Ever since the University of Maryland Board of Regents approved the Terrapins' move to the Big Ten on November 19, media outlets have been aflutter with speculation of further conference realignment. One day the rumors revolved around Georgia Tech. The day after, we heard of the imminent departure of the Jackets and the University of Virginia. Finally, the day arrived when the initials "UNC" were used in the same sentence as the words "Big Ten."
I admit. That one got my attention.
Why? Well, because it's not 1984 anymore, for starters. Long gone are the days of 8 teams within driving distance. Longer gone are the days of the Big 4 and the Dixie Classic. The days of Dean Smith, Terry Holland and Carl Tacy have given way to Mike Brey, Jamie Dixon and Rick Pitino.
The reality of college athletics in 2012 is that no scenario is impossible. Raise your hand if you thought there would ever be more than 10 teams in the ACC? Right.
Quick quiz: what's the root cause of conference realignment? Answer: money. Football money. Media rights. Merchandise sales. Television markets. Money, and lots of it. So if you happen to be a fan of a small fish in a pond rapidly increasing in size like, say, Wake Forest ...
... wouldn't you be wary of current events? You should.
I reached out to a few folks to get their take on worst-case scenarios for Wake Forest. Specifically, should Ron Wellman already have a contingency plan in place in case the conference implodes? Or, is there a possibility that Wake already has "dance partners" already so that they won't be left alone on the island?
To quote ACC Sports Journal editor Jim Young, "Wake Forest has zero leverage. I think they just have to sit back and hope the ACC stays together."
Not exactly the encouraging words Deacon fans will want to hear for sure. If die-hard Tie-Dye Nation members know anything from experience, it's that "hope" is not a strategy. I spent my childhood hoping that the Deacs would win at football. Turns out they had to make a financial commitment. Who knew?
Unfortunately, Young is exactly right. Sixty grand a year in tuition does not buy oneself equal status in the sporting world. It is imperative that Ron Wellman and President Nathan Hatch formalize some strategic alliances in advance of any further tumult resulting from conference defections. Further tumult could leave the Deacons stranded on the dance floor with no partner.
To clarify, when I say, "further tumult" I mean, "Maryland gets out of their $50 million exit fee." It's that simple.
Florida State and Clemson are the closest things to football powers that the ACC has right now (sorry, Hokies) and spent a good part of last year chasing the Big 12 like I chased Dee Dee Young my freshman year. Which is to say, desperately. Both schools are in good shape financially, but they are smart enough to know that they could increase their revenue elsewhere.
If Maryland gets out of the exit fee, all bets are off, never mind the statement of solidarity released by the ACC Council of Presidents on Thursday. Let's just imagine for a moment that this happens, and the 'Noles and Tigers head for the Big 12. All eyes would then turn to Raleigh and Blacksburg, which are the two schools that the SEC would welcome in order to solidify their membership at 16 teams. Finally, should the allegation be true that Jim Delany and his minions have pre-approved Virginia, Georgia Tech and (gulp) North Carolina for Big Ten membership, where does that leave the ACC?
- Wake Forest
- Boston College
- Notre Dame (basketball-only)
Realistically, however, Wake Forest fans should have little to worry about. The reason? Louisville. Louisville's recent addition to the conference should have cause more than a few exhalations of relief.
As Andrew Jones from FOX Sports says, "Adding Louisville on many levels is a step up for the ACC and I think gives the league some of the new life and culture it needs."
Indeed, disaster was probably averted by choosing the Cardinals over the University of Connecticut. Jones also points out that many people don't understand that Maryland leaving had little, if anything to do with the ACC.
"The other 11 ACC schools aren't hemorrhaging the money Maryland is," Jones said, "and the Terps are because of some very poor financial decisions. They over-spent on the Comcast Center, they built way too many luxury suites for Byrd Stadium not knowing for certain if they could sell them, and they have had a terrible time selling football tickets. Maryland leaving was about Maryland fixing its self-created problems."
In the end, Deacon fans can be confident in its future based on two basic precepts. One, their athletic department and the ACC member departments are in relatively good financial shape. Maryland's situation was an anomaly.
Second, as he mentioned in his comments to me, Jones speculated that Ron Wellman should be privy to the ongoing negotiations with ESPN to renew and upgrade the lucrative broadcast rights package. Television makes the world go 'round, and Jim Delany was right in saying that "eyes on screens" was where the real money was. An upgraded television package, an enforceable exit fee and a Grant of Rights to ensure stability will go a long way towards the future of the conference.
That, and adding Notre Dame for football.
But that's another issue.