UNC faces dilemma as another round of conference realignment begins, amid ACC uncertainty

·7 min read

The number is six.

There’s talk around the ACC that if just six current members decide they want out and legally challenge the league’s grant of rights, the rest of the conference — and the deal that tethers it together — could come crumbling apart.

That’s not a guarantee that the contract signed by every member ACC, originally in 2013 then again for an amended version in 2016, can be broken.

The 14 full-time members along with Notre Dame sans football signed over their media rights to the league until 2036. It was intended to be a financial deterrent for any schools to consider leaving and create stability within the league.

Yet, here we are still contemplating a breakup. (Thanks, UCLA and USC.)

The Trojans’ and Bruins’ decision to join the Big Ten re-opened Pandora’s box of conference realignment and essentially created a Power Two of conferences. Both the SEC and Big Ten, pending their next television deals, stand to sign billion-dollar agreements that will pay its members more than $100 million each by the end of this decade.

The ACC is in danger of getting left behind, which is why whether they want to or not, every member has to be thinking potentially about its next move.

What make senses for North Carolina in this quickly changing realignment landscape? Would it be part of the six needed to break the league up or a part of the league fighting to keep it together? Here’s a look at both options:

Helping (hoping for?) ACC stability

Next year will mark the 80th year of the ACC’s existence. UNC is one of the charter members of the league. That’s got to mean something, right?

After all, the Big Ten or SEC isn’t going to be rushing through the Greensboro Coliseum doors to play their basketball tournament there. Rivalries with Duke and N.C. State could potentially hang in the balance if the Tar Heels chose to leave. And politically speaking, the N.C. General Assembly could certainly weigh in if UNC leaving meant the Wolfpack would get left behind.

Carolina can look to Maryland as an example of how more revenue doesn’t necessarily translate into a more successful athletic department. Since the Terrapins left the ACC for the Big Ten in 2014, they have yet to carve out true rivals. They just play opponents and games that aren’t very meaningful to their fanbase.

Sports Illustrated and CBS Sports have each reported that talks of a partnership between the ACC and remaining teams of the Pac-12 have started that would help both leagues remain intact.

As detailed by SI, the agreement would bring those West Coast teams to a broadcast deal with ESPN and events would be shown on the current ACC Network. It would also increase the amount of revenue for the ACC without calling for a renegotiation, which would potentially open the door for teams to escape the grant of rights. The question: would the revenue increase be substantial enough to make a difference?

One option the ACC may have to settle on is changing the distribution of revenue. Instead of every member getting an equal share, a tier system could be created so schools that have done the heavy lifting and carried the league’s brand — like Clemson football and Carolina basketball — would be entitled to a higher-percentage cut.

For example, the ACC earned nearly $580 million in revenue during the 2020-21 fiscal year, which was a record for the league. (That included for the first, and possibly only, time Notre Dame as a full member since its football team joined the ACC for the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Every league team received an average of $36.1 million based on the 2020-21 numbers. Under an unequal share option, a top-tier school would have instead taken closer to $50 million and a lower tier would only receive closer to $20 million. By comparison, SEC schools shared an average of $54.6 million based on the 2020-21 fiscal year.

The SEC and Big Ten shares are going to skyrocket because of expiring television deals that will command more with Oklahoma and Texas joining the SEC and UCLA and USC set to join the Big Ten.

An unequal model in the ACC would help at least a few schools in the top tier offset the widening gap between the SEC and Big Ten’s revenue distribution. Perhaps some of the remaining ACC schools asked to take a smaller share would accept that option — considering the alternative of potentially making much less in a new league if the ACC folded.

Notre Dame currently does not get an equal share of ACC revenue since its football team is independent. But that may be the sweetner the Irish would need to join the league in football too.

Every conference, to some extent, is watching Notre Dame and its next move. NBC pays the Irish $15 million annually to broadcast their football games and that deal is up in 2025.

Notre Dame has long valued its football independence over money, so it would still be a long shot for it to become a full member of the ACC. But having the Irish football brand might be the ACC’s best chance at saving the league because it would change the amount the league could command from its broadcast deal.

Survival mode

In what’s quickly becoming a high-stakes game of musical chairs, the only way to assure Carolina has a seat when the music stops is to aggressively secure a spot with one of the two super conferences. Carolina brings considerable cache with a national brand and multiple sports that compete at a national level.

It would arguably be the most coveted school behind Notre Dame for inclusion into the emerging Power Two conferences. That comes with a caveat of finding a loophole — or joining five other ACC schools — to attempt to escape the grant of rights.

Of course, the SEC is better geographically speaking and would offer what would seem to be natural rivalries with bordering states in Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina. UNC’s recruiting in football in particular could see a boost in SEC territories like Florida and Texas by joining the league. Former UNC chancellor Holden Thorp on Wednesday speaking on The OG radio show said he had discussions with SEC school presidents about the Heels joining the SEC back in 2010.

But the Tar Heels field teams in field hockey, wrestling, men’s and women’s lacrosse and rowing. The SEC, as a league, currently does not offer championships in those sports because either too few of its members compete in them or don’t offer them at all. If UNC were to join the SEC, it would have to seek separate partnerships in order to get those teams in a conference. That is similar to what UNC does now in women’s gymnastics, which competes in the East Atlantic Gymnastics League because N.C. State and Pitt are the only other ACC teams that participate in it.

North Carolina’s Armando Bacot (5) defends Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson (1) during the first half on Wednesday, December 1, 2021 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.
North Carolina’s Armando Bacot (5) defends Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson (1) during the first half on Wednesday, December 1, 2021 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.

The Big Ten has championships in every sport UNC has a team in with the exception of fencing. Hockey is the only sport Carolina does not offer as a varsity sport that is sponsored by the Big Ten. (The Heels do have a club hockey team that competes in Division II of the American Collegiate Hockey Association.)

And under former commissioner Jim Delany, who played basketball at UNC under coach Dean Smith, the Big Ten made a soft pitch to Carolina back in 2013 when it ultimately expanded by adding Maryland and Rutgers.

Carolina also fits the academic footprint of the Big Ten. All of its league members, with the exception of Nebraska, are members of the Association of American Universities (AAU) and that includes UCLA and USC. UNC is one of five ACC schools that are also AAU members including Duke and Virginia.

UNC is fortunate enough to have a say in dictating its future. Most of the ACC members will simply have to wait to see how things develop. It’s just a matter of how the Tar Heels aim on playing it. Will they stay or will they go?

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