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The impending college football TV bubble makes next step of realignment tricky for ACC schools

Financial pressures on the SEC and Big 10 to deliver on bigger TV viewership means those conferences and their network partners will be more selective.

Florida State v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

The news of the “Magnificent Seven” in the ACC sent shockwaves across the college football landscape just before the league’s annual meeting in Amelia Island earlier this year.

Florida State athletic director Michael Alford had been at the forefront of lambasting the ACC’s current media deal, but the day that ACC athletic directors and commissioner Jim Phillps were set to meet, it became public knowledge that Florida State, Clemson, Miami, UNC, NC State, Virginia, and Virginia Tech had explored all possible avenues to get out of the ACC’s Grant of Rights and into greener pastures.

The band-aid-on-a-bullet solution the ACC voted on was an unequal revenue-sharing model based on athletic success, with an exact model and parameters still to be determined. This model doesn’t touch any TV revenue, which negates the TV viewership metrics that Alford has publicly championed showing that FSU was amongst the most highly-viewed teams in college football.

With the new model, Phillips acknowledged the ACC’s new reality but outside of getting ESPN to agree to some kind of new TV deal (the chances of which are essentially zero), there is little to stop schools from continuing to search for backup options.

The issue is that even if there is a way out of the Grant of Rights (which as of now, there seems to be no indication of), financial pressures on the SEC and Big 10 to deliver on bigger TV viewership means those conferences and their network partners will be more selective.

The SEC won’t be going to 9 conference games next year due to ESPN not guaranteeing it will increase the conference’s payout. ESPN has almost single-handily been the driving factor in the explosion of college sports TV rights over the last 20 years but due to drops in revenue from cord-cutting that can’t be made up through streaming subscribers, it isn’t able to easily commit to opening up the checkbook to ensuring it will get more of Texas vs. Georgia and less of Alabama vs. Middle Tennessee.

Last month, issues began to publicly emerge with the Big Ten’s record-breaking TV contract. The Big Ten has a complicated relationship with night games, with schools like Michigan not even having permanent lights installed until well into the 21st century. The league has softened its stance over the last decade but has continued to draw a line in the sand with no night games after Halloween.

When it broke that NBC was going to broadcast a weekly primetime Big Ten game, it was assumed the Buckeyes, Wolverines and the rest of their merry crew buckled to the all-mighty dollar, but the change was news to school officials with the network making it known they expected regular appearances from the teams that actually draw viewers — in simple terms, NBC wasn’t giving the Big Ten $350 million a year to broadcast Indiana vs. Purdue on Thanksgiving Saturday.

Certain compromises came of it, including Ohio State hosting Michigan State on November 11th in the latest primetime home game in Ohio State history as well as Michigan State moving its season finale against Penn State to primetime on Black Friday.

If these trends hold and TV executives become increasingly demanding of college football in order to give more in rights fees, what are the implications for the ACC and Florida State?

Since 2012, the SEC has garnered 128 regular season conference games with over 4 million viewers while the Big Ten has managed 120. Four million TV viewers are what FOX and ESPN expect from a conference’s top game when they’re shelling out nine figures a year. Those numbers don’t even factor in what new additions like Southern Cal or Texas will bring to the Power Two.

Meanwhile, the ACC has only managed to post 70 conference games with over 4 million viewers since 2012 according to Sports Media Watch. That alone helps show the disparity in the ACC’s current TV deal but delving further into the numbers reveals how lopsided the conference is in terms of TV drawing power.

Jonathan Loesche/Tomahawk Nation

The numbers just confirm what everyone already knows. Clemson and Florida State are the only real TV draws the ACC has. Half of those games featured the Noles or Tigers with three others coming during’s Notre Dame 2020 fling with the conference. Every other ACC school is over a full standard deviation away from FSU and Clemson.

2012 Georgia Tech vs Virginia Tech and 2017 Miami vs Pitt are the only two ACC games in that time frame to not feature the conference’s usual heavyweights.

Jonathan Loesche/Tomahawk Nation

Looking at the total number of games, the pecking order in the conference becomes more clear. FSU and Clemson are the draws. Miami’s days as a stand-alone TV draw are fading as an entire generation of college football fans watch the program fall into perpetual mediocrity. Despite Notre Dame’s part-time status, their games draw eyeballs better than anyone else in the league which is why they can force the ACC into capitulation.

UNC and Virginia, large public flagship universities with plenty of academic credentials that university presidents love alongside new markets with plenty of cable subscribers to jack up conference network rights fees which would mitigate any poor TV drawing power, would have been perfect candidates to get invited to either the SEC or the Big Ten before cord-cutting. But with cable dying and networks on the hook for hundreds of millions in TV rights fees, they need to see a return.

Schools like Lousiville, NC State, and Virginia Tech may have diehard fanbases by ACC standards but they simply don’t have the TV drawing power the SEC/Big 10 and their TV partners would want right now.

Alabama has played in five games involving ACC teams during this timespan that have drawn over 4 million viewers, which is more games than nine actual conference members have played in total.

Florida State and Clemson’s values as television draws ensure those two schools will find a home in college football’s paradigm at some point.

For the rest of the ACC schools though, they offer little in value for TV networks. Miami, UNC, and Virginia will continue to show up as rumored candidates for the SEC and Big Ten but looking at the actual numbers they aren’t going to make the cut by themselves.