Here we go again.
Another round of conference realignment, another pair of blue bloods fleeing their historic and regional rivals for financially and, ostensibly, greener football pastures.
USC and UCLA are ditching the Pac-however many, flying over half of flyover country, and landing with the midwestern powers of the Big Ten and then Some. As Florida State fans watch the chess pieces move, the next question is inevitable: what can the Seminoles do to keep from being left behind?
Tremors were felt when Oklahoma and Texas packed their bags to leave the Big 12 for the SEC, and then USC and UCLA broke the seismometer and set off all the alarms. Pieces are moving, and quickly.
Murmurs in Tallahassee of ongoing discussions at FSU’s highest levels have done nothing to calm the roaring din of fans’ pseudo-economic anxiety. The Atlantic Coast Conference is, without question, a second-tier graveyard - spread among much of the same geographies as the Big Ten and Southeastern Conference.
Thirty years removed from choosing the ACC over the SEC, Florida State is now pining for release from its shallow roots along Tobacco Road.
Greensboro seems to have other ideas.
Reporting from Sports Illustrated, CBS Sports and others indicates the ACC and the Pac-12 are in discussions for a “loose partnership” under the umbrella of an ESPN television deal. This revolves around the pair’s existing, structured networks expanding to meet each other’s coverage areas. With the Pac-12 being tied to FOX, ESPN gets new West Coast markets, and the Pac-12 expanding to East Coast regions helps their new partners’ game inventories the same way.
This won’t work.
College football’s previous expansions have been triggered by similar, television-market-driven reasons. The formula was simple - add a couple of programs in markets not yet tapped by your conference, the carriers pay more to the broadcaster, and an even prettier penny if your conference had their own channel with a higher share of the carriage fees.
Texas A&M and Missouri? Not SEC schools in any way shape or form, but a neat addition that fit cable markets and divisional balance (at the time). Pittsburgh and Syracuse? Well, some strong basketball success helps, but northeast TV markets were really the play for the ACC.
Those expansions were a dozen years ago. The calculus has changed. Increased carriage fees through more markets and potentially more channel subscribers? It matters still, sure, which is why the ACC-Pac alliance could be a bandaid for both.
But a bandaid is for small cuts. The gap between the big two conferences is too wide and major change is necessary to compete with regional powers who earn tens of millions more than FSU does each year. There simply is no more jockeying to be comfortable in third, fourth or fifth among the conferences. College athletics, driven primarily by football, is quickly separating into two tiers among the Power Five, and only the top two can be financially competitive in the new era of NIL deals.
The SEC and the Big Ten look poised to continue expansion past USC and UCLA. Even if they don’t, incremental growth doesn’t close the gap.
And this is all the ACC-Pac alliance (which we have dubbed the PACCt) can and will do. Small, incremental changes to stop the bleeding. On a wing and a prayer, a Hail Mary to try to keep the Pac-12 from dissolving and seeing its better remaining products split between the Big Ten and the Ghost of Big 12, as their lesser programs scramble to find a somewhat competitive home.
The Pac-12 is bloodied, a shell of the conference it was mere weeks ago. What is this conference without USC? What do new-blood Oregon and a half-dozen middling programs offer past a short-term solution?
USC, Texas and Oklahoma own four of the six national championships from 2000 to 2006. They are among the most storied programs in the history of the sport and have recent success.
If this trio felt compelled to depart their longtime athletic homes (with USC celebrating a century in Pac-12 legacy conferences as they depart), how can Florida State feel comfortable with the scraps?
Speculation runs rampant regarding the ACC’s Grant of Rights agreement, part of its long-term TV contract with ESPN. Many Seminoles feel FSU is trapped, relegated to the second tier of college sports in its blood pact with Tobacco Road.
The GOR binds Florida State tightly to the ACC. The Seminole fan base, to put it lightly, does not feel the same bond to a conference that has not treated FSU as its premier product.
A short-term PACCt does nothing to allay fears that FSU will be left behind.
The near-to-medium-term future of college sports leans towards two mega conferences. The further FSU is dragged into the hole the ACC is digging, the further it will fall from relevancy.
Spike the PACCt.