The last year has been the most stabilizing and fortyifying in ACC history. Also the most turbulent. From the additions of Notre Dame and Louisville to the loss of Maryland. From the renewal of contracts with ESPN to the Orange Bowl partnership with the SEC, Big Ten and Fighting Irish. From the relentless realignment gossip to the granting of media rights.
“It has been an extremely eventful year,” John Swofford, the league’s commissioner since 1997, said Monday, “and the grant of rights I see as the icing on the cake in terms of those various events, all of which, with the exception of Maryland’s departure, (were) extremely positive.”
With the conference’s annual spring meetings set for next week at Amelia Island, Fla., Swofford offered his state of the union during an interview of nearly 40 minutes.
But mostly we discussed the future: a potential ACC channel and possible changes to the league’s revenue-sharing formula and football divisions. Also, the next cycle of bowl partners, ACC regular-season games in Europe and the ACC basketball tournament in New York.
Last month’s grant of rights, which essentially secures conference membership for the next 14 years, “will enhance our discussions and analysis about a channel,” Swofford said. “Without the grant of rights, I think the channel was a real longshot. …
“What we will do is continue our analysis that had already started and continue our discussions with ESPN, because anything we do will be with ESPN as our partner. It’s something we’re very interested in and something that needs to make sense as a viable business venture for both ESPN and the ACC.”
The Southeastern Conference and ESPN unveiled a similar venture last week that starts in 2014. The project required three years of planning, so ACC fans hoping for a cable channel dedicated to the league will have to be patient.
“We’ve been looking at it for about a year,” Swofford said, “and now we’ll look at it more seriously. The demographics coupled with the grant of rights is really helpful in looking ahead to the future and how well that positions us, because we’ll have more top-30 markets than any other conference in the country, and we’ll have more television households (43 million) in our footprint than any other conference in the country.”
Swofford also believes the ACC can go international, an idea he first floated publicly to reporters covering last month’s College Football Playoff meetings in California.
“I think we’re in a great place,” Swofford said. “I think we’re very well-positioned. I think we’ve got a terrific grouping of schools and a superb footprint. It’s the strongest collection of basketball programs ever in a single conference, and I think our football has unlimited potential.
“I think we need to think big, and I think we need to think aggressively, and a part of that may be playing a football game a year overseas and a basketball game or two. The NBA and NFL have both had good results with that. Basketball’s an international sport. Football isn’t, but Great Britain seems to be embracing it to a degree.
“All have our schools have international satellite campuses and international students. … As the world continues to evolve, I think it could be something very positive for our league and its branding, and most importantly for our institutions and for some of our student-athletes that may have the opportunity to do that.”
The genesis of the idea?
“I thought about it on a plane [flying back to Greensboro from February’s ACC winter meetings in Fort Lauderdale], quite honestly,” Swofford said. “And then I bounced if off a couple of our staff members, and they thought it was a good idea. And then I … brought it up to our athletic directors and faculty representatives at our most recent meeting here in Greensboro a few weeks ago. The idea, and all it is at this point, is an idea, has been well-received. So we’ll pursue it. …
“Notre Dame played Navy in Dublin, and I talked to [Fighting Irish athletic director] Jack Swarbrick about it, and he said it was just outstanding.”
Notre Dame will remain a football independent but will play five games per season against ACC teams. Moreover, the Irish will be part of the ACC’s non-playoff bowl pool, which will enhance the league’s new bowl partnerships, set to begin, like the playoff, with the 2014 season.
The Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A Bowl has the first choice of ACC teams after the Bowl Championship Series, an arrangement that ends after the 2013 season as the Chick-fil-A becomes part of the playoff’s six-game rotation. Though Swofford declined to discuss specific bowls, that could well mean a reunion with the Jacksonville, Fla.-based Gator Bowl.
The Gator and ACC severed ties after the 2009 season, and the bowl partnered with the SEC and Big Ten, but ESPN reports the Big Ten may be looking elsewhere for games.
“Even with the Chick-fil-A Bowl not being a guaranteed stop, I think our lineup will be enhanced,” Swofford said. “And hopefully we’ll be in Atlanta periodically with teams in the football playoff mix. We sort of look at Atlanta as being part of the potential mix for our teams. … Certainly Notre Dame in that mix below the playoff is meaningful.”
Could future bowl tie-ins be resolved next week at Amelia Island?
“It’s hard to tell,” Swofford said. “In a best-case scenario, we might have some decisions coming out of Amelia at the end of next week. … We had two days of meetings in Charlotte last week with a subcommittee of our athletic directors, and we met with all of our current bowl partners as well as some potential partners that are not currently in our mix.”
The Pinstripe Bowl, played at Yankee Stadium, is another natural partner for the ACC given its stronger Northeast presence. Virginia Tech athletic director Jim Weaver, who serves on the league’s bowl subcommittee, is mining his connections with the Yankees – the team played an exhibition at Tech to raise money after the 2007 campus shooting.
“We’re pretty much on a parallel course with the other conferences,” Swofford said, “because to ties these things down, there are three parties with each one: who we would be playing as well as the bowl itself.”
“We may pool bowls and have a little more freedom in putting together matchups that make the most sense for schools and fans and the bowls themselves,” Swofford said, “to avoid teams going back to the same place in consecutive years, or playing the same (opponents) in consecutive years. So we’re looking at some things that could add a little more flexibility in order put the most attractive matchups together, and the matchups that make the most sense geographically as well.”
The ACC has historically pooled bowl revenue after expenses and shared it evenly. But with the football playoff set to generate another windfall, I asked Swofford if the ACC is considering rewarding its football champion, or playoff teams, with a bonus.
“There’s some discussion about that,” he said. “There’s some preliminary ideas that have been thrown out just for consideration.”
Were any schools reluctant about the grant of rights assured of revenue-sharing changes in exchange for their support?
“No, no, no,” Swofford said.
Swofford was less adamant about possible changes to the ACC’s football divisions, a popular topic among fans, many of whom prefer a more geographic split.
“I think there can always be tweaks,” Swofford said, “if and when our member schools want to do that. We’ve had a lot of discussion about that topic over the last couple of years, as you would expect with the new schools coming, and at each point ultimately the schools end up at that same place, and that is maintaining the divisions as they currently exist with Louisville filling the (Atlantic Division) slot that Maryland had.”
Finally, I asked Swofford if the ACC might next week determine future venues for its men’s basketball tournament.
“That’s probably a little aggressive,” he said, “but we’re making a lot of progress on those discussions. The discussions were altered a bit with the change in the Big East and getting a familiarity with New York. That is the media capital of the world, and we’re going to have a strong presence in the Northeast, and at the same time the tournament has a great tradition and history and has really been built in the state of North Carolina in Greensboro and Charlotte. We’re looking at all of that very carefully. We’ve got two more years in Greensboro, so it’s not like we have a gun to our head on that.”
“I can’t really answer that yet,” Swofford said.
Perhaps some answers will emerge next week.
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