CHARLOTTE, NC — ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips opened up the league’s annual kickoff event on Wednesday by saying he is reviewing all available options to narrow the revenue gap with the SEC and Big Ten, but argued that the arms race in the College football is at risk of critically damaging college sports as a whole.
“We’re not the professional ranks,” Phillips said. “This is not NFL or NBA light. We remain competitive with each other, but this isn’t a winner-take-all or zero-sum structure, and it shouldn’t be. I will continue to do what is in the best interest of the ACC, but will also work to ensure collegiate athletics is a healthy neighborhood, not two or three gated communities.”
The Big Ten’s inclusion of USC and UCLA from the Pac-12 comes less than a year after the SEC added Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12, establishing an apparent trend of two superconferences far outstripping all other earnings will.
The ACC had record sales of $578 million in 2020-21 and distributed approximately $36.1 million to each full member. Estimates of the Big Ten’s next TV deal could see payouts more than double in the next few years.
The ACC has avoided losing one of its current members, but it has also found few ways to narrow the revenue gap and remain financially competitive with the SEC and the Big Ten.
Phillips said Wednesday the league will continue to analyze ways forward — from expansion, partnerships with the Pac-12, or moving to an unbalanced revenue-sharing model that could make more money available to schools investing more in football.
“Everything is on the table,” Phillips said. “We are looking at our TV contract. We are in contact with our partners at ESPN almost every day. We got together to have some discussions on what the next iteration for the ACC would be. That doesn’t mean we’re not going to do anything, but all the options are on the table.”
Phillips said he was willing to discuss changing the league’s revenue-sharing model – an option several football powers have been pushing for in recent years – but said it was “not our first option”.
Expansion remains a possibility, but multiple sources within the conference have said there simply isn’t another school available that would significantly improve the ACC’s bottom line — other than Notre Dame.
The Irish are currently part-members of the ACC in football and have a deal with the league which states that if they gave up their independence it would be for the ACC. Following the Big Ten’s absorption of UCLA and USC (and the soon-to-be-anticipated new TV deal), rumors have surfaced that Notre Dame might instead end its deal with the ACC for more money in the Big Ten.
Phillips said he doubted Notre Dame would relinquish its independent status, however, and said he remained encouraged by the ACC’s relationship with the Irish.
“I know what independence means to Notre Dame,” Phillips said. “I know I’d be very comfortable with Notre Dame considering moving to a conference and away from independence if it’s the ACC.”
The downside of expansion for the ACC could be teams choosing to exit, but the league’s current rights award – which cedes all media rights to the ACC – runs until 2036. Phillips pointed to the decisions by Texas, Oklahoma, UCLA and USC to sit out the rest of their rights grants before going to new conferences, as an example of the difficulty in breaking those agreements.
“People don’t come to Clemson because of a budget or because we’re in the ACC. We’re blessed to have great resources,” said Tigers coach Dabo Swinney. “But 2036 is a long time, and let’s face it — look at all the changes that’s happened in the last 12 months.”
Several ACC teams have had their counsel evaluate the ACC’s grant of rights, according to several league administrators, but none have suggested the document is likely to be challenged in court.
“Follow the logic,” Phillips said. “I would think that the significance of what that would mean, the television rights that the conference owns, plus a nine figure financial penalty, I think it holds. But your guess is as good as mine.”