So, the unwanted inevitable became official in the early hours of Friday morning when 12 out of 15 Atlantic Coast Conference presidents and chancellors decided to panic-add Cal, SMU and Stanford beginning in July of 2024. It was North Carolina State chancellor Randy Woodson who flipped on his initial standing (Clemson, Florida State and North Carolina remained firmly opposed), giving way to overstuff the ACC with three schools that have little business being in this conference.
As I try to wrap my head around another turgid 18-team mega-league (17 in football, where of course Notre Dame remains independent), it’s now just dawning on me that things like “Syracuse @ Cal” and “Stanford @ Boston College” are eligible to be conference games starting next year. My god, it’s so hideous it’s hilarious. What the hell are we doing here, folks.
Let it be screamed that this decision will not age well. We will look up at the end of this decade and find the majority of these realignment maneuvers from the past 26 months will not make college sports better. The ACC’s tacky trio could top the list. Sure, there will be perks and some fun matchups that materialize in the too-big-to-flop Big Ten, SEC and Big 12, but major college athletics isn’t evolving into a superior edition of itself. The plot has been lost in hopes that money will be able to write a better future. It almost certainly will not.
This is being done in 2023 in a chase for television capital allegedly waiting in the 2030s. But let’s face the elephant: Nobody in the TV industry can speak with clarity, conviction or clairvoyance about what the media-rights landscape will look like five years from now, let alone 10 or more. The ACC’s deal ends in 2036. NOBODY KNOWS. ACC leadership is attaching itself to Cal, Stanford and SMU in hopes that this can keep them afloat in an ever-increasing race for money — with no assurances that college sports’ money will continue to exponentially grow in a cord-cutting world.
It’s darkly comical that on the same day that the ACC voted to do this, tens of millions of households that subscribe to Spectrum’s cable service are unable to watch any Disney-owned channels (ESPN and ABC among them) on account of a contract dispute.
The three new ACC schools are so desperate to save themselves, they’ve agreed to significant haircuts on conference revenue through the end of the decade — taking substantially less now than the figures they were promised but passed on previously. SMU is eagerly joining the ACC and has signed off on going the next NINE YEARS without getting any TV revenue share.
You can feel the monkey’s paw starting to curl.
Nevertheless, this is the ACC’s arrangement for the foreseeable future. It’s almost certainly going to be worse off in football. In basketball, there is no question about it: A league that is coming off maybe its worst regular season in history just diluted its product. Arguably the proudest basketball league of them all is losing its footing, while the Big 12, Big East and SEC are positioned to thrive. I haven’t spoken to a single ACC coach who is in favor of adding Calford and SMU, but their opinions don’t matter in these matters.
How will basketball be affected? Here’s an initial peek into the future.
How conference scheduling could look
If the ACC sticks with 20 league games, the rotation would have three teams play each other twice and the other 14 teams once. This is not ideal for establishing a regular-season champion, but that ship is now out to sea. In this template, traditional rivalries would be protected. But instead of getting the likes of Duke-Florida State and UNC-Virginia two times per season, those would get chopped down to once a year in exchange for road trips against Cal, Stanford and SMU.
Traditional rivalries preserved, contemporary and/or regional ones get whittled.
When it comes to flying across the country to play a conference game, Cal and Stanford would be a double-dip single trip, of course. Per commissioner Jim Phillips on a media call Friday, when Cal and Stanford go East for ACC play, those schools would play two schools in close geographic proximity. How SMU fits in with a semi-congruent schedule and where the geography makes sense remains to be determined. Cal, Stanford and SMU would all play each other twice each season. Beyond that, the closest schools geographically are Louisville, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech.
The 15 ACC schools as of now will make two trips West every four years to Stanford and Cal, Phillips said. What days of the week those games get played has to be figured out. Teams will be looking at a minimum of four days away from campus when playing road games involving Cal, Stanford and SMU.
Here is the potential template for a 20-game schedule:
- Play 14 opponents 1x
- Play three opponents 2x
- Cal, SMU and Stanford always play each other 2x
Cal and Stanford would host the same eight teams in a season, meaning the seven other ACC teams (SMU not included) would not travel west. Cal and Stanford would play those seven teams on the road, and then play one eastern school twice.
Scheduling would get a deeper twist if the ACC went to 22 games. So, that begs the question …
Will the ACC go to 22 conference games?
Let’s hope not, but I can guarantee you this topic has already been informally explored by ACC officials. Bloating to 18 teams means that a 20-game schedule is doable, but 22 brings more in-league opportunities. You’d have five teams play twice and 12 teams play once.
The ACC should absolutely not do it.
Eighteen schools means someone has to finish 18th, and 17th, and 16th. It doesn’t strain logic to suggest those schools just might be Stanford, Cal and SMU. What you don’t want to do is give the league more opportunities for Quad 3 and 4 games. Those are résumé-saggers and bring down your best teams. Having 18 teams guarantees you will litter your league with results that impede the objective of producing as many NCAA Tournament teams as possible.
The schools hurt most by Friday’s news are the ones most likely to be competing for ACC titles — and high NCAA Tournament seeding. Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, Miami — you don’t want to saddle these teams with more games against mediocre competition. Now, it’s inevitable.
It would be in the best interest of the ACC to keep the league at 20 games, giving those schools as many opportunities as possible in nonconference play to bolster their tournament credentials. Therein lies another consequence: Will Duke, North Carolina and Virginia now have to schedule even more aggressively in November and December? That’s a great thing for college basketball, but also puts a lot on the ACC’s top programs to win big early in order to avoid being held back nationally if/when the ACC fails to break into the top three or four leagues from a metrics standpoint.
This is another downstream effect of why conference expansion worsens the overall product.
As for the ACC Tournament, Phillips said Friday the league is yet to discuss the format and whether or not all 18 teams would play (please no).
“We’re going to be, and think, aggressive,” Phillips said, and added, “you have to remember where your home base is and where you’ve had a lot of success.”
It used to be that the ACC could count on a lot of success in hoops, but that’s now more a hope than an expectation. Just a few years ago, it had three No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. It’s hard to envision that ever happening again. The league was seventh in overall strength at KenPom.com last season — the lowest it’s ever been. With Stanford, Cal and SMU coming in to crowd the room at 18 — three schools with four total NCAA Tournament appearances in the past 10 seasons — its days of being an elite basketball conference are over.