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 second of a two-part discussion (Part I: Evolution) 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.
The BIGGER, BETTER ACC?
The ACC of today is no longer the cozy environ it was during the era from 1953-1991, when it covered five seaboard states and stretched a mere 650 miles from Atlanta to College Park. Even by 1992, it had only increased to a total of 886 miles over six states south to Tallahassee; only Florida State was outside a 325-mile radius of its geographical center in Greensboro. Like the SWC in Oil Country, the Big Eight in the Plains, the Big Ten in the Midwest, and the SEC in the Deep South, the ACC had its own distinctly-southern cultural aura (with the exception of Maryland, of course). And as the history of ACC politics indicated, it also retained its conspicuous reliance on its heart in North Carolina (the ACC’s home office is in Greensboro).
Now, the ACC is no longer a swath along the southeastern coast, but instead it spans 1,500 miles along the entire Atlantic coastline. Its exposure is now far-reaching, while financially the ACC continues to prosper; if nothing else, expansion, as proposed, has proven at least fiscally viable.
TV revenues have doubled. According to an ESPN.com report on the most recent contract, the TV deal with ESPN/ABC was valued at $258 million, or about $37.6 million per year, which was almost double the previous contract. Furthermore, the ACC reported on its website in May 2007 additional revenues of $16.9 million from TV rights, $5.7 million from the championship game, and $3 million in bowl revenues. Total distribution to member schools was reported at nearly $11 million, up slightly from the $10.9 million ESPN.com reported the ACC had distributed to each school in 2003-04, its final year as a nine-team league. This at least supports the argument that the existing teams would not see their revenue share decrease with three additional teams.
Debatably, finances would emphatically overwhelm any qualitative argument to the contrary, but in any instance, finances are only part of the equation. There remains a strong subjective argument against the merits of expansion.
To many within its traditional base, the ACC forfeited its charming personality when it expanded in 2004. Like the SEC with its steep football traditions, the ACC has always enjoyed an entitled basketball tradition. On the whole, expansion precluded many of those nuances that had so delicately characterized the conference for 50 years. Namely, the loss of the regular season round robin format in basketball, which for decades had so exactingly determined the seeding for the nation’s premier conference tournament, which itself had lost its pure format.
The traditional format in football had also been sacrificed. Some traditional rivalries had been protected while others – for instance, State versus Duke in football – would suffer long stretches without being renewed. The very nature of the new conference alignment in football was arranged to allow for – provide for, even – Miami and Florida State to regularly play for the conference title. And by all indications in 2003, that is precisely how it would, in fact, turn out.
There has also been a seeming impetus to de-emphasize the grip the state of North Carolina has on the ACC, which has no doubt left many hard feelings along Tobacco Road. The ACC leadership has shown an increasing infatuation with Florida, particularly Jacksonville and Tampa, which has naturally led to many perplexed emotions among its traditional fan bases, as neither city seems a fitting host outside traditional ACC locales.
Jacksonville certainly has a long history with the ACC; according to the Gator Bowl Association website, the ACC leads all conferences in Gator Bowl appearances with 38 (the SEC is second, with 35). However, the city has never had the penchant for the culture of the ACC in the same manner as it does for that of the SEC; the Cocktail Party each year is one of the SEC’s premier events and is distinct in its nature as part of Jacksonville’s SEC fiber. Moreover, Jacksonville has hosted all three of the ACC championship games, which in hindsight has proved largely a disappointment. The Raleigh News & Observer reported that attendance declined each year, from 72,749 in 2005 (Florida State vs. Virginia Tech) to 62,850 in 2006 (Wake Forest vs. Georgia Tech) to 53,212 in 2007 (Boston College vs. Virginia Tech). Albeit, this can’t entirely be blamed on the city of Jacksonville but rather the conference officials that overestimated the ACC’s marketability there as well as the fan bases that were either unable – Wake Forest – or too apathetic and unwilling – Boston College, Georgia Tech – to travel to the game in droves.
Meanwhile, the ACC Tournament, which has been set in North Carolina in all but nine of its 54 years, was peculiarly hosted by Tampa in 2007. If Jacksonville is perplexing for football, then Tampa for the ACC Tournament is completely incomprehensible; at best it was a meager, contrived push to expand into an unsecured market. ACC officials were apparently so impressed by Tampa’s management of its premier event that it has awarded Tampa the conference championship game in 2008 and 2009; curiously, there are no evident plans of returning to Tampa for the Tournament, however. While the gulf coast of Florida provides the opportunity for fans to travel to a more hospital locale, and perhaps expand into uncharted territory that even the SEC does not yet have a firm grip on, what it does not do is take into consideration the fact that it alienates a large majority of its traditional base that lives within driving distance of both Charlotte and Greensboro, and have for decades eagerly flocked en masse to these towns in March, and would likely do so in December, as well.
And while it may be a super conference by definition, by no means can it be considered any such thing in terms of football prominence. Today, the ACC lags far behind the very conferences after which it modeled its expansion.
In its fourth season of expansion, an ACC team has only finished once in the Top 10 and only three times in the Top 15 of either the AP or USA Today Coaches’ poll: 2004, Miami (11 AP & Coaches) and Florida State (15 AP/14 Coaches); and 2005, Virginia Tech (7 AP & Coaches) — with a 2007 Orange Bowl victory over Kansas, it is likely that Virginia Tech would record the conference’s first Top 5 finish in this same period.
In addition to never sending a second team to the BCS, the ACC has a 1-8 record in BCS games, its lone win Florida State’s 2000 Sugar Bowl win over Virginia Tech for the 1999 National Title. The other BCS appearances have all been losses: 1999 Fiesta (Florida State, to 1998 National Champion Tennessee); 2001 Orange (Florida State, to 2000 National Champion Oklahoma); 2002 Orange (Maryland, to Florida); 2003 Sugar (Florida State, to Georgia); 2004 Orange (Florida State, to Miami); 2005 Sugar (Virginia Tech, to Auburn); 2006 Orange (Florida State, to Penn State); and 2007 Orange (Wake Forest, to Louisville).
The root causes for this decline are varied and not yet wholly understood, but they are arguably central upon the depletion and instability of quality coaching staffs in conjunction with the complete and inexcusable inability to identify and develop talent at the quarterback position. The lack of quarterback development since 2003 has become epidemic; the last time the ACC had even two highly-effective quarterbacks was prior to expansion in 2003, when Philip Rivers and Matt Schaub were seniors.
Coaching is obviously a factor in this decline, as the ACC has had problems with instability on its staffs while in some cases, quality assistants – usually the Xs and Os guys – are rightfully rewarded head coaching positions elsewhere. Most notably, the decline of Florida State coincided with the departure of Mark Richt to Georgia and Chuck Amato to NC State, while Larry Coker was never able to sustain what Butch Davis had built at Miami. Chuck Amato, Chan Gailey, and John Bunting were never able to advance their programs at NC State, Georgia Tech, and North Carolina, respectively, while Ralph Friedgen, Al Groh, and Tommy Bowden have all felt the hot seat but done just enough to stay on at Maryland, Virginia, and Clemson, respectively. Incongruously enough, the one traditional team that in fact improved over the past decade has been Wake Forest; Jim Grobe led his team to the ACC championship and the Orange Bowl in 2006.
While Miami was supposed to bring football prominence to the league by balancing out the top alongside Florida State, instead it brought balance to the middle. Virginia Tech, after not being in the original plan, has actually brought the most prominence, with two BCS appearances in just four years of membership. While Boston College has proven somewhat prominent on the field, its fans’ relative disinterest and proclivity for neither attending home games nor traveling to championship or bowl games has proven an obvious embarrassment for the ACC.
While Boston College and Virginia Tech have even added somewhat to the ACC’s prominence in basketball as well, by no means was any of the rationale for expansion basketball-centric.
Thus far, expansion has not improved the product of ACC football, but rather guided it further into parity. The ACC still sends its conference champion to the Orange Bowl the same as it did in 1992, and then the Peach and Gator Bowls still make their selections based on which team will bring the most fans rather than which team is more deserving (within the loosely-written rules). As was the case before expansion and before the Coalition, Alliance, or BCS, the conference’s second-best team is not guaranteed one of its prestigious bowls and subsequent highest payouts.
Moreover, expansion has ostensibly stripped the ACC of its traditional, intrinsic personality as its leaders strive, almost in mercenary fashion, to expand its product into something generic, something readily-marketable, at the expense of the loyal. In these regards, from a strictly qualitative, subjective standpoint, expansion has fallen well short of its lofty aspirations to equate its football product to that of the SEC and Big XII.
Unfortunately, the success of these conferences, particularly the SEC, is an inherent regional cultural issue that perhaps can never be entirely appreciated, and thus never entirely modeled by a charismatic yet quaint basketball conference situated along the southernmost Atlantic coast.
MOLDING the NEW ACC
ACC expansion has not exactly been pulled off without a hitch, but there is ample reason for optimism.
Jacksonville proved disappointing as host of the conference championship game, but the ACC has acknowledged this shortcoming and has already made changes to the initial policy of awarding host sites championship rights in three-year terms. Tampa will host the game in 2008 and 2009, and then Charlotte – ACC country – will play host in 2010 and 2011; it is likely that Charlotte would have hosted in 2008 and 2009 if there had not been a prior scheduling conflict with the city. The Raleigh News & Observer has reported that the economic impact on Charlotte could reach $20 million, which is entirely plausible, based on its comparison to the Meineke Car Care Bowl and ACC Tournament.
Additionally, the ACC Tournament will return to Charlotte in 2008, Atlanta in 2009 and 2012, and Greensboro in 2010-11 & 2013-15. Dave Glenn reported on ACCSports.com that the ACC Tournament, surprisingly enough, is only the fifth-largest shared-revenue generator, behind the regular-season basketball and football contracts, respectively, bowl payouts, and the NCAA Tournament. Quite simply, more tickets equates to increased revenues. This is a strong indicator that ACC leaders have not only a keen understanding of the importance of protecting its already-thriving basketball culture, but it also for revenue generation.
Greensboro especially, Charlotte, and even Atlanta are each entirely plausible host locations with sustainability.
Greensboro, the geographical and cultural heart of the traditional ACC, has successfully hosted the Tournament a leading 21 times; the Greensboro Coliseum has a seating capacity of 23,745, which is second only to the Georgia Dome of venues in ACC territory. The Georgia Dome held a record 40,000 fans and generated the highest revenues in the Tournament’s history in 2001. This was the only time the Georgia Dome hosted the Tournament, but Atlanta has hosted it four times and it certainly makes sense to continue regularly awarding it the Tournament long into the future – its opportunities are limited, however, as it also regularly hosts the SEC Tournament that same weekend. Charlotte has played host to the Tournament 11 times; the 2008 Tournament will be at Bobcats Arena, which has a capacity of 20,200 for college basketball. This happens to be the one arguable drawback and the one that might preclude Charlotte from regularly hosting the Tournament: the new arena is much smaller than both the Greensboro Coliseum and the Georgia Dome, and even slightly smaller than the St. Pete Times Forum.
The ACC Tournament has remained unparalleled in both its heritage and its prosperity, and the ACC leadership has exhibited incredible, continued success maximizing its potential marketability. This sustained affluence relies on occasional, systemic experimentation with new host locations, such as Tampa in 2007. Fittingly, the ACC fully comprehends that Greensboro and Tobacco Road must remain an integral aspect of the ACC culture, and over the next decade, the Tournament will be mostly in North Carolina.
It is utterly premature to write off the latest expansion as a misguided, abject failure. Quite simply, the ACC thrived for fifty years before expansion, and that has not changed at all four years into the new structure. And while it currently lacks gridiron prowess, it remains a premier league. In fact, it is still universally recognized as the premier conference in college basketball. The proof exists in its TV contract, the nation’s richest, and as was the case prior to expansion, the ACC remains the only conference with its TV contract for football less lucrative than its one for basketball. Indeed, ACC basketball, particularly the Tournament, is a model that the other premier conferences have strived to replicate for their own success.
The ACC is to college basketball what the SEC is to college football: unrivaled. But as college football continues to evolve, the ACC must remain dynamic as well, demonstrating a continued effort to evaluate and improve upon its mistakes. So long as the ACC remains true to those intrinsic roots that have taken hold over the past five decades, the conference will survive and will certainly continue to prosper. And there’s ample evidence that its leadership is entirely capable of adjusting along with the shifting dynamics of college athletics and molding the new ACC super conference into all it was intended to become.