CHARLOTTE, NC — ACC commissioner Jim Phillips opened the league’s annual kickoff event Wednesday by saying he’s exploring all available options to reduce the revenue gap with the SEC and Big Ten, but he argued the arms race in college football risks doing critical damage to the college athletics as a whole.
“We are not the professional ranks,” Phillips said. “This is not the NFL or NBA light. We remain competitive with one another, but this is not — and should not be — a winner-take-all or zero-sum structure. I will continue to do what’s in the best interest of the ACC but will also advocate for college athletics to be a healthy neighborhood, not two or three gated communities.”
The Big Ten’s addition of USC and UCLA from the Pac-12 comes less than a year after the SEC added Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12, setting up an apparent trend toward two super conferences that will far outpace everyone else in revenue.
The ACC took in a record $578 million in revenue in 2020-21, distributing about $36.1 million to each full member. Estimates of the Big Ten’s next TV deal could result in payouts more than double that tally in the next few years.
The ACC has avoided losing any of its current members, but it also has found few avenues to reduce the revenue gap and remain financially competitive with the SEC and Big Ten.
Phillips said Wednesday the league continues to analyze pathways forward — from expansion, partnerships with the Pac-12, or shifting to an imbalanced revenue distribution model that could provide more money to schools more invested in football.
“Everything is on the table,” Phillips said. “We’re looking at our TV contract. We’re in engagement almost daily with our partners at ESPN. We’ve come together to have some discussions about what would be the next iteration for the ACC. It doesn’t mean we’ re not going to make a move, but all options are on the table.”
Phillips said he’s open to discussing changing the league’s revenue distribution model — an option several football powers have urged for the past few years — but said it’s “not our first option.”
Expansion remains a possibility, but several sources within the conference have said there simply isn’t another school available that would markedly improve the ACC’s bottom line — except Notre Dame.
The Irish are currently partial members of the ACC in football and have a contract with the league saying that, if they were to relinquish independence, it would be for the ACC. In the aftermath of the Big Ten’s addition of UCLA and USC (and the hefty new TV deal expected to come soon), rumors have swirled that Notre Dame could instead exit its deal with the ACC for more money in the Big Ten.
Phillips said he was dubious Notre Dame would drop its independent status, however, and said he remains encouraged by the ACC’s relationship with the Irish.
“I know what independence means to Notre Dame,” Phillips said. “I know that if there comes a time that Notre Dame would consider moving to a conference and away from independence, I feel really good about it being the ACC.”
The flip side of expansion for the ACC could be teams choosing to leave, but the league’s current grant of rights — which cedes all media rights to the ACC — runs through 2036. Phillips pointed to the decisions by Texas, Oklahoma, UCLA and USC to ride out the remainder of their grants of rights before heading to new conferences as an example of the difficulty of breaking those agreements.
“People don’t come to Clemson because of some budget or because we’re in the ACC. We’re blessed that we have great resources,” said Tigers coach Dabo Swinney. “But 2036 is a long time, and let’s be real here — look at all the change that’s happened in the last 12 months.”
Several ACC teams have had their legal counsel evaluate the ACC’s grant of rights, according to multiple league administrators, but none have suggested they’re likely to challenge the document 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 as well as a nine-figure financial penalty, I think it holds. But your guess is as good as mine.”