Wednesday, September 12, 2012

irish eyes

Fifty million bucks.  Did you see what the ACC did today?  It succeeded in raising its exit fee to fifty million bucks.  Actually that's not even the amazing part, that's just the number that's getting reported.  What's being missed is this: the new exit fee is actually "three times the annual operation budget" (and I'm assuming they mean the conference's operation budget) which currently means an exit fee of $50 million.  What they actually did was set an automatically escalating exit fee that never has to be voted on again.  In five years that fee might be more like $60 million.  In ten years it might be $75 million.  Sneeeeeaky.  No way the budget is going down. 

Hell, if in five years it looks again like there are rumblings of a team leaving the league, all we have to do is everyone chip in and throw a ridiculously lavish basketball tournament, complete with solid gold hoops and backboards, private commuter jet service for the refs, and personal valets for every fan in attendance.  "Oh look, we seem to have spent $120 million this season.  Still working on coming up with money for that exit fee?"

So that's conference stability for you.  That's the important thing that happened today.  The interesting thing that happened today involves a smallish parochial school in northern Indiana.  Ah, you've heard, have you?  Notre Dame is joining the ACC.

I just had to pause for a minute there and reread that sentence 100,000 times.  It's weirder than friggin' Gangnam Style.  It's certainly untraditional, in two very big ways: there's nothing Atlantic or coastal about Indiana, and the conference just gave up one of its biggest calling cards: the notion of being in all the way or GTFO.  But if you still think tradition and geography take any precedence any more, I have taught you nothing.  It's a shame, yes.  But this is the Television Age of college sports.

In that light, then, there's nothing the ACC could have done better than to absorb Notre Dame.  Nobody else is both available and good enough.  I sympathize with the idea that not having them for football (at least, not completely) also sucks, at least from a fairness or tradition standpoint, but this move was essentially made with the idea that the perfect is the enemy of the good.  I'd bet my last dollar that Swofford and the conference presidents are gambling that Notre Dame will eventually be a football member, too.  Being proactive and getting what you can right now is better than sitting around hoping they eventually come around to the idea of joining a football conference.  And I think TV money and the postseason situation will suggest to Notre Dame that football membership is better than independence.  Again: it's the Television Age.

(Besides, this could be more nefarious than you think.  Water down Notre Dame's value to NBC by filling up their schedule with crappy ACC teams and then offer bigger ESPN bux to join for real?  Sneeeeeaky.)

What this means for the sports we cover here:


Autobid!  When the dust settles, the ACC will have six teams in it, which means an autobid to the NCAA tournament.  Not that we'd need it.  The whole ACC goes anyway.  That might change, however, in a six-team ACC - it's likely the bottom of the conference will have too many losses to make the NCAAs unless the NCAAs drastically expand, like to 24.  We won't have to put up too long with a fifth wheel and some kind of Frankenstein tournament; six is perfectly natural.  But the main thing for UVA is: try to finish at least in the top four.  Mere membership in the ACC isn't going to be enough.

As for the Big East, they now lose two of seven members to the ACC, but will survive as an autobid league since Marquette starts play next spring.  As long as they don't have further attrition, which is not at all a safe bet.


Like Pitt, Notre Dame baseball is mediocre and not at all likely to do well in the ACC.  At least it evens out the divisions; I wasn't looking forward to a 13-team conference.  We might have to put up with that weirdness for a bit, but not permanently, thank God.  Until, of course, Notre Dame joins as a football member, necessitating a 16th team, which probably becomes the 15th baseball-playing team.


The nice thing about this deal is that, unlike the original ACC expansion in 2005, it strengthens the hoops brand.  Notre Dame is a worthy foe.  It'll probably get even better now that they can use the ACC name in recruiting.


OK, the big thing.  Here's the dirty little secret about not having Notre Dame as a football member: they don't get any football money.  In other words, this five-game-a-year deal adds Notre Dame value to the conference's ESPN contract, but we don't have to share that money with Notre Dame.  ND will get a one-fifteenth share of everything else, but football is a separate pot of money and they get none of it.  They get NBC money when the ACC team plays in South Bend, and we keep the scratch when they visit their new coastal buddies.  Granted, it doesn't add the full value of the Notre Dame brand, but it's still, like, free money basically.

Oh, but Notre Dame is still a member of the conference.  So they're subject to that $50 million-plus exit fee thingy-doo, should they decide they want to join a football conference other than ours.  Sneeeeaky.

From Notre Dame's perspective, truthfully, very little has changed.  They're getting from us a very similar deal to what they had in the Big East.  Full member in everything but football and hockey, bowl access, and so on.  The difference is we're going to make them play our teams.  They'll have access to the same bowl hierarchy we do, except for the Orange Bowl.  They can't be picked ahead of an ACC team that they have two fewer wins than, but that's essentially the same rule we have between other ACC teams.  The Peach Bowl, for example, can't take an 8-4 team if a 10-2 team is available, but they can take a 9-3 team.  So Notre Dame fits basically the same way.

As for this five games a year thing, well, I'm glad I'm not the one trying to come up with the convoluted rotation.  But it sounds like, if this deal lasts forever, we'd play Notre Dame once every three years or so.  Hell, that's less time than we spend in between Clemson games.

Some intriguing matchups are going to come about here.  Notre Dame maintains some semblance of an on-again-off-again rivalry with Pitt and BC.  ND-Miami is a replay of the old Catholics-vs.-convicts game.  ND-GT is the Rudy game.  They have some solid bowl-game history with Florida State.

Now.  I'll stipulate to the idea that I wish geography made a lick of difference, and that I wish we could just push reset on every single bit of conference realignment and go back to a nine or even eight-team ACC.  But that's not the world we live in today.  And in today's college football world, the ACC just won.  All that talk about the Big 12 using the ACC to get back to 12 teams?  Dead.  It's going to get neither Notre Dame nor Florida State.  There's no doubt the ACC faced some existential questions in the past couple years.  They responded by expanding, by closing ranks around any potential wobbly members, by gaining a seat at the new BCS table with an Orange Bowl deal, and now, by acquiring one of the most powerful brands in college athletics.

But, you might say.  Notre Dame is powerful because of their football, and we don't have their football.  Oh yes we do.  By including Notre Dame in our bowl hierarchy, we improve our negotiating power with the bowls.  By including Notre Dame on our football schedules, we add Notre Dame's cachet to our TV deal.  By adding Notre Dame as a member for non-football sports, we give them an easy, soft landing place when they ultimately decide to give up their football independence.

But wait again, you say.  The Big East tried this and look what happened to the Big East.  Nonsense - the Big East added Notre Dame in the same fashion in 1995.  The gap between 1995 and 2012 might as well be the gap between 1955 and 1995.  Not a valid comparison any more.  The Big East had issues because it had half the conference not playing football; Notre Dame simply took advantage of that.  And see now if the Big East's Catholic schools don't decide Big East membership is no longer worth it, now that they're no longer associated with the country's flagship Catholic schools.

Besides, the Big East didn't fall apart completely of its own accord.  The ACC ate it with some fava beans and a nice chianti. There is no organization out there with megalomaniacal designs on the ACC the way the ACC was leering greedily at the Big East. 

And another thing: to believe that Notre Dame will be able to cling to football independence for much longer is old-school thinking.  Old-school thinking is dead, unfortunately.  If Texas A&M can give up its series with Texas, Notre Dame can give up its games with Stanford that it professes to cherish, if the incentive is right.  And I think the incentives will be right.  The BCS was a very centralized decision-making entity, and as a result, Notre Dame was able to get a seat at the table.  The new format will be decentralized.  The ACC made its own deal with the Orange Bowl.  The SEC and Big 12 made their own quasi-Rose Bowlish deal.  There's no decision-making entity anymore, except the one that chooses four teams to play for the national title.  Everyone else is fending for themselves.  And Notre Dame is increasingly unable to fend for itself and still maintain the prestige they expect for themselves.  The time is coming when they'll have to make a choice.  Either independence or prestige, but not both.  They'll choose prestige.  TV money will give them a nudge in that direction too.

And at such time, the ACC will welcome Notre Dame as a full member, invite UConn or Rutgers as a matter of course, and settle in as a 16-team conference.  If you doubt me, you're doubting John Swofford.  And a lot of people have a lot of things to say about John Swofford, but this is a guy who engineered a hostile takeover of the Big East.  He basically wrecked that conference.  Behind an unassuming demeanor is one Machiavellian SOB.  Sooner or later, and most likely sooner, Notre Dame will be a football-playing member of the ACC, and the conference's transformation will be complete.  Bet against that at your own peril.


Anonymous said...

I always enjoy reading your reasonable reactions to controversial events- a nice change from the apoplectic screaming on the message boards.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm supposed to be excited. Swoff did an exceptional job (seriously, he is the MAN) of making the ACC not only secure but powerful.

His actions were necessary, but that doesn't alter the fact that I hate this new monstrosity. It's now less a conference than it is a loose affiliation. Almost by definition, whenever you add more teams you reduce the intensity of each individual pairing (especially with sporadic scheduling).

I used to be almost equal parts UVA fan and ACC fan. Now I think I'll try to just focus on UVA. In part, that's because I'm older and I don't have the interest or attention span to maintain an investment in (or even awareness of) 15 teams. And in part, it's because the teams that I used to care about (like Clemson or NC State) seem to drift farther and farther away from relevance to UVA with every expansion. There will be a lot of games, every season, where there just isn't the "history" there used to be -- because the teams play so far less often.

Ah well. I'll get used to it. No choice!