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The ACC is winning the future

Sam Sharpe-US PRESSWIRE

Promoted to the front page to increase discussion.

Last week, ACC athletic directors, coaches and Commissioner John Swofford gathered at the Ritz-Carlton Resort in Amelia Island for the league’s annual spring meetings, where they discussed a range of topics.

Last year’s drama is no more. A grant-of-rights agreement passed last month has fortified the league. Stability has replaced volatility.

Along with stability has come a dramatic change in how the ACC is perceived. That’s because ACC schools are now set to make more than $20 million per year. That’s big boy money—in the neighborhood of Big Ten, SEC and Big XII payouts—and doesn’t include revenue from a would-be ACC Network, which appears to be moving forward fast.

The league’s long-term outlook is even brighter.

Here's U.S. Census Bureau data which shows that, of all power conferences, the ACC has the most people in its footprint, some 101 million. It’s followed by the SEC (90 million), the Big Ten (84 million), the Pac-12 (62 million) and the Big XII (37 million).

Furthermore, the data also clearly shows a changing population, a shift that benefits the southeast region and burdens the midwest. ACC and SEC states are expected to grow significantly, while Big Ten and Big XII states are expected to grow only marginally or not at all and, in some cases, negatively.

Basically, people are moving to Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia and away from Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio and West Virginia.

Consider this: By 2030, the ACC’s footprint could include half the nation.

So what?

Well, recall that Realignment 101 teaches us that expansion is all about television markets. Taking that notion a step further: Expansion is all about television markets for the benefit and purpose of conference networks.

As reported, the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M added no value to the SEC’s CBS deal. But getting into Texas—the second most populous state—was crucial for the newly-born SEC Network, just as getting into New York and Washington, DC—two of the top-8 television markets in the nation—was crucial for the Big Ten Network. This is because, barring passage of Senator John McCain’s proposed legislation, the more televisions in a conference’s footprint, the more revenue its network can generate from cable- and satellite-subscriber fees.

That’s where ACC expansion has paid off. Adding Louisville, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse has put the league in some of the nation’s largest television markets. In fact, the ACC is now in thirteen—more than half—of the nation’s top 25 television markets, more than any other conference.

That ain’t bad.

Swofford has impressively managed the league through expansion ups and downs. Not very long ago the league was increasingly vulnerable to being poached by the others. Now it’s on pace to make beaucoup money, to take its sports international and to showcase its basketball tournament at the world’s most famous arena.

But, while basketball is the league’s hallmark, its football continues to be the brunt of jokes.

So, what’s the football fix?

Well, the ideal scenario requires a suspension of reality.

In some alternative universe, Notre Dame realizes football independence is no longer in its best interests and joins as a full member of the league. Also, Texas opts out of staying put in its current stagnant, least-populous league, falls for the allure of East Coast media exposure and joins the ACC as its sixteenth member, somehow averting the teeth of the Big XII’s own grant-of-rights agreement.

The ACC might then orient itself into North and South divisions (Boston College, NC State, Notre Dame, Pitt, Syracuse, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest in the North; Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Louisville, Miami, North Carolina and Texas in the South) and do a deal with NBC à la the SEC-CBS deal.

That would give the league two additional national football brands, significant exposure and a host of marquee football games. But it’s hard to think of anything more unlikely. (Note: Expansion is still really fun to think about.)

Still, the league’s football reality is not all bad. Last week, Swofford said he’s “bullish” about the league’s football future. He should be.

Coaching is improving and the on-field talent is there, as demonstrated by the league’s competitiveness with the SEC in terms of the quality of recruits and number of players it sends to the NFL.

What the league desperately needs is for Florida State and Clemson to continue to their upward trend and for programs like Miami, Virginia Tech and North Carolina to step up and show consistency by winning nine, ten or eleven games annually.

That's not asking too much.

And luckily for the league’s football programs, there’ll be chances this upcoming season to make statements.

In week one alone, North Carolina faces South Carolina; Virginia Tech challenges Alabama; Clemson takes on Georgia; and Florida State goes head-to-head with Pitt in a conference game on a big stage on Labor Day night.

In week two, Miami plays Florida and Virginia meets Oregon.

Obviously, to shed the league’s reputation as weak in football, its programs must seize these and other opportunities.

And they very well could.

Like it or not, the ACC is a national player and is trending up. Of all the power conferences, it’s the most well-positioned for growth.

Consistent football competitiveness is the only missing piece of the puzzle; once the league routinely asserts itself on the gridiron, the coup d’état will be complete.

And that’ll be how the league, not just wins, but dominates the future.

/R

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