don't want to get into it, just trust me on that or do some research.
In the 1980's, the Irish could have created an Eastern Superconference, with then football powers and rivals Penn State, BC, Pitt, Syracuse, etc and molded it to their wishes. They didn't, and that conference is nothing more than a wistful memory that never was.
In the 1990s-2000s, they could have joined the Big East, played all up and down the Eastern seabord, and probably pretty much called their shot as far as their deal. That's not an option any more.
If they pass on the ACC now, the ACC may well cease to exist in any meaningful form in a few years.
When independence becomes no longer viable five or ten or fifteen years from now, ND may have no other choice than to join the hated Big 10 or a Big 12 that is a much worse fit academically and minor sports, and does not fit their national schedule aspirations nearly as well as the scenario I proposed.
It isn't really a matter of whether Notre Dame needs to join a conference today. They most certainly don't. But the real question, is will they EVER need to join a conference? Unless that answer in a confident NO (and I don't see how it could be), no scenario is nearly as attractive to them as what I've laid out. Is hanging on to independence an extra six or ten years worth where they might end up at the end of that time? Will their leadership treat independence like the national debt, and know it's unstustainable but punt it down the line for their successors to deal with anyway? Can they really afford to let one more ideal landing spot fall away?