Pete TamalESPN4 minutes of reading
The Atlantic Coast Conference is expanding from its eastern roots.
ACC presidents and chancellors met Friday morning and voted to add the three schools — Stanford, Cal and SMU — sources told ESPN. This will bring the league to 18 members — 17 of whom play full-time football in the league. Inclusion in all sports will begin in the 2024-25 academic year.
The moves have been the subject of much drama over the past month, as Commissioner Jim Phillips has worked diligently to placate a group of members eager to add schools and others seeking more revenue. The protracted process eventually culminated with the development of the ACC against a backdrop that brought to light some underlying tensions within the league.
The move emerged in a different process, as votes on league matters are usually unanimous and formal when presidents meet to make decisions. ACC needs 12 out of 15 votes. Going into Friday morning’s meeting, it was uncertain whether or not the league had the votes, a marked departure from how conference expansion usually works.
In a straw poll three weeks ago, four ACC schools dissented — Clemson, Florida State, North Carolina and NC State. One of them had to flip to vote, and all eyes entered the crowd on NC State President Randy Woodson.
Attention to Woodson intensified Thursday night when members of the University of North Carolina’s board of trustees issued a statement expressing opposition to the additions. The move was perceived around the ACC as a political statement confirming that UNC President Kevin Guskiewicz did not flip his vote.
UNC and NC State aren’t necessarily tied together, but the political dynamics of not being affiliated with North Carolina created some uncertainty surrounding Woodson’s vote.
ACC joins the ranks of a rapidly changing college landscape. Starting next year, the Big Ten will have 18 teams, while the Big 12 and SEC will have 16 teams. The move leaves the Pac-12 with two remaining programs, Washington State and Oregon State, and includes the league losing eight teams since late July.
Cal, Stanford and SMU will come in at significant discounts, which will help create a pool of revenue to share among ACC members. SMU is expected to go nine years without broadcast media revenue, sources told ESPN, and both Cal and Stanford are expected to receive a 30% share of the ACC payout. That cash withholding is expected to generate between $50 million and $60 million in annual revenue. Some of the revenue will be divided proportionally between the 14 full-time members and Notre Dame, while another portion will be placed in a pool designated for winning initiatives that reward successful projects.
The move provides life support for the athletic departments at Stanford and Cal. Stanford has an athletic department that is considered the gold standard in college athletics. Both would face increased travel costs, which would significantly affect the Cal athletics department, which faces hundreds of millions in debt.
For SMU, the decision to forego television revenue has given way to a larger conference because the school will have to lean on its wealthy boosters until the revenue comes in. It marks a significant moment in the school’s recovery from death. In 1987 and 1988 fines for major infractions led to the school not playing football. SMU did not return to a bowl until 2009 after the penalty.
Even as the vote was underway, the nearly month-long stalemate over the decision on the addition highlighted divisions within the ACC. Both Florida State and Clemson have talked publicly about how to close the revenue gap between the ACC and the Big Ten and the SEC.
While those schools didn’t support the additions heading into the final conference, the decision gives them millions in annual revenue if they win the field. With the ACC television contract running through 2036, the past few weeks have highlighted the uncertainty that will linger for years to come.
Florida State officials have been particularly vocal about leaving the league, with president Richard McCullough saying the Seminoles will “very seriously” consider leaving the league if the revenue distribution model does not change significantly. ACC’s move does not appear to change that deadline.
For other schools in the ACC, the three new schools represent both institutions of quality and security in numbers. Cal and Stanford are the last major conference schools to offer significant value in the group.