Less than 24 hours before ACC presidents unanimously approved the conference’s landmark grant of rights last month, commissioner John Swofford met with Virginia’s Board of Visitors in Charlottesville. But the trip was not a last-minute sales pitch to a skittish client that might take its business elsewhere.
Swofford dismissed incessant speculation that the school was considering a move to the Big Ten and was confident that U.Va. president Teresa Sullivan would sign the grant.
“There was never any concern about Virginia’s commitment to the league,” Swofford said during a phone interview Monday. “I felt that was absolute and strong throughout. President Sullivan asked if I would come up … and visit with the board to better inform them of what this meant and to talk about the vision of the league moving forward.”
Accompanying Swofford were Erik Albright, the ACC’s outside counsel, and Dean Jordan, a senior executive with Wasserman Media Group. Albright explained the legal jargon, Jordan the television revenue implications.
Swofford talked big picture.
Carolyn Callahan, the faculty representative to Virginia’s athletic department attended the meeting, as did athletic director Craig Littlepage.
“There was no skepticism from U.Va., that I heard about,” Littlepage said via email Monday. “Terry Sullivan, Carolyn Callahan and I were all supportive of the grant of rights.”
Similar to grants in the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pacific 12, the ACC’s binds each school’s share of conference media revenue to the league through 2026-27. Also, a departing school would bring no media value to its new conference home.
Essentially, no one in the ACC is going anywhere.
Excellent reporting by the Tallahassee Democrat’s Doug Blackburn and Ira Schoffel, and the Raleigh News & Observer’s Andrew Carter, have chronicled Swofford’s trips to Florida State, where he clearly faced skeptics. Indeed, the Seminoles and their renowned football program were the last barrier to the unanimity the grant required.
Those stories parenthetically mentioned Swofford’s trip to Charlottesville, prompting some to wonder if Virginia might have been tempted to join Maryland in exiting the ACC for the Big Ten. Jim Delany, the Big Ten’s commissioner and Swofford’s former college classmate at North Carolina, then added to the intrigue by telling reporters that his conference had signed non-disclosure agreements with several prospective members.
“U.Va. was not a part of the non-disclosure agreements,” Littlepage said. “I don't know which schools were involved.”
When I tweeted Littlepage’s remark, some asked whether he might be still be bound to a non-disclosure. I don’t believe so for a second.
In more than 20 years of working with Littlepage, I’ve never known him to mislead or outright lie. He’s offered many no-comments, but no untruths. When Littlepage says that Virginia’s commitment to the ACC has never wavered, as he has throughout this realignment mess, I take him at his word.
Swofford’s appearance is not reflected in the minutes from last month’s Virginia Board meeting. But at 4:30 p.m., the group did go into executive session for 30 minutes “to consult with legal counsel and university staff on pending litigation and contract negotiations with respect to a proposed multimedia agreement where disclosure at this time would adversely affect contract negotiations.”
An educated hunch: The “litigation” involves Maryland’s $52 million exit from the ACC and the “proposed multimedia agreement” was the grant of rights.
An unconvinced audience would have required far more than half-an-hour of massaging.
“I had visited with a number of presidents in person or by phone,” Swofford said, soft-pedaling the Virginia appearance. “I had visited Clemson the previous summer and visited with their board and with (president) Jim Barker several times.
“Those kinds of discussions are ongoing and sometimes very specific and sometimes very general. But most of the recent ones have been focused on (our) future and how we could best reach our full potential as a 15-member league.”
Once Louisville replaces Maryland next year, and with Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Notre Dame joining in July, the ACC will be stronger than ever, able to pursue long-term ventures such as a cable channel dedicated to the conference’s sports.
But the grant of rights, the securing of membership, was paramount.
“We started talking about the grant of rights to some degree at our president’s meeting in September 2011 (when Pittsburgh and Syracuse invited),” Swofford said. “That’s when we increased the exit fee (to $20 million). And then the following September is when we brought in Notre Dame, and once again extended the exit fee to (approximately $52 million).
“At both of those meetings we had some discussions about the grant of rights. So there was some progression there, in terms of the discussion, and the education that needed to go along with that.
“Then when Maryland left (last November), the presidents were very much caught off guard, we all were, and they came out, our council of presidents, with a statement about the solidarity of the league, their commitment to the league. Yet there continued to be rumors out there … and I think we all got tired of that. As unfounded as they were, it certainly was not helpful and kept sort of chipping away at the perceived stability of the league.
“In talking with a number of our presidents after that statement of very strong words, I finally just told them, ‘The verbiage is terrific, and I know you mean it, and you know you mean it, but the one thing that is an action that can put it to rest is the grant of rights. And that’s when we became more serious about taking that next step.”
Virginia’s Board of Visitors meeting adjourned at 5 p.m., April 18. At 7 a.m., the next day, Swofford convened a conference call of ACC presidents to approve the grant of rights.
Check future post for more from Swofford on ACC channel, revenue sharing, future bowls, games in Europe, basketball tournament venues and divisional alignments.
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