ACC meetings end with more questions than answers on NIL, divisions and headquarters

ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips talks with North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham before UNC’s game against Boston College at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022. [email protected]

They came. They talked. They ... left a lot of things to be decided later.

The ACC held its annual spring meetings here this week amid much turmoil throughout college athletics. All at once it feels like everything is changing. Athletes have more power than they’ve ever had. Coaches and administrators have less.

Name, image and likeness (NIL) rights have, in a lot of ways, devolved into pay-for-play by another name. Tampering and supposedly-illicit recruiting inducements are running rampant, it appears. The traditional collegiate model, as it has often been known, has been upended. The powers that be throughout college athletics are attempting to get a hold on everything.

ACC coaches and administrators talked a lot about those things this week here at the Ritz-Carlton. Then there was everything else more specific to the conference: the debate over what to do about football divisions and scheduling; the impending decision about where to locate the league’s headquarters; the ongoing dilemma about revenue, and how to generate more of it.

These meetings were short on decisions but heavy on discussions that will lead to decisions. And so with that, a rundown of where the ACC stands on the issues at the conclusion of spring meetings:

1. The league wants to rein in everything surrounding NIL but ... how?

You won’t find a lot of people throughout college athletics, whether coaches or administrators, who’d say publicly that athletes shouldn’t have the right to monetize their NIL. There’s consensus that they should, and that college athletics is not going backward on that issue. There is a lot of debate, though, about how to control NIL, if at all, and what to do about what it has become.

There are two categories of NIL deals these days: the legitimate ones and ones that are clearly recruiting inducements, or ways to pay players for remaining in school or entice them to transfer to somewhere else. The problem is it’s all but impossible to distinguish the two in any kind of authoritative, definitive way.

Sure, when details of some of these deals leak out, everyone can sort of tell the difference. But when it comes to enforcement, who decides what’s legit and what’s not? The NCAA has announced its intent to crack down on boosters who are using NIL as a cover to pay players, or persuade them to go to a certain school. ACC officials applauded that move this week.

But, again: How would that enforcement work, exactly?

“I think their directive was clear,” ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips said here Wednesday, adding that the NCAA wants to focus on “egregious” cases of pay-for-play under the guise of NIL, particularly ones involving boosters.

But what does “egregious” really mean? Is there some sort of NCAA board that will decide the definition? (The Committee on Egregiousness, perhaps?) Is there a standard that will be relayed to member schools? Is an egregious deal at Miami the same an egregious deal at Wake Forest or the same as one in Los Angeles or Pullman, Washington, or Lawrence, Kansas?

What does this word mean, egregious?

“I don’t know that I have a definition of it,” Phillips said when I asked him. “You know, I think we’re relying on the enforcement staff to move forward. And we certainly are relying on institutions, specifically, you know, bringing forward issues that they may have with something that they’ve seen happen to one of their players or within the industry.”

In other words: the NCAA’s barebones enforcement staff is left to police an entire upstart industry and, when it inevitably cannot do that, the onus then falls on the schools to police themselves and each other.

We already know how this ends: With nothing really changing any time soon. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, either, given that college athletes have more freedom than they ever have. But it does create a lot of questions about how to manage something that has become unmanageable.

2. Football divisions are very likely going away, but the details have yet to be decided.

Mack Brown said it best when I spoke with him earlier this week: “We can’t say that we’ve got to make change to produce revenue and then not change.”

He was talking in particular about the ACC football schedule, and the prospect of doing away with the Atlantic and Coastal Divisions. Earlier in the week, coaches and some athletic directors here indicated there was a lot of momentum behind the thought of eliminating divisions and adopting a so-called 3-5-5 scheduling model.

That format would leave each ACC team with three permanent opponents and a two-year rotation against the other 10 teams — five on the schedule one season, the other five on the schedule the next. It’d take two seasons, and not six or more, for every ACC school to play each other. Every ACC school would play at every stadium in the league at least once every four years.

Such a model would reinvigorate old rivalries that have collected dust since the ACC went to a divisional format in 2005. (N.C. State and Duke, for instance, have played but four times in the past 19 years.) The 3-5-5 would also, in theory, help create fan interest given there would more often be compelling games between teams that now rarely play each other.

Over the week, though, momentum behind scrapping divisions seems to have cooled a bit. The move appeared imminent on Tuesday and not-so imminent by Thursday. Dave Clawson, the Wake Forest football coach, told reporters on Wednesday that coaches vote every year on getting rid of divisions, and usually the vote is split or close to it (you can likely guess, he said, which coaches favor keeping the Atlantic and Coastal versus which are ready for a new format; the Atlantic has been dominated by Clemson while every Coastal Division team has won it in the past decade).

The coaches’ vote was close again this year, Clawson said, but the decision is not solely up to them. Phillips is clearly pushing the conference to adopt a new model, and the only question is how it takes shape. The 3-5-5 still appears the most likely, though not all are sold. Brown said he prefers the divisional format. So does UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham, who said he’d favor nine conference games before he favored getting rid of divisions.

There is a consensus, at least, that conference teams need to be playing each other more often. When will a final decision be made? Unclear. Don’t be surprised, though, if a new scheduling format is announced during the ACC’s annual football kickoff in July, if not before.

3. ACC headquarters appear likely to remain in North Carolina, but where?

Our Luke DeCock and Steve Wiseman reported last month that Orlando and Charlotte had emerged as the finalists to land the ACC’s headquarters, with Greensboro still in the running. From talking with people here this week, none of whom were willing to say it on the record, Orlando is no longer under consideration.

And so that leaves Charlotte and ... Greensboro? Yes, Greensboro.

The likelihood that the ACC stays put in its city of origin feels more likely than it did even a month ago. The city desperately wants to keep the ACC there, and Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughn attended the league’s meetings this week (she’s the daughter of longtime ACC assistant commissioner Fred Barakat, and so Vaughn has a deeper connection to the conference).

The debate, as it has been all along, continues to be what the ACC gains by moving to another city (Charlotte, now) versus what it’d lose if it left Greensboro. The longer it takes for the ACC to make a final decision on this, the more likely it seems that the conference remains where it’s been since its inception in 1953.

The league’s presidents and chancellors will make the call. Ten of the 15 schools will have to vote in favor of moving for it to happen.

“We’re in a really good place,” Phillips said. “And I would just say we’re digesting each of the locations. We had another conversation yesterday with the board. And we want to have something done this spring, which I think you know what that means.

“The spring’s got three or four weeks left in it.”

4. The money struggle is real.

It’s impossible for any conference to meet and not spend a lot of time talking about money, and these ACC spring meetings were no different from ones in recent years, or even more than a decade ago, when conference media rights deals first began to gain more attention. What is different: the growing concern within the league about a revenue gap that’s only growing wider.

As I wrote about here, the ACC faces a significant money problem. There’s no apparent fix.

The conference is locked into its deal with ESPN through 2036. The Big Ten and SEC, both of which generate hundreds of millions of dollars more in revenue than the ACC, are both set to enter into new TV rights agreements in 2024. That means the gulf between those conferences and the ACC, which is significant now, will continue to grow and grow.

Jack Swarbrick, the Notre Dame athletic director, told reporters here on Thursday that college athletics is becoming “a two solar system model here,” with the Big Ten and SEC. “You have two suns with all the gravitational pull.”

It’s one thing for the ACC to be tens of millions of dollars behind its main conference rivals, as was the case 10 years ago. It’s another thing entirely for it to be hundreds of millions of dollars behind, with no end in sight to that imbalance. The Big Ten and SEC both appear likely to cross the billion-dollar mark in revenue at some point in the next few years.

The ACC, meanwhile, recently generated almost $500 million in revenue — a record.

The problem is not that the conference isn’t making money. It’s making plenty of money.

But in the obscenely opulent world of major college athletics, the league is setting revenue records while at the same time losing financial ground to the Big Ten and SEC. This matters because conference TV money filters down to schools and represents a significant chunk of every athletic department budget. It pays for coaching salaries and facility upgrades and recruiting budgets and just about everything else you can think of.

Play out the numbers, longterm, and it’s fair to question the ACC’s viability a decade from now. Would schools be looking to leave the way Maryland did almost 10 years ago? How does the ACC compete at the highest level of college football if the Big Ten and SEC are generating almost twice as much money?

Behind the scenes, ACC officials are trying to get creative and maximize revenue any way they can. Without a chance to renegotiate that TV deal — which appears highly unlikely, unless Notre Dame joins the conference full-time (which appears even less likely) — there are no readily-apparent answers. The revenue gap problem has simmered for a long time and it’s not going away. It’s only becoming more and more apparent.

The league isn’t poor — far from it, in fact. But it’s in a precarious spot.

The Power Five is becoming the Power Two.

This story was originally published May 12, 2022 1:48 PM.

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Andrew Carter spent 10 years covering major college athletics, six of them covering the University of North Carolina for The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer. Now he’s a member of The N&O’s and Observer’s statewide enterprise and investigative reporting team. He attended N.C. State and grew up in Raleigh dreaming of becoming a journalist.
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