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Conference Realignment Roundup: FSU, Clemson, UNC, NC State opposed to admitting Stanford, Cal to ACC

Recapping all the latest news in college conference realignment

NCAA Football: ACC Media Days Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Round and round we go once more.

The realignment wheel is spinning with a fury again, continuing a now three-year trend of major programs leaving their conferences to find greener pastures.

In 2021, the SEC courted the Oklahoma Sooners and Texas Longhorns out of the Big 12, with the two programs set to join their new conference starting in 2024.

In 2022, the USC Trojans and UCLA Bruins made shockwaves when the two rivals announced a move to the Big Ten (also starting in 2024), while the Big 12 added the UCF Knights, Houston Cougars, Cincinnati Bearcats and BYU Cougars, with the first three starting play in the conference this season.

This year, the Big 12 set off the latest round by adding the Colorado Buffaloes, igniting a ripple effect that included Florida State taking its first major public stand in voicing its financial frustrations with the ACC and the Pac-12 suddenly on the verge of counting its days as a conference.

Let’s run through the latest.

August 11

  • FSU, Clemson, North Carolina and North Carolina State holdouts in voting in Cal and Stanford, per Sports Illustrated

After news emerged that discussions about adding the California Golden Bears and Stanford Cardinal had hit a roadblock, meaning that the 12-of-15-team approval threshold was falling short of being met.

It was easy to guess a pair of those four holdouts — Florida State and Clemson, the two programs most attractive to other conferences — but according to reports, the Seminoles and Tigers were joined by the North Carolina Tar Heels and NC State Wolfpack.

From Sports Illustrated’s Richard Johnson and Pat Forde:

The two members of the disintegrating Pac-12 need 12 of the 15 members of the ACC to support their move. Four schools stood opposed when the issue was discussed Wednesday night, sources say: Florida State, Clemson, North Carolina and North Carolina State. Lacking the requisite numbers, sources say it is unlikely that the potential expansion of the league will be put to a formal vote.

Sources described ACC members Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech and Louisville as among the most vocal in advocating for the Cardinal and Golden Bears to join the league. ACC commissioner Jim Phillips has been leading the discussion, presenting financial and scheduling scenarios to the league members.

August 9

  • Expansion progress hits “roadblocks” according to ESPN’s Pete Thamel

While ACC officials continue to meet and discuss possible expansion moves (specifically involving the Cal Golden Bears, Stanford Cardinal and SMU Mustangs), those talks have encountered “roadblocks,” according to a report from ESPN’s Pete Thamel:

Sources confirmed one school that has been pushing for the addition of Cal and Stanford is Notre Dame, which is a member in the ACC in all sports except football. Notre Dame does get a vote on expansion, and it has a long history with Stanford. The fit from an Olympics sports perspective is attractive, too. But multiple athletics directors have questioned why anyone in the league would listen to Notre Dame because the Irish remain so steadfast in remaining independent.

One source indicated expansion could help bolster the security of the league long-term. “It’s a numbers game,” the source said. “Number of league members.” Given the way some ACC schools have studied the media grant of rights, it could be reasoned that adding members could help bolster the league if there were any defections — even though their additions would not be a huge financial win.

By Wednesday evening, however, it became clear there were not enough presidents willing to say yes to even take a vote.

The potential of programs leaving has the more entrenched schools within the league pondering what the next iteration of the ACC could look like, making unanimity nearly impossible to reach within the room.

  • ACC presidents to meet Wednesday, no vote expected but Notre Dame “pushing” for Cal and Stanford, per Larry Williams

Yesterday, sources were leaking that the overall feeling around the league was that adding Cal, Stanford and SMU was a relative non-starter.

Today, tunes haven’t completely changed — but there have been some pitch adjustments.

Ross Dellenger of Yahoo! Sports reported on the rates that the Mustangs, Cardinal and Golden Bears would come into the conference at yesterday:

To offset the additional travel costs of acquiring Stanford, Cal and/or SMU, current ACC members will need additional revenue from the network, or Stanford and Cal would have to agree to enter the league for a partial share, “such as a 60-70% share” — conversations of which are ongoing.

The ACC spent the past year vetting numerous targets, ultimately determining that no program brings enough value for the trouble. However, Colorado’s exit from the Pac-12 triggered a cascade of changes and reopened the expansion door for the conference.

According to Larry Williams of Tigers Illustrated, Notre Dame is at the forefront of pushing for the additions of Cal and Stanford. The Fighting Irish and Cardinal are pretty familiar with each other — the two have played each other 32 of the last 35 years, with 1989 kicking off the presentation of the Legends Trophy to the winner of the matchup.

Notre Dame, while not a full member of the ACC, does have full voting power within the conference.

August 8

  • ACC to also consider adding SMU, according to Ross Dellenger

A new tidbit of news on Tuesday evening as Yahoo! Sports’ Ross Dellenger has reported that the ACC, in addition to vetting Cal and Stanford, has also discussed adding the SMU Mustangs.

From the piece:

At a meeting of league presidents on Tuesday, executives explored the possibility of adding all three universities or only inviting the Pac-12’s two members. Administrators are expected to continue examining the expansion options and will review financial models for both scenarios — adding three or adding just two.

For more than a year now, SMU has held various degrees of dialogue with several leagues in its pursuit to join a power league, including the Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC. A small private school, SMU resides in one of America’s most populous metro areas, Dallas, and in the heart of a talent-rich football state.

Maybe even more important: The university would arrive at a reduced rate. Employing a rich donor base and a healthy desire to advance to the Power Four level, the university is open to forgoing conference distribution pay for their first several years in a new league. SMU officials held similar conversations with Pac-12 administrators.

The financials are the most significant piece to a potential ACC expansion.

In expanding, the league must avoid reducing the annual distribution paid to each team to supplement new schools. That is a “non-starter,” several administrators tell Yahoo Sports.

A perk of the ESPN contract: The network is required to increase its base distribution to the conference in a way that pays each new member the same annual rate as others — what’s termed as a “pro-rata.”

However, financial complications go much deeper. To offset the additional travel costs of acquiring Stanford, Cal and/or SMU, current ACC members will need additional revenue from the network, or Stanford and Cal would have to agree to enter the league for a partial share — conversations of which are ongoing.

  • ACC has exploratory meeting about Cal and Stanford additions but no vote or action taken

As reported by multiple sources yesterday, ACC scheduled two meetings over the course of 24 hours to vet the California Golden Bears and Stanford Cardinal as potential expansion targets, with the league’s athletic directors getting together a call Monday and its presidents convening on Tuesday morning.

The AP’s Ralph D. Russo is also reporting that the athletic directors will meet once more on Tueday.

According to a variety of reports, the idea seems to be a non-starter for a good bulk of the schools, who are justifiably curious as to how the additions solve the looming revenue gap crisis or raise the profile of the conference outside of academic prestige.

August 7

  • ACC to vet, discuss adding Cal and Stanford

Well, here’s some news.

ACC commissioner Jim Phillips has been saying for a few weeks that the conference would continue to evaluate expansion options, and on Monday, more signs that those proclamations had weight began to surface.

ESPN’s Pete Thamel reported that the league has scheduled two calls over the next 24 hours to vet Cal and Stanford, discussing the viability of adding those two schools to ACC from the now Pac-4, with one “for ACC athletic directors and the other for the league’s presidents and chancellors.”

Sources cautioned that the two scheduled discussions are in the embryonic stages — one call slated with the ACC athletic directors and a separate call with the league’s presidents that will play out on Monday and Tuesday.

“It’s complicated,” an ACC source said. “There’s a significant travel expense. I think it’s going to be all over the board with both the ADs and the presidents in what they may want to do. [Cal and Stanford] would likely have to take a reduced share. Eventually, though, they’re going to want to become a full share.”

The potential additions of Cal and Stanford do not project to be financial game-changers, per sources. And while the addition of the academic prestige of schools like Cal and Stanford would certainly excite some ACC presidents, the fiscal upside appears limited.

“There’s no windfall for the current members,” the ACC source said, indicating that it’s hard to envision any scenarios where it would be significantly additive for the current schools.

Other reports confirm that the idea is a non-starter but one the league is still exploring — from 247Sports’ Brandon Marcello:

ACC expansion involving Cal and Stanford was “not even close to happening” as of Monday evening, an ACC source told 247Sports. A plan developing with those two programs as ACC members was considered unlikely among industry sources, including one person involved with the ACC’s review Monday. Still, the possibility is on the table amid the wildest week of conference realignment in college athletics history, and further exploration within ACC leadership is scheduled Tuesday.

Stanford and Cal are also expected to explore independence, a source told 247Sports. The AAC has also shown interest in the four remaining Pac-12 programs, according to the Associated Press. Meanwhile, the Mountain West conference scheduled a meeting with its presidents to discuss the possibility of adding Pac-12 programs, according to Yahoo! Sports.

Additionally, Jim Williams, who reports on the Pac-12, said that the two leagues are considering an overall merger:

And as a reminder:

August 4

  • Oregon officially approves move to Big Ten, who has voted to let in Ducks and Washington

After the Pac-12 failed to get a Grants of Rights signed with its remaining members on Friday, the Oregon Ducks and Washington Huskies are ready to make the switch to the Big Ten.

The press release from Oregon:

“I’m thrilled that the University of Oregon has the opportunity to join the nation’s preeminent academic-athletic conference,” said UO President Karl Scholz. “Our student-athletes will participate at the highest level of collegiate athletic competition, and our alumni, friends and fans will be able to carry the spirit of Oregon across the country.”

The Big Ten Conference voted Friday to accept Oregon effective August 2, 2024. The UO will remain in the Pac-12 Conference for the duration of the Pac-12’s existing media rights agreements.

The move will benefit UO students and faculty, said Scholz, who, while dean and provost at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, helped shape and observed the benefits of the Big Ten Academic Alliance over the last decade. “The connections we will make with some of the leading research institutions in the world will provide new opportunities for our students, staff, faculty, and university stakeholders,” said Scholz. “The agreement we’ve reached with the Big Ten Conference will help ensure a bright future for the University of Oregon. We are grateful and look forward to a long, robust partnership.”

In coming years, the UO will prioritize the long-held traditions, including competition across all sports with Oregon State University. The alliance puts UO student-athletes on a national stage, said UO Director of Intercollegiate Athletics Rob Mullens.

The press release from Washington:

“The Big Ten is a thriving conference with strong athletic and academic traditions, and we are excited and confident about competing at the highest level on a national stage,” Cauce said. “My top priority must be to do what is best for our student-athletes and our University, and this move will help ensure a strong future for our athletics program.”

The UW is committed to preserving the rich tradition of the Apple Cup rivalry with Washington State University in all sports, including football.

“We are proud of our rich history with the Pac-12 and for more than a year have worked hard to find a viable path that would keep it together. I have tremendous admiration and respect for my Pac-12 colleagues. Ultimately, however, the opportunities and stability offered by the Big Ten are unmatched,” Cauce said. “Even with this move, we remain committed to the Apple Cup and to competing with WSU across all of our sports.”

The UW was one of the four founding members of what started in December 1915 as the Pacific Coast Conference, which eventually grew to become the Pac-12. USC and UCLA announced their departures for the Big Ten in 2022, and the University of Colorado announced last month that it would leave the Pac-12 for the Big 12 Conference.

Of note from both releases is that each school promised to remain in competition against the intrastate rival they’re leaving behind (Oregon State and Washington State, respectively).

From Action Network’s Brett McMurphy:

The Big Ten will grow to 18 members, the largest in college football history, and must decide whether to expand even further. The Big Ten is contemplating whether to stand at 18 or consider adding Stanford and Cal, or possibly any ACC schools that may leave, sources said.

Oregon and Washington will not immediately receive full shares in the Big Ten’s new media rights deal with FOX, CBS and NBC but will still make more than they would have by remaining in the Pac-12, sources said.

Both schools had been “vetted and cleared” to join the Big Ten for more than a year if the financial details could be worked out between the schools, the Big Ten and the Big Ten’s television partners.

“There was no more research or information needed on Oregon and Washington,” Big Ten sources said Thursday. “We have everything we need.”

The Big Ten now must decide whether to stay at 18 schools or expand further. The league’s options are adding Stanford and Cal or waiting to see if any schools become available from the ACC, such as Florida State, Clemson, Miami or North Carolina.

McMurphy also reported that the Mountain West has expressed interest in adding any remaining Pac-12 teams.

  • Arizona, Arizona State, Utah will join the Big 12 starting in 2024

After news that the Oregon Ducks and Washington Huskies were on the verge of making a switch to the Big Ten official, two more schools were instantly pinpointed as the next to leave the rapidly-sinking Pac-12 conference: Arizona State and Utah.

It’s been reported multiple times over the past week that should Arizona leave, its intrastate partner in Arizona State would leave as well, given the structure of the state’s university system. The Big 12 has been targeting those two and Utah in an effort to secure the Four Corners schools (the aforementioned trio and Colorado, who kicked off the latest round of realignment chaos).

From Action Network’s Brett McMurphy:

The Big 12 presidents’ approval is expected in the next 24 hours, followed by an announcement of the three new members sources said.

Sources told Action Network that the Big Ten did not want “the Pac-12’s blood on its hands” by taking Oregon and Washington before any other members left. However, the Ducks and Huskies eventually decided to join the Big Ten, paving the way for Arizona, Arizona State and Utah to join the Big 12.

In the Big 12, Arizona, Arizona State and Utah will receive a full $31.7 million annually in media rights revenue (not including other league revenue from College Football Playoff, etc.) once the Big 12’s new six-year $2.3 billion Grant of Rights deal with ESPN and FOX begins in 2025, sources said.

In 2024, the three schools also will receive a full Big 12 revenue share, estimated to be about $42 million, a source said. In 2025, that “all-in” number is expected to be around $50 million annually per school, industry sources said.

The three school’s move to the Big 12 became official on Friday night, with the conference announcing the moves in a press release:

“We are thrilled to welcome Arizona, Arizona State and Utah to the Big 12,” said Commissioner Brett Yormark. “The Conference is gaining three premier institutions both academically and athletically, and the entire Big 12 looks forward to working alongside their presidents, athletic directors, student-athletes and administrators.”

Beginning with the 2024-25 academic year, the Big 12 Conference will be comprised of 16 members - Arizona, Arizona State, Baylor, BYU, UCF, Cincinnati, Colorado, Houston, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas Tech, Utah and West Virginia.

With the defections, the Pac-12 will have just four teams remaining in 2024: Oregon State, Cal, Stanford and Washington State.

  • FSU attempting to raise equity, working with JPMorgan Chase

According to a new report from sports business site Sportico, Florida State University is working with JPMorgan Chase to explore ways of raising the athletic department’s equity — including sourcing private funding.

From the site:

PE giant Sixth Street is in advanced talks to lead a possible investment, said the people, who were granted anonymity because the specifics are private. Institutional money has poured into professional sports in recent years, from the NBA and global soccer to F1 and golf, but this would break new ground by entering the multibillion-dollar world of college athletic departments.

The school is considering a structure similar to many of those pro sports investments, where commercial rights are rolled into a new company, the private equity fund invests in that entity, and then recoups its money via future media/sponsorship revenue. That’s how Silver Lake structured its investment into the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team, and how CVC organized its $2.2 billion Spanish soccer deal with LaLiga.

It’s unclear exactly which FSU entity is most involved in the process. Florida law allows its public universities to organize their athletic departments as separate nonprofits, and there is a complex web of entities that includes the school itself, its booster organization and these nonprofit athletic setups. Many public schools also have strict rules around transparent, competitive bidding for university contracts, and certain deal structures would need to be avoided so as not to jeopardize a university’s tax-exempt status.

This comes just days after Florida State publically voiced its frustrations with the ACC, who in the school’s view has failed to adequately adapt its financial model for the modern world of major college athletics.

August 2

  • Florida State has drawn the line in the sand when it comes to financial frustrations

During a board of trustees meeting on Wednedsay, Florida State University President Richard McCollugh said that, barring drastic changes to the way the conference distributes revenue the school will “have to at some point consider leaving the ACC:”

“We are one of the best media-valued teams in the United States. We, along with Clemson and others carry the value of the ACC — no offense to my colleagues, that’s just the number.”

“FSU helps to drive value and will drive value for any partner, but we have spent a year trying to understand how we might fix the issue. There are no easy fixes to this challenge, but a group of us have spent literally a year. We’ve explored every possible option that you can imagine. The issue at hand is what can we do to allow ourselves to be competitive in football and get what I think is the revenue we deserve?”

The word consider wasn’t in the vocabulary of some trustees, with former FSU quarterback Drew Weatherford and first-year member Justin Roth taking much firmer stances.

“Do we want to play games moving forward, or do we want to compete? I’ve thought about this a lot as an ex-player, as now board of trustee member,” Weatherford said, “and the simple fact is the cost of playing at the highest level is outpacing the ACC’s ability to compete on a regular basis.”

“For me, it’s not if we leave [the ACC], it’s how and when.”

“Staying in this conference for the next 13 years and trying to wait for that perfect alignment of the stars is the equivalent of a death by 1,000 cuts and each cut is a $30 million cut over the next 13 years,” Roth added.

“Ideally we can come up with something before that, probably unlikely, but I don’t think it’s unrealistic [for our goal to be], within the next 12 months, we have an exit plan and we execute it.”

Florida State athletic director Michael Alford, after being asked by a board member earlier in the year about the financial toll of leaving the conference, said “hypothetically” it was possible that FSU would break even within four years with the increased revenue from leaving the ACC.

What would it take to leave the conference? According to ESPN:

To get out of the league, Florida State would have to pay a $120 million exit fee and go to court to challenge the existing grant of rights, which gives the ACC media rights for its member schools through the length of the contract.

No school has gone to court yet to challenge the grant of rights, which exists in every Power 5 conference. Florida State, along with other schools in the ACC, has studied the contract language in the grant of rights for more a year.

In an interview with ESPN earlier Wednesday, Florida State athletic director Michael Alford said, “We have a great understanding of what opportunities there are in that document. How that document could hold us back, but also what the opportunities are. So this is going to be a discussion. We’ll keep getting legal advice. Our legal team has a good understanding of that document.”

Florida State has been at the forefront of advocating for revenue remedies, with athletic director Michael Alford the face of the campaign, speaking assertively at multiple FSU board of trustees meetings as well as in interviews with the media — including Tomahawk Nation:

“We understand, especially at Florida State and a couple of other institutions, really understand the commitment of that gap that’s coming. It’s a freight train. That’s barreling down the tracks... I’m very involved and looking at solutions. Because I can’t sit here. And for five years, it’d be 30 million behind every year. It’s not a one-year thing. And that makes a big difference, especially when you start compounding that year after year after year.”

“I need to protect Florida State University, and make sure that we’re doing everything we can to make sure that we’re able to compete nationally. And I’m not talking just football, everyone is going to immediately go there. And I agree. But you know, one thing that’s great about our institution and the culture of our institution is we expect national championships across the board. We want to compete in everything we do... With that revenue gap, you’re going to see maybe some decisions that that we have to make that won’t allow that... want to protect that student-athlete experience, what we’re able to offer them and how they’re able to grow during their time here as much as I can. And that’s the driving factor behind it.”

Florida State’s failing to receive revenue splits equivalent to its name-brand peers in other conferences sticks out even more when considering numbers previously shared by Alford showing that FSU would rank No. 3 in both the SEC and Big Ten for revenue generated before conference distributions showing that FSU would rank third in the SEC in revenue generated — ahead of schools like the Alabama Crimson Tide, LSU Tigers and Florida Gators.

When comparing against Big 10 schools, Florida State ranks third, behind the Ohio State Buckeyes and Michigan Wolverines but ahead of the Penn State Nittany Lions, Iowa Hawkeyes, Wisconsin Badgers, and others.

July 27

  • Colorado is (re)joining the Big 12

The first major news of this realignment cycle is a move that has been discussed publically since at least late May — the Colorado Buffaloes are leaving the Pac-12 and heading to the Big 12, entering the conference to compete in the 2024-25 season.

“The time has come for us to change conferences,” Colorado president Todd Saliman told the board of regents on Thursday afternoon. “We see this as a way to create more opportunity for the University of Colorado, for our students and our student-athletes and create a path forward for us in the future.”

Colorado’s departure will coincide with the end of the Pac-12 television deal, which expires after the 2023-24 season and means Colorado won’t have to pay an exit fee. Colorado is expected to join the Big 12 at a pro rata basis, which is an average of $31.7 million in television revenue over the course of the league’s new deal starting in 2025.

“Let me state up front that this move was not just based on money or finances,” Colorado athletic director Rick George said. “A decision this big has a lot more to do than just money.”

Colorado, of course, was a member of the original Big 12 until 2010 and in fact, was a member of its predecessor, the Big 8. Fun fact: the conference only became the Big 12 after a landmark Supreme Court case, NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, opened the floodgates for media right revenues to dictate the hierarchy of college athletics, a domino effect that has led us to the situation we’re staring in the face today.

Could the Big 12 be looking to add more schools? ESPN’s Pete Thamel says that as of now, the only other main school that has reportedly gotten far in discussions to join are the UConn Huskies, who currently are independent in football and members of the Big East in all other sports, while San Diego State of the Mountain West has also preliminary talks. Brett McMurphy of the Action Network says the conference is looking to add 1-3 more schools, preferably Pac-12 members (Arizona, Arizona State and Utah have been mentioned) though it will consider UConn, San Diego State, Memphis and UNLV.

  • The ACC is still open to expansion

It was at ACC Spring Meetings that news of actual, tangible upheaval amongst members first came out, with commissioner Jim Phillips reportedly blindsided by news of Florida State, Clemson, Miami, UNC, NC State, Virginia, and Virginia Tech officials working together to find ways to break the conference’s iron-clad Grant of Rights agreement. The contract, which “irrevocably and exclusively grants to the conference during the term all rights necessary for the conference to perform the contractual obligations of the conference expressly set forth in the ESPN agreement,” is the anchor holding down the ACC’s heavyweights within the confines of Charlotte as other conferences see their revenues soar.

So it was only fitting that at this year’s ACC Kickoff, the alarms on the realignment carousel were once again set to full blast. ESPN’s David Hale was able to speak with the commissioner, who was adamant that the conference is actively seeking ways to enrich its brand:

“The ACC has been and remains highly engaged in looking at anything that makes us a better and stronger conference,” Phillips told ESPN. “We’ve spent considerable time on expansion to see if there is anything that fits. We have a tremendous group of institutions but if there was something that made us better, we would absolutely be open to it.”

“Revenue generation continues to be a priority, but this league is third right now in revenue as we go forward into wherever the next TV deals are for other conferences where, we’ve looked at it. We’ve had multiple TV consultants. Third is certainly a good position, but we want to gain and gain traction financially in order to close the gap with the SEC and the Big Ten.”

“You have to understand what’s going on across the country. Maybe you preempt [another league’s expansion], maybe you don’t, maybe there’s a first thing that has to happen before you make a move. There’s a variety of ways you attack this.”

“I’m well aware of the narrative and stories surrounding the ACC and our members as well as the frustrations of some of our schools on our financials,” Phillips said. “But these are not new. While there are legitimate discussions and stories regarding revenue and our membership, it’s important that all of us never lose perspective on just what we are doing together. The bottom line is our conference is strong and I’m extremely bullish about our future together.”

The ACC hasn’t expanded since 2013 when it added the Syracuse Orange and Pittsburgh Panthers from the crumbling Big East. The Louisville Cardinals were the last program to officially join the conference, beginning ACC play in 2014.