Seems that this time there really is fire beneath the smoke coming from blogs and message boards: Florida State is not happy with its current situation in the Atlantic Coast Conference, something that had been rumored for years. Even worse, there is some very real sentiment in Tallahassee to leave the ACC – possibly making FSU the first school to depart in over 41 years. By no means do the Seminoles have one foot out the door — not yet anyway — but the simple fact that there is any serious discussion of it happening can only mean one thing: there are real problems and there is real discontent with the state of things in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The real question that no one in the mainstream media seem to want to raise in this latest college sports soap opera is this: doesn’t this rumbling also make the ground beneath John Swofford’s feet lot shakier too? Is he not the leader of the conference? Is he not the man who has led the ACC for some time, and has led the ACC to a place where a blue-chip name like Florida State (and presumably others too) are at least entertaining the idea of finding a new league to call home?
Swofford’s decisions of late have been a cornucopia of headscratchers: his new and better deal with ESPN has left the ACC playing second-fiddle to the SEC in terms of national television exposure via the four-letter network. Sure the ACC has a lot of games across the scattered platforms ESPN offers, etc., but the truth is that the SEC has a better product right now, and given that the ACC and the SEC share a place on the same spots on the dial, it’s a no-brainer that ESPN will give its best timeslots on its flagship channel to the SEC. The ACC, well, it can count on a lot of its games being shown on the second-rate ESPN-U or online only through its Internet feeds.
The timing of that decision is somewhat curious too: Fox Sports is about to launch a national sports network to compete with ESPN, and CBS and NBC have already re-purposed some of the cable properties to do the same. Fox in particular will be very hungry for college sports programming, and the ACC would have been an extremely attractive property for them. CBS and NBC certainly wouldn’t have minded having the ACC either, and it’s not like those two companies are third-tier part-time broadcast networks either.
One has to wonder: did Swofford and company leave lots of money laying on the table by extending the ACC’s role as second fiddle on ESPN? Seems like FSU might think so. If so, they’re right to do so.
Swofford done damage elsewhere too: is he not the man whose tenure has seen the death of one of the ACC’s best college hoops traditions, namely the home-and-home round-robin where everyone played everyone else at home and one the road? With this new and improved deal with ESPN our conference schedule will be part decided by ESPN. That’s a real fair way to settle who the best regular season team is — by having Dick Vitale’s boss decide what matchups can get better ratings because some teams are more popular and than others.
Then there’s the deafening silence from the top about the conference’s officiating — and thus its competitive integrity — called into question in the national media on more than one occasion. The ACC has gotten a reputation where its top two perennial hoops powers will get more than the benefit of the doubt from the referees, and it’s not one propped up by lunatics on message boards. Instead, this is a perception that thoughtful sports columnists who have no dog in the fight in the games themselves have started to foster. There’s something rotten in Denmark, and instead of getting in front of the problem of a declining reputation, Swofford has said and done…nothing.
Then there is the whole conference expansion issue: while other conferences are adding large schools with huge fanbases, we’re adding television markets to the ACC. That might seem to be a smart thing to do, but the problem with many of the TV markets added is that they markets dominated by pro sports teams. Really, how many days a year does Boston College make more noise in the Bay State than the Red Sox, the Patriots, the Celtics or the Bruins? How many days a year will Syracuse football get more play in New York City than the post-season efforts of the Yankees or the latest Rex Ryan diatribe after the Jets are pummeled by the Eagles? In Pittsburgh, things are a little bit better, but make no mistake, it’s a Steelers and a Penguins town first and foremost.
Thinking it through, it’s easy to see why FSU might be looking around. The ACC has a leadership deficit and that leadership might well be leading the stories league towards relative irrelevancy. So let’s call it what it is: by most any measure, unless you are UNC and Duke, Swofford has been a disaster for the ACC. He’s killing its hoops tradition. He’s expanded conference membership to benefit football in questionable markets with second-tier teams all for a title game that has largely been sparsely attended because its sites were poorly chosen. He’s made financial decisions that leave important schools like FSU thinking it can get a better deal with the Big XII, which to me is C-USA version 2.0.
If anything, FSU should demand a new commissioner not so obviously aligned with one of the other member institutions. And oh yeah, competent besides. Otherwise, they’re wise to take a look around. And back here at home, it may be a good idea for NC State to also start looking at its own options. At the very least, one of those options should be a new leader in the ACC.