OPINION: ACC Weaknesses – Funding Shortfalls, Poor Leadership and Missed Opportunities

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The ACC proudly announced the return of College Championships to the state of North Carolina. Boldly proclaiming “the return of neutral-site championships in the state of North Carolina,” all must now seem right again in the minds of those on Tobacco Road.

Perhaps the conference hierarchy that is from, lead, and run by those in the state of North Carolina can breathe more easily now that they are back in full control. UNC’s recent national basketball championship may highlight the strength of a great basketball conference, but those in Clemson and Tallahassee and perhaps Louisville and Miami who care about football and need comparable funds to compete with the SEC and Big 10 must feel like the budget guru’s in the Soviet Union felt when Ronald Reagan decided to try to outspend them. For those who failed history, it didn’t turn out very well for the side with less money!

It would be easy to dismiss facts, given that FSU and Clemson recently won National Championships in football, but leaders and fans outside of NC must consider several things: Is the state of NC a neutral-site if you come from Syracuse, S. Carolina or Florida? Is it time to rename the conference the NCC to fully recognize that the conference is housed, run and managed entirely in North Carolina by North Carolina schools? Why did we grant our rights to a conference that is led by people who are 5 years behind conference peers and worst of all, how can we compete with schools that get $20M a year more because their conference leaders created better deals for them than John Swofford and his NC cronies did for us in the ACC?

If Presidents and Athletic Directors at Clemson, Miami, Florida State, Louisville and even Georgia Tech, Boston College and Syracuse aren’t asking themselves these questions, then they should be charged with dereliction of duty.

The Great Conference Realignment of 2008-10 shook the world. It forced deals that were once unheard of (granting of media rights) and revealed in full glare that the most august, high-brow academics who often argued that these “conferences were about much more than sports” were right – we learned that conferences and all they represented were all about nothing more than money!

Regardless, the realignment craze created an opportunity to win or lose. The Big East was destroyed, the Big 10 and SEC grew stronger. It’s difficult to argue that the ACC won by adding two basketball schools in Louisville and Syracuse, and a half-pregnant spouse in Notre Dame. The missed opportunity did give John Swofford the chance to lock down the media rights of his member schools. Given these facts, it appears that the conference gained strength – but not against its peers, but against and at the expense of its member universities’ autonomy.

The power play that was the grant of rights solidified the conference, but what did Swofford do with this new-found clout? Absolutely nothing. The wake-up call ended there, since the ACC squandered the opportunity to pick off a few great schools and teams that would have added competitive balance to the conference where it was needed: football (See SEC and Texas A&M).

In hindsight, it looks like the only successful byproduct of conference realignment for the ACC was to secure another decade of the soft and pathetic leadership that is John Swofford and the NC brigade of athletic bureaucrats.

Sadly, no public outreach was made to schools in Texas or Oklahoma. The Aggies moved to the SEC and further enhanced their profile and funding, strengthening both the school’s posture and that of the SEC’s. The media analysts at the ACC made an enormous miscalculation, targeting the Northeast market – a strong NFL market, and decidedly NOT a college football market. The strategy was, effectively, to grow in a large media market where nobody consumes the product and add some great legacy basketball schools. This was not what the ACC needed.

Sadly, for the ACC, no leadership came from FSU or Clemson, no voices of reason clamoring to fire Swofford for what can only be described as sleeping at the switch. To make matters worse, both the Big 10 and the SEC moved quickly to secure conference networks worth tens of millions of dollars in annual payments to their member schools and restructured their TV deals to earn vastly more money each year. All while the ACC was left with an opportunity to get one years out and a big, one-time payment penalty if it the network were not created.

How could this happen? It is yet another example of a lack of vision and leadership – from a conference whose teams have done more than they should to carry their peers and the conference leadership. Like good Catholics have pictures of Jesus and the Pope by their bedsides, John Swofford should have Dabo and Jimbo gracing his nightstand for without them, he would be toast. Sadly, for Clemson and FSU – it is not their burden to carry the conference even though they have done so for two decades. The other schools need to get better. Miami is on the path, Louisville is making great progress, yet the conference is still viewed as weak, even when it beats the SEC.

This is largely because ESPN has a major bias toward its investment properties, the SEC and Big 10. And why not, if you were a travel agent, would you put a guest in your hotel or a competitors’?

To compete with some of the bigger conferences, the ACC has realized that major facility upgrades must be made – the question is where to get the funds for it all.

Make no mistake about it, for college athletics, funding is a major source of success for teams. Facility costs, coach salaries, and athletic department maintenance all require significant financial investments from NCAA member universities. This is an arms race that would make the 1950-1990 US and Soviet Union leaders blush. Team rooms have become movie theaters, barber shops, and arcades. Assistant Coaches now have multi-million-dollar, multi-year contracts. And don’t even think about stealing a good head coach for less than a $20-million-dollar commitment – after you spend another $10M to buy out the guy you just fired.