The Atlantic Coast Conference’s last foray into expansion was protracted and public and produced temporary fissures in the league’s membership.
There were no such problems in the last week, and the ACC arguably ushered in the superconference era in college sports as a result.
The ACC formally invited Big East members Pittsburgh and Syracuse on Sunday after a unanimous vote by the ACC’s council of presidents.
Many questions abound with one of the six BCS automatic qualifying leagues making a leap to 14 football members. The biggest, undoubtedly, is whether that’s the limit to the league’s growth
“We’re comfortable with this 14,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said on a teleconference with reporters Sunday morning. “We’re not philosophically opposed to 16.”
Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson welcomed the additions to the Terrapins’ league in a statement released by the school.
“From a regional standpoint, adding these two high-quality schools will enhance the marketing footprint of the league,” Anderson said. “Both Pittsburgh and New York City will offer the conference new opportunities to attract fans in all our sports. We look forward to discussions about the future of the league and would encourage a future expansion.”
The defections of Pittsburgh and Syracuse leave the Big East with seven football-playing schools, a group that includes Texas Christian, which is scheduled to join the conference next year. Of the eight Big East members when the league began sponsoring football, only two (Rutgers and West Virginia) remain while five are either members or invited to join the ACC.
It is uncertain how soon Syracuse, a charter member of the Big East, and Pittsburgh, which joined the league in 1982, will begin membership in the ACC. The Big East requires members provide 27-month notice and pay an exit fee before departing.
Swofford said the ACC will respect the Big East’s bylaws and declined to issue a deadline for Pittsburgh and Syracuse’s arrival next season, though it’s not implausible the two schools will depart the Big East within a window smaller than 27 months.
“I would think that in the weeks ahead everyone will be looking at the transition period and trying to determine whether the 27-month notice period really serves everyone’s best interests or whether there should be some modification to it,” Pittsburgh chancellor Mark Nordenberg said. “Our starting point is that is the provision in the Big East bylaws.”
Syracuse was nearly invited into the ACC in 2003 before in-state political pressure led Virginia to only approve of expansion if Virginia Tech was involved.
The extended drama that ultimately led to the addition of three Big East schools – Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech – stretched on for weeks. This time, Swofford said the league decided last week to pursue adding schools. Swofford said the ACC also increased its withdrawal fee to 125 percent, or approximately $20 million.
“We have a much better process right now than we have had before,” Swofford said. “From an internal standpoint, it worked absolutely beautifully.”
The latest move functions as the latter half of a two-part annexation and also provides some security for the ACC as college athletics massively shifts. Texas A&M appears headed from the Big 12 to the SEC as soon as some legal wrangling is resolved, and Oklahoma’s board of regents is scheduled to meet Monday to discuss how the Sooners (and likely, in turn, Oklahoma State) approach the future.
Then there’s Texas, whose Longhorn Network television deal with ESPN helped trigger the latest round of instability. Swofford declined to talk specifically about Texas, but said an unbalanced distribution of money was anathema to the league.
“I would tell you that in the Atlantic Coast Conference, equal revenue sharing is sacred,” Swofford said.
Among the other significant subjects touched upon Sunday:
* Swofford said expansion permits the ACC to re-open its television contract with its current rights holders, but does not allow the conference to go to the open market. The ACC agreed to a deal with ESPN in 2010, and the contract began this year.
“I’m quite confident that as we work with our existing TV partners with these two members coming in that the current members and the two new members will not only be whole but beyond whole financially in terms of television,” Swofford said.
* It is uncertain how the league’s football divisional alignment will break. The ACC did not opt for a geographic split when it created two six-team divisions when Boston College began play in 2005.
“We’ve had some discussion about that, but we will need to have further discussions,” Swofford said. “We would not want to come to a conclusion of that without the full participation of Pittsburgh and Syracuse in that discussion. That will be one of the first things we start addressing and the scheduling models. Obviously those two go hand-in-hand.”
* The ACC basketball tournament, played in North Carolina for much of its history, could make an appearance in New York after this expansion. Madison Square Garden is the long-time home of the Big East tournament, and Swofford said the ACC “would be open to that as part of the rotation” of future tournaments.
“Taking a look at New York and Madison Square Garden would be a very appealing for Atlantic Coast Conference basketball fans, now moreso with more teams in closer proximity … ,” Swofford said. “We’d probably be remiss if we didn’t think of it in those terms.”
There are countless details left for the ACC to sort out, and there is still uncertainty at a national level. But Swofford succinctly crystallized his league’s philosophy Sunday morning.
“Our focus is always on what’s best for us,” Swofford said.
And right now, that means getting bigger is what’s best for the ACC.