There is no question that the college football we all enjoy now is not the same college football we enjoyed as kids, evidenced primarily by the excessive number of bowls and the intense debate over the need for a playoff system. Personally, my favorite football season as an 11-year old kid was the ridiculous 1990: Virginia, as the #1-ranked team in early November, accepted a Sugar Bowl bid against Tennessee and promptly lost to Georgia Tech the following week; before that, Colorado had beaten Missouri on fifth down (Bill McCartney, ever the champion of sportsmanship, defended his refusal to relinquish the victory based on the “lousy” playing surface in Columbia that day). On New Year’s Day 1991, Georgia Tech beat Nebraska handily in the Citrus Bowl; Washington beat Iowa in the Rose Bowl, and Colorado beat Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl. At the end of the day Georgia Tech (11-0-1) and Colorado (11-1-1) were co-National Champions, as declared by the UPI and AP, respectively. Utter chaos reigned…and it’s arguable whether the current system is any better.
To most of us, the ACC is inherent to our culture, and we’ve seen it go through exceptional changes over the past twenty years. Following is the first of a two-part discussion focusing on how college football, and the ACC in particular, has changed and how this recent evolution of college football and the current trend towards a few, elite super conferences has affected the ACC.
EVOLUTION of the SUPER CONFERENCE
The past 20 years have been a volatile era for college football & basketball, which have separately evolved into one collective industry that generates billions in total economic impact.
The NCAA reported total budgeted revenues for 2006-07 of $564 million. TV revenue accounts for $508.3 million (90%), while championship revenue accounts for $44.9 million (8%); investments, fees and services account for only $9.8 million (1.74%), while the remainder is a negligible $1 million from membership dues. The proliferation over the past 20 years of TV revenues has steered nearly every change in college football, particularly the trend towards expansion: the super conference.
Prior to its most recent expansion in 2003-04, the ACC was the only conference with a TV contract for football less lucrative than its TV contract for basketball. While this is still case in 2007, by every indication football has driven the push for expansion and realignment while basketball – its March cash cow secure – has simply ridden shotgun.
Expansion is by no means a revolutionary idea to college football in general, or the ACC, in particular. The ACC has expanded a total of three times in its 54-year history, with only one contraction. The seven charter members Clemson, Duke, Maryland, North Carolina, NC State, South Carolina and Wake Forest had left the Southern Conference and formed the ACC on May 8, 1953; on December 4 of that same year, Virginia joined. South Carolina, for political reasons, voluntarily departed the conference in 1971. The first expansion occurred in 1978, with the addition of Georgia Tech; the second in 1991, with the addition of Florida State; the third expansion began in 2004 with the addition of Miami and Virginia Tech and completed in 2005 with the addition of Boston College.
The previous expansions in 1978 and 1991 each had its merits and proved both appropriate and advantageous; Georgia Tech and Florida State each brought instant prominence to the league and did so without disrupting its extraordinary dynamic. However, in the fourth year of the latest expansion, with three years of complete expansion, the ACC has yet to fulfill whatever aspirations its leaders held for burgeoning prominence in the BCS.
While its origins can be traced to the changing landscape of college football in the 1980s, this evolution of the current trend towards the structure of a few, elite conferences was sparked into perpetual motion in 1992, when Arkansas and South Carolina joined the Southeastern Conference to form the first super conference.
South Carolina had been a football independent since its secession from the ACC in 1971, but had competed in the Metro Conference in all sports except football and men’s soccer from 1983-1992. What would in later years become a distinguishing characteristic of expansion, South Carolina alone could not spark any sweeping changes; it would take a combined effort with Arkansas, and eventually others.
Arkansas, still relevant on a national scale at that time, provided the intrigue and muscle to propel this developing trend. It departed the Southwestern Conference, which had distinguished itself as one of national football prominence, having produced nine national champions in its enduring history. In fact, the SWC had once represented the very essence of traditional conference affiliations, having been defined chiefly by its close proximity and its rabid, football-first culture. Interestingly enough, however, both of these would fundamentally prove driving factors in the eventual demise of the conference.
The other eight of its nine members were in Texas, meaning the SWC had become much too localized to sustain marketability amid the emerging propagation of TV revenues. Additionally, in what could be argued as separate, albeit collective, attempts to retain its football prominence, the conference as a whole was rocked throughout the 1980s by scandals and subsequent probations. Southern Methodist, arguably the SWC’s premier team of the time, having been the nation’s most-winning team from 1980-85, was rampant with repeated recruiting violations and unchecked coaching scandals and ultimately given the Death Penalty in 1987; this started a chain reaction that ultimately resulted in sharply decreasing TV revenues. While prosperity reigned for the rest of college football, the SWC, and particularly Arkansas, suffered.
In a move that has never been considered bold, but rather entirely appropriate both at that time and in hindsight, Arkansas left behind its natural, bitter border-rivalry with Texas, defecting from the floundering SWC to the prospering SEC. By all assessments, it was not only wholly logical, but entirely essential. Arkansas was one of only three SWC teams that had avoided sanctions in the previous decade (Baylor and Rice were the others), so its defection to the SEC essentially guaranteed the downfall of the SWC.
In both cases, Arkansas and South Carolina had foreseen the reshaping of college football. Both moves were entirely sensible because it secured their individual survival in addition to the continued burgeoning of the SEC. It was in its essence a model that struck fear in the basketball-centric ACC, the basketball-only Big East, and even the Big Ten, which had a storied football tradition, but had lacked national prominence over the previous decade.
The response from these conferences was swift, if not quite definitive.
To counter this looming trend toward the super conference, which was even then by all indications central to football, in 1991 the Big East finally formed a football conference by adding Miami, Temple, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, and Rutgers to existing members Boston College and Pittsburgh. The Big East actually semi-retained its basketball roots with West Virginia and Rutgers as football-only members until 1995, Virginia Tech until 2001, and Temple until its banishment in 2004 (these teams had each competed as part of the Atlantic 10 in basketball). However, the homerun for which the Big East had longed – Notre Dame in football – never came to fruition.
Meanwhile, in order to shore up their own statures in football, the ACC added Florida State in 1992, while the Big Ten added Penn State a year later in 1993 (interestingly enough, Penn State had been rejected by the Big East in 1982 because at that time it was focused only on basketball).
The domino-effect had begun, and by no means was this trend offering any signs of waning. In 1996, as expected, the SWC disbanded. Its four power schools – Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and Baylor – merged with the Big Eight schools to form college football’s second super conference, the Big XII. Oddly enough, Baylor seemed included only to ensure the twelve-member league required to stage a conference championship game, while Houston, Rice, Southern Methodist, and Texas Christian were each banished to college football’s lower class by the move.
In five short years, the SEC and Big XII had both become super conferences complete with two six-team divisions, with the conference champion determined by a conference championship game played at a neutral site. No doubt it has been a model that has proven successful for these conferences. Since 1992, the SEC and Big XII have accounted for at least a share of ten national titles in football: Alabama (1992); Nebraska (1994, 1995, 1997) — 1994 & 1995 were actually as part of the Big Eight; Florida (1996, 2006); Tennessee (1998); Oklahoma (2000); LSU (2003); and Texas (2005). [Updated August 2011: Alabama (2009), Auburn (2010), Florida (2008) and LSU (2007) have each added a national title since this was originally written.]
The newfound upheaval in the panorama of college football would prove not an anomaly, but rather the beginning of a trend.
The ACC’s ROAD TOWARDS EXPANSION
In the 1980s, the ACC was a cozy and charming member organization that cut a swath along the southeastern coast (and Maryland). Like the SWC, it was defined by its proximity – all eight schools were within 325 miles of its headquarters in Greensboro – as well as its culture – one focused on basketball as opposed to football. There was no question the heart of the ACC was in North Carolina; in fact, the unfavorable politics of this provincial prejudice had been the primary reason for the secession of South Carolina in 1971.
On the whole, it might have lacked many defining attributes as a football conference, but it was in no way lacking in overall stature; Clemson (1981) and Georgia Tech (1990) had each won national titles in the decade preceding the initial move towards expansion, and certainly Tobacco Road could be credited with the creation of big-time college basketball, particularly what is now the multi-million dollar industry of March Madness. But perhaps by the early 1990s, with the dynamic of college football on a nationally-identified fast track, it had become just too localized in its flavor to ever be anything more than a regional product that relied too heavily on its basketball prominence.
While basketball would certainly be an important factor in the evolving business of college athletics, it positively would not be the driving factor. College basketball had secured its TV ratings and marketability by having for a decade already succeeded in staging the unparalleled three-weekend event of March Madness. Meanwhile, college football’s postseason was at that time still a trifle mess of awkward, nonsensical bowl tie-ins and untapped revenue potential.
Lacking options, the ACC tried to conform itself to this changing dynamic yet still retain its identity by adding only Florida State, which soon produced two national championships in 1993 and 1999. This addition alone did not shake up the unique personality of the conference – it brought added stature in football but by no means did it diminish its stature in basketball. What the ACC had to do to not only survive, but prosper, was to establish and maintain its stature in football.
Between the time the SEC expanded in 1992 and the Big XII formed in 1996, the nature of football’s largest payouts – TV revenues and bowl games – had undergone considerable changes. There is little argument that bowls have ever been a method for determining a true national champion, evidenced even now by polls that are a result of preconceived agendas and voter bias. However, by the late 1980s, there became an increasing need – not necessarily the desire, though – to structure the bowl system in a way that would pair up the nation’s top two teams.
Prior to 1992, bowls had affiliation agreements with specific conferences. This had seemingly been essential to encourage fans to travel and thus establish firm economic bases in bowl cities, which would in turn guarantee larger bowl payouts. But the very nature of the invitation process often created match ups that proved ridiculous and unwarranted.
In 1992, an elite few of the conference commissioners – ACC, Big East, Big Eight, SEC, SWC, and Notre Dame – formed the ostensibly inane Bowl Coalition, which would basically guarantee the match up in some combination of the ACC, Big East, and Notre Dame with the Big Eight in the Orange Bowl, the SEC in the Sugar Bowl, and the SWC in the Cotton Bowl. Noticeably, the Big Ten and Pac-10 were not included, having a long-standing tradition with the Rose Bowl.
This system survived three seasons until it was modified in 1995 into the equally asinine Bowl Alliance, which simply eliminated the specific bowl tie-ins for conference champions to provide for the increased probability of matching up the nation’s two best teams in the Fiesta, Sugar, or Orange Bowl. It appeared a less dubious method for equal pairings by providing flexibility and allowing for two at-large bids, but it still lacked the Big Ten and Pac-10, which in any given year could produce one of the nation’s premier teams.
Like the Coalition, the Alliance lasted three seasons, until 1998, when the commissioners of the self-classified elite conferences (and, of course, Notre Dame) redefined the very nature of controversy regarding the topic of determining a true national champion by forming the Bowl Championship Series.
The intention of the BCS was never to determine a true national champion, but rather generate phenomenal revenue. For all its shortcomings, the one thing the current BCS does well is fill the coffers of the elite. According to Foxsports.com, in 2008 the BCS will pay out a total of $17 million to each conference for each game, with an additional $4 million for a conference’s second BCS team [thanks to RickJ for the correction]. For the SEC, Big Ten, and Big XII, which each have two BCS teams, this equates to $21 million to each conference, which proves how lucrative it is for a conference to send a second team to the BCS. The Big Ten has done this six times, the SEC four, the Big XII three, and the Pac-10 twice.
Only the ACC and Big East have failed to even once send a second team to the BCS, missing out on that enviable additional $4 million payout. This lucrative potential of sending a second team to the BCS quickly formed one of the leading motivations for ACC expansion when the topic found its way into the public domain in 2003. Hidden inside this was the rhetoric of mere survival; with a new contract looming in 2005, the ACC would need to establish its equitability as part of the BCS to secure its part in it. Another driving factor was the opportunity to cash in on the riches of a conference championship game, which had initially been estimated at around $7 million annually.
But each of these factors, it became pressingly evident, were indeed secondary to the reason for the colossal value of present-day college football as a thriving business venture: the foremost rationale for expansion was without any doubt the multi-millions in revenues from a restructured TV deal. The pervasive argument was that an expanded ACC – originally including Syracuse rather than Virginia Tech – could negotiate a new TV contract upwards of $40 million per year. Meanwhile, Big East officials countered that, in an attempt to secure exclusive rights to ACC basketball, ESPN had vastly overvalued its estimate by a factor of two.
Secondary to the financial considerations was the added stature an expanded ACC would recognize.
In 2003, adding Miami was tough to oppose; the program had returned after a brief depression during the 1990s as a perennial national championship contender. By all indications it was the sole addition that would immediately close the widening gap between the SEC & Big XII and the ACC. The argument for Boston College seemed at best quixotic, considering the well-documented nature of its fickle, oft-apathetic fan base. While it might have then been based in the nation’s fifth rated TV market (according to Nielson Media, Boston-Manchester fell to 7th for 2006-07), there seemed to be little evidence that this market share would extend beyond the Boston area pro sports market. Virginia Tech – not in the original plan, remember – at least seemed to make sense strictly from a standpoint of improving the legitimacy of the ACC with the BCS. However, it took the intercession of the Virginia state legislature and its pressure on Virginia to join the opposition of North Carolina and Duke to effectively block expansion, to bring Virginia Tech into the equation rather than Syracuse.
Miami and Virginia Tech had combined since 1998 for a national title, three national title appearances, and five BCS appearances. Miami had played in four consecutive BCS games (2004 Orange, 2003 Fiesta, 2002 Rose, and 2001 Sugar), two of which had been the national championship game (2003 Fiesta and 2002 Rose). Additionally, the perplexing BCS rankings shifted Miami into the 2001 Sugar Bowl versus Florida, while the Florida State team it had defeated in October played for the national championship in the Orange Bowl.
While adding Miami alone made practical sense, it never added up fiscally; Miami alone couldn’t make up the financial gap that would be created in a 10-way versus nine-way split of revenues, and each existing member was adamant that for expansion to pass, revenues could not even slightly decrease. Furthermore, a ten-team league would not provide for the addition of that illustrious conference championship game. To prove successful, the ACC would need to add three teams that were not only marketable, but would also immediately legitimize its seat at the BCS table. And so it was all or nothing.
This kind of expected financial gain, in addition to the increase in expected stature, made for a compelling argument. Expansion had quickly become a force that could not be stopped.
Thus, the ACC expanded in 2004.
Tomorrow: Measuring Success
The discussion on this topic below should prove interesting. Please keep today’s comments focused on the changes in college football that led to expansion for the ACC, rather than the good and the bad of expansion, as we’ll discuss that tomorrow.