By Al Featherston
March 31, 2005 The conference's first trip through its football and basketball seasons with 11 teams, along with some important financial developments off the field, offered plenty of evidence that (1) most of the pro-expansionists' projections were correct, (2) a few of their other assumptions were incorrect, and (3) whether the end result is a good thing or a bad thing still depends heavily on your original point of view.
Back in the summer of 2003, when ACC expansion was all that anybody could talk about, a lot of extravagant promises were made, along with an equal number of dire warnings.
Expansion advocates argued that adding three teams to the ACC would bring wealth, prosperity and power. Opponents countered that the conference already was the most lucrative in the country, and that expanding it merely would dilute its income and destroy its close-knit structure.
Most of the competing arguments were summed up nicely in an article that ran in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on June 1, 2003. Author Joe Starkey cited claims by ACC officials that expansion could bring in an average of more than $40 million in additional revenue each year. That number stood in stark contrast to the Big East's estimates, that expansion would be worth less than half of that.
Starkey's article quoted unnamed television executives, who suggested that the ACC's $22 million a year TV package already was overvalued and was not likely to rise even with expansion. But it also cited other sources, who suggested that without expansion the ACC would lose $10 million a year when a new deal was negotiated in 2005.
It seemed that anybody could find evidence to support his or her position on expansion. North Carolina chancellor James Moeser told the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer: "It basically comes down to, which scenario do you believe?"
Moeser ended up voting against expansion. But opposition from UNC and Duke wasn't enough to derail ACC commissioner John Swofford's efforts to expand the league. He didn't get the three teams he originally wanted Miami, Boston College and Syracuse but in the end, the ACC admitted Miami and Virginia Teach for the 2004-05 school year, with Boston College scheduled to arrive in 2005-06.
Now, as the ACC's first post-expansion season winds down, it's possible to examine the impact of adding two (and soon three) new teams. It's possible to look at the evidence and see which of the two conflicting scenarios presented before expansion was closer to the mark.
Did expansion bring the ACC wealth and power? Or did it merely dilute an already great league?
TV Money Surprised Skeptics
No issue was more hotly debated before expansion than the question of what expansion would do to the ACC's TV packages. And it's probably fair to say that was the single most important issue on the table.
"You can look at ticket sales and sponsorships, but the real dollars come from television," Jay Rosenstein, a former vice president in charge of programming at CBS Sports, told the Tribune-Review. "The lion's share of revenue streams everyone talks about is from television, so administrators make decisions based on projections of how TV revenues go."
Critics of expansion clearly underestimated Swofford's knowledge of the TV industry. They forgot that he first rose to national prominence as chairman of the NCAA's Football Television Committee in 1984. He also served as chairman of the NCAA's Communications and Special Events/Post-Season Bowl committees.
No one in college athletics was better-trained and better-positioned to deal with the TV networks. So when critics claimed that the ACC's pre-expansion TV football deal was overvalued, and that the market for a new contract was soft, Swofford merely smiled and told the league presidents that he could negotiate a far better deal.
And guess what? He did.
"I was pleasantly surprised in the negotiations," said Duke athletic director Joe Alleva, originally an opponent of expansion. "We made out better than the projections."
ESPN (in partnership with ABC) owned exclusive negotiating rights with the ACC for a month last fall. The talks seemed stalled when, just before the end of that negotiating period, a blurb appeared in Rudy Martzke's well-read TV column in USA Today, citing interest from TBS in acquiring the rights to ACC football.
Within days still before its exclusive negotiating window closed ESPN/ABC came back with a new offer: $263.3 million over seven years. That works out to $37.6 million a year, up from $22 million a year. It was slightly less than the SEC's contract (near $48 million a year) but just about the same as the Big Ten's TV deal.
"What this means is that the ACC, in my view, is one of the three premier conferences," Barry Frank of IMG told USA Today. "Combined with its strength in basketball, it's on its way to being THE premier conference."
The new football deal includes increased exposure for the ACC. The league's national ESPN appearances will double, from nine to 18 a season. The conference also will be featured on Thursday night six times a year, up from three.
It also should be noted that the ESPN/ABC contract includes the rights to the ACC title game, starting next season in Jacksonville, Fla.
In the wake of the ACC's new contract with ESPN/ABC, Swofford negotiated a new syndication deal for $4 million a year (up from $1 million a year) with Raycom, in partnership with Jefferson-Pilot. It also provides for more exposure, with telecasts rising from eight a year in 2003 to 10 in 2004 to 11 in 2005.
The ACC, which already owned the nation's most lucrative TV basketball package, didn't reap the same kind of bonanza when it renegotiated its basketball contract. The league increased its seven-year package from $210 million to "only" $225 million a relatively paltry $2.1 million a year increase. The deal was with Raycom/Jefferson-Pilot, which in turn sells games to ESPN, ABC, CBS and Fox Sports.
So adding up all the figures: The ACC gained $15.6 million a year in its main TV package, $3 million a year in syndication and $2.1 million a year in basketball. That means expansion likely gained the ACC about $20.7 million a year extra in TV money alone.
"I think it is about what they told us it was going to be," said UNC athletic director Dick Baddour, originally an opponent of expansion. "Financially, we haven't seen any surprises. I'm not worried about it financially."
Football Results Mostly Positive
It was no secret that football was the driving force behind expansion. The league's Southern tier of football-oriented schools Florida State, Clemson and Georgia Tech were the strongest advocates of adding teams, and they especially wanted football giant Miami.
League insiders also were worried about what they called "the ACC's place at the table" when it came to football clout. So what if the ACC had played in more BCS title games than any other league? All of those appearances were by Florida State, and they claimed that any slippage by the Seminoles could doom the conference to second-tier status.
Expansion was designed to broaden the league's football foundation. Adding Miami alone would lift the league to parity with the SEC and Big 12. It also would give the ACC control of the nation's premier annual football rivalry FSU-Miami to match its hold on the nation's premier annual basketball rivalry, Duke-UNC.
Advocates of expansion also touted the benefits of playing a conference championship game, while raising the possibility of putting two ACC teams in the BCS bowls. The latter would generate another financial bonanza, one worth more than $4 million to the league.
Everything was set up to send both FSU and Miami to the BCS this season. The two rivals played early a nationally televised Monday night extravaganza in the Orange Bowl and the Hurricanes pulled out a thrilling victory in overtime. That seemed to clinch the ACC title for the league newcomer in early September, but there was still plenty of time for the Seminoles to recover and earn a BCS at-large berth.
That seemed to be happening, as FSU won six straight after losing to Miami and climbed back into the top five in the polls. Meanwhile, Miami rolled along as expected, kicking ACC butt and climbing to No. 2 in the polls with a 6-0 record.
Then a not-so-funny thing happened. On Oct. 30, the old ACC rose up and delivered a double upset of historic proportions. First, struggling Maryland stunned FSU in College Park. Later that night, in a game telecast nationally on ESPN, unheralded North Carolina staggered Miami, as freshman Connor Barth booted the winning field goal on the game's final play.
A week later, a middle-of-the-pack Clemson team stunned Miami in the Orange Bowl. Not only did the Hurricanes fail to win the ACC title that seemed such a lock before the season, but the powerful newcomers failed to secure a BCS berth at all. Florida State also stumbled down the stretch and wound up playing in the Peach Bowl.
Instead, the league's other new member Virginia Tech overcame an early season loss to N.C. State, narrowly avoided upsets at the hands of Wake Forest and UNC, and claimed the 2004 ACC championship, along with the league's guaranteed BCS berth.
The unexpected parity in the ACC ended up costing the league the money it hoped to earn from a second BCS spot, but it did wonders for the league's reputation. Commentators who expected Miami and FSU to rule the conference with an iron hand learned that there were other teams in the league that could play football.
"From a football standpoint," Alleva said, "it sent a message that ACC football was pretty good."
N.C. State athletic director Lee Fowler said he also believes that the first post-expansion season helped the league's football image.
"Over the last four or five years, we've been catching up with Florida State," Fowler said. "This year shows that the ACC is where we knew it was."
The league finally will get to play a conference championship game next season. Unfortunately, that probably will make it tougher for the league to earn two BCS berths. In all likelihood, the loser of the ACC title game will be knocked from contention.
"We'll be lucky if (two BCS bids) happens once out of 10 years," Alleva said. "But (the ACC championship game) will generate a lot of money and a lot of interest."
Basketball Mixed, As Expected
ACC basketball didn't need expansion. In fact, most of the league's coaches opposed or were at best lukewarm about the idea of adding two or three teams.
Of course, one of the most publicized impacts of expansion was the league's abandonment of its traditional round-robin schedule. North Carolina and Wake Forest, which finished 1-2 in the regular-season standings, played just once. The Tar Heels never returned Georgia Tech's trip to Chapel Hill. And the historic Duke-N.C. State series was reduced to a single game in Raleigh, although the two rivals did meet again in the ACC Tournament.
Still, it was a successful basketball season in many ways. Five different ACC teams were ranked in the top 10 at one point or another. Early in the season, one AP poll included a record seven ACC teams in the Top 25.
Interestingly, had Swofford's original expansion plan gone through smoothly, the ACC would have added Boston College and Syracuse, two teams that spent most of the 2004-05 season in the top 10.
Instead, the ACC added Miami and Virginia Tech, two of the weakest teams in the Big East in 2003-04. Both were projected at the bottom of the preseason standings this season, and at least one ACC coach suggested that fattening up on the two newcomers might help the league's middle-echelon teams pad their NCAA résumés.
Instead, Virginia Tech and Miami proved to be anything but patsies. The Hokies, starting three sophomores and a freshman, won eight ACC games under second-year coach Seth Greenberg. At Miami, first-year coach Frank Haith found guard Anthony Harris and center Anthony King buried on the bench and used them along with veteran guard Robert Hite and budding young star Guillermo Diaz to win seven ACC games.
Rather than helping the ACC's bubble teams, the two newcomers almost killed the NCAA chances of N.C. State (1-2 against Virginia Tech and Miami) and Georgia Tech (homecourt loss to Virginia Tech). It certainly didn't help Maryland to go 1-2 against the newcomers, and a loss at Tech in the regular-season finale proved exceptionally costly to the Terps' NCAA hopes.
"Everybody beat up on everybody," Alleva said. "From the outside, it made us look more average."
Fowler also admitted that the success Miami and Virginia Tech had against the ACC holdovers might be seen by some critics as evidence that the league is not as powerful as it believes. But he added: "In basketball we had one of the best seasons ever."
Indeed, the ACC finished as the nation's No. 1 RPI conference, although it was significantly lower than last year's average. That, to be fair, was the highest ever recorded.
Alleva complained that the additions of the two newcomers, coupled with the move to a smaller arena in Washington, cost his school and everybody else ACC Tournament tickets. That especially could hurt the money-raising efforts of the Big Four schools, which count on ACC Tournament ticket sales to generate big-dollar contributions.
Miami and Virginia Tech each received one-third of a full ticket allotment this season. Next year in Greensboro, they'll get a two-thirds allotment, while Boston College will get a third of an allotment.
"The crunch is only going to get worse," Alleva warned.
Olympic Sports Impact Unclear
One of the dire predictions about expansion was that schools would lose lots of money sending non-revenue sports teams all up and down the East Coast.
Fowler said that hasn't happened yet.
"It's a manner of planning," he said. "Our teams have always traveled. We just won't go to some places we normally go. It just makes sense; you don't send your tennis team to Las Vegas in a year when you have to go to Miami."
There have been some disruptions. Baseball teams now face a 30-game conference schedule that limits their other scheduling options. Meanwhile, athletic directors are talking about dropping the round-robin schedule for volleyball.
On the other hand, Boston College will bring a women's lacrosse team into the league. That will give the ACC six women's lacrosse teams, enough to earn a guaranteed bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Conclusions: Mixed, But Positive
It's clear that the basic arguments of the pro-expansionists were correct adding the new teams increased revenue and improved the ACC's stature nationally. Of course, that doesn't mean there wasn't a downside to expansion.
The basketball round-robin was a high price to pay for a football championship game. And some of the projected benefits of expansion specifically, a second BCS bowl team in football and more NCAA bids in basketball just didn't materialize this year.
But even a skeptic such as UNC's Baddour admitted that expansion has paid off.
"I don't believe there have been many surprises," he said. "I think it's gone very well. I think all of the institutions have worked very hard to make it work. We've all attacked it like, Some things are going to be different. Accept those. If there are some things not as good as they were, how do we fix that?'"
Alleva, another expansion opponent, agreed.
"From my perspective, expansion has worked out OK," he said. "There's no doubt we're a better football conference."