ACC commissioner John Swofford believes the NCAA will reform without splintering, “absolutely” thinks the league is financially sound, did not take a stance during recent football-scheduling deliberations and preaches patience on a potential channel dedicated to the conference.
Those were among the takeaways Thursday from a 45-minute interview with Swofford. Louisville’s July 1 entrance into the ACC, the subject of Sunday’s print column, served as our launch point, but the conversation naturally turned to other matters.
Since readers often ask me, I asked Swofford for an update on discussions with ESPN on the feasibility of an ACC cable channel.
“They continue,” he said, “and that’s not something that we’ll necessarily give public updates on along the way. It’s something that’s going to take a while to develop and evolve in a solid manner with the right kind of foundation for the long term.”
As he often does, Swofford cited the Southeastern Conference Network, a partnership with ESPN that launches in August but was three-plus years in development. And since Swofford mentioned the SEC, I asked him if the SEC Network’s strained, 11th-hour negotiations with cable providers were a cautionary tale.
“There are challenges,” he said. “It’s not something you just decide to do, and you snap your finger, and it’s done and it’s successful. You generally have to be willing, if you go that route, to have some tough negotiations from a distribution standpoint. You may even have to be willing to back up a little financially to do what you think is the right thing long-term.
“While a channel provides 24/7 conference programming, a channel sometimes doesn’t have as great a distribution potentially as a syndicated package, if you really look at the numbers. And our syndicated package with the ACC Network is now national. It used to be regional.
“Look at the Pac-12 Network. It’s had some real challenges coming out of the chute. Again, that’s not a surprise to anybody. But the idea that a channel is an immediate end-all, be-all in every respect. It usually doesn’t work quite that way.”
Indeed, while the Pac-12 reported unmatched revenue of $334 million in fiscal 2012-13, it distributed only 68 percent of that money to member schools. The ACC and other power conferences distribute 90 percent or more.
“The Pac-12 doesn’t have a partner,” Swofford said, “so they‘ve got large expenses. They have a large gross, but they also have very large expenses. The distribution is about the net.”
Some other excerpts from Swofford are below. And look for much more from him and Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich in Sunday’s column, which should be online Saturday afternoon.
QUESTION: The ACC told some media outlets recently that 2013-14 revenue was $291.7 million, a 24-percent bump from a year ago. I’m guessing (laughter) you can’t guarantee that type of annual growth.
ANSWER: I wish.
Q: Seriously, are you confident that ACC revenue can keep member schools whole when competing nationally?
A: Absolutely. As part of the potential that’s there with this 15-member league and our footprint as we go forward. … I think this league, because of the quality of the membership, and the geographic footprint, will be set for the long-term (with) its ability to generate appropriate revenues.
Q: Some of your commissioner colleagues have engaged in some saber-rattling of late on NCAA reform. Are you encouraged that the five power conferences can gain the autonomy you want without separating from the NCAA?
A: I’ve got a certain level of confidence that will get done in a way that will give our five major conferences the autonomy we need to make some decisions related to our athletes and the world we live in. …
I think that will happen. I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t. Then, if it doesn’t, we’ll need to step back and take a fresh look at it and see if what needs to be accomplished can be accomplished under the big tent of the NCAA as an organization. I think that’s where it should be addressed. I think that’s where it will be addressed. But time will tell.
(Wake Forest president) Nathan Hatch chairs the steering committee on the potential new structure, as well as the Division I board, and I’m a big fan of his, and I think he’s doing an excellent job leading that process, and it’s a difficult one because of the very size of the organization and the diversity of programs and institutions in the organization. It’s not without its pain, but I think it’s moving along well.
Q: The Division I board has floated the idea of requiring a two-thirds super-majority among power five conference members to pass legislation. Is that, as some have suggested, too high a bar?
A: I think we as a league tend to lean more toward a higher bar. You don’t want it so high that it paralyzes the process and you can’t get anything accomplished, but you do want it high enough so it truly represents a good, sound majority of the membership. Because these are going to be potentially significant steps. You’d rather have something stronger than just a simple majority when your changes might be of the magnitude that these could be. It’s a question of hitting the right sweet spot, and based on some recent discussions I’ve had, I think we’ll come to an agreement on that part of it.
Q: What would you say to those who say that this fast-track to reform is a knee-jerk response to all the recent legal challenges to the NCAA?
A: Well, this was started well before all these legal things hitting. Maybe we should have been more public about it. But these discussions have been going on for several years now. … If you’re on the inside of this, you know very well that all of this started before the … lawsuits and so forth.
A: I’d say so because it attacks the fundamentals of the collegiate model, the amateur model. I think the collegiate model is one worth savoring, and retaining, with adjustments. There’s no question in my mind that there needs to be changes made, and an awful lot of time and energy is being spent on that. … But I don’t think the model itself needs to be blown up. I just think there needs to be significant changes to it that are, 21st century if you will. …
I think the organization has been too slow to evolve in terms of the world around us. Whether it be the scholarship itself, and what it should be, whether it be some of the health and safety needs that our players have, whether it be, for the relatively few elite athletes, the agent situation and that world and what we allow our athletes who are in that elite status to do, and when to do it, in terms of getting appropriate advice. I think that needs to be liberalized to some degree.
The time committed to sports, and not just the time committed during the (season), but the year-round aspect of it in the context of education needs to be looked at. … While I’m not for paying players — I think that would be a disaster, personally and totally undermine the collegiate and the concept of meshing athletics with education — I do think the scholarship needs to be adjusted, and I think that’s the first step we need to take once we have the autonomy to do so within the structure.
Q: We haven’t talked since the ACC’s spring meetings where you decided to remain at eight conference football games rather than go to nine. Did you tell the ADs how you thought the vote should go, or did you let them talk it out amongst themselves?
A: Well, we did a lot of work here in the office that laid out, if it’s eight it can be this way, if it’s nine it can be this way. Here’s what we know about other conferences. Here’s what we know about how these things might affect the College Football Playoff. How it would affect television, how it would affect our scheduling with Notre Dame. All those things came into play. We tried to give them all the pros and cons of both.
On that one I did not take a strong personal stance one way or the other because … from my chair, it’s a close call, and I don’t think we could have made a bad decision. You just, from your respective chair, had to decide which is better for your institution as well as which is better for the league. It’s a very fine line. … I didn’t try to push that strongly one way or the other. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. Just depends on how I see it, and ultimately, it’s the vote of the institutions that carries the day, and that’s as it should be.
Q: Part of the autonomy package is giving conferences the freedom to determine football championship-game participants as they see fit, with or without divisions. Let’s presume that passes — I don’t think anyone doubts that will eventually be approved. Could you imagine a time when the ACC scrapped divisions? And if so, how would you determine your championship game participants given scheduling imbalances and such?
A: Those are good questions. Start by saying that the fact that we, along with the Big 12, are proposing that doesn’t necessarily mean that we would change anything we’re doing right now. It would be easy to read into that. Well, they’ve already decided or they wouldn’t be pushing for this. That’s not the case. We feel like we should have the opportunity at the conference level, that every conference should have the opportunity to make that determination rather than it being made by the NCAA. Because the current legislation boxes you in.
Q: The (12-team minimum for a championship game) seems so arbitrary.
A: I think it probably was. Historically, I think it was very arbitrary. We just feel like the right thing is for the conference to have the freedom and autonomy to make those decisions. I don’t know whether ours would change or not. …
Like anything else, you’d gain some things, you’d lose some things if you didn’t have divisions. … The simple fact that you bring two teams to the championship game that have won something. And they’ve at least played the same teams in their own division. And you might lose late in the season some divisional races that are intriguing to fans.
And yet on the other hand, you could schedule in a way that schools within the league would see each other more frequently than they do now. You could really rotate it through much more quickly and that’s a plus for the regular season, at least from my standpoint as a commissioner looking at it purely from a league standpoint. You like to see people play each other as much as they can. And that gets harder to do the larger you are. …
And you’d have to determine how you chose (the championship game teams). Is it the two teams with the best conference record, understanding there could be some imbalance there? And you’d obviously have to have a lot of tiebreakers. Or, do you take the College Football Playoff standings, the top two teams in those standings? … In certain years, it might be a more intriguing championship game, because sometimes in division play, your two best teams aren’t necessarily in that game. …
I don’t know where our schools would come out on all of that. … Most people focus on the championship game itself, and it’s not just that, it’s the broader freedom it could give you in terms of regular-season scheduling.
Q: What about tinkering with the divisions? I think you should swap Louisville and Georgia Tech, but that’s neither here nor there.
A: (Laughter) We talk about it periodically, but so far, the schools, they’re comfortable with where it is. And competitively, and these things can change, obviously, but so far it’s remarkable how balanced it has been. … I know some people look at it on paper sometimes and say, ‘Whoa, this division’s going to be much stronger than that division.’ Well, the reality of it is, it hasn’t turned out that way. You look at the SEC’s divisions historically. There was a time when the East was, when Florida and Tennessee and Georgia were all extraordinarily good. For a period of time, that division was much stronger. Now that’s changed. … You can’t just change your divisions because of competitive reasons for short periods of time.
But I don’t think you ever say never. But again, it takes the schools to bring that about and we periodically give them analysis of the competitiveness and what things would look like in a different way. That’s part of our role in the conference office, to continue that analysis and evaluation and provide it periodically to our schools so they can see if they want to make any adjustments in it. …
We’re 14 members now. We’re developing a little history with the new schools that are with us. So there may come a time when we decide to make some adjustments there, but I don’t see that as something imminent.
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