In 2010, the college athletics landscape was thrown for its biggest loop yet. "Conference realignment" and "expansion" were the words of the day, every day. Every blog pivoted from talking about last night's results, to discussing television markets ad nauseum. My own sports blogging career would launch like many others at the time too, discussing (almost exclusively) how college football was probably going to implode on itself.
It didn't happen. And after a few years of turbulence, some "grant of rights" agreements, and the ACC (and Syracuse) looking pretty good in the end, we thought it was all over.
It might be. But recent events seem to be cranking this awful machine right back up.
For those out of the loop:
Notre Dame left Hockey East (home of Boston College) for the Big Ten.
The Big Ten got $1.5 billion from Fox for six years of HALF its TV rights.
Increasing pressure internally and externally (see above) have the ACC pushing hard on ESPN to finally get that long-fabled network off the ground.
The items above are all listed separately, but as you all know by this point, they're all pretty related at this point. Notre Dame's affiliate Big Ten membership in hockey shows it's not necessarily standing pat when it could upgrade its situation. The Big Ten's also showing (for the second time in recent years) that it's not afraid of creative membership solutions. Plus, there's the issue of how much those TV rights can bring in... which is promising to make B1G schools (even the countless terrible ones) much, MUCH richer than every other school in the country.
Over in the Big 12, they're eyeing these Big Ten moves with worry. The Big 12 has no network (just like the ACC), no conference championship game and a perceived inferiority to the other 12- and 14-team power leagues. Texas is controlling things to the point that it's convinced two schools (TCU and Texas Tech) to stand with it in opposition to expansion. Their media deal is pretty stagnant through 2024.
The ACC is equally worried, but doesn't need to expand to get a network or a greater seat the power table. Notre Dame's theoretically locked in to the league until at least 2024, and while the football product for its 14 full members is improving, it's still largely two-deep. Its markets are actually well-situated for future growth, but that won't matter much while its grant of rights and media deal runs through 2026-27.
The Big Ten knows when these television deals and grant of rights expire. That's why the FOX deal was made through 2023. It's already making more than everyone else by a mile, and it wants to sell to the ACC and Big 12's top (in terms of media) teams -- UNC, Duke, Georgia Tech, Virginia, Texas, Oklahoma -- a contract that can grow even further from the pack.
Like last time the realignment game was played, the Big Ten is very much the aggressor. Unlike last time, there's a lot more certainty to what the Big Ten is offering. The ACC and Big 12 need to make moves now to secure their own futures and the futures of a more even playing field in college football.
This isn't to play fear monger, or spark some major worry that our "safe landing spot" is burning in a pile. Far from it. But the long-rumored ACC Network does need to happen sooner rather than later. Sure, it's hard to argue offseason content about Syracuse football or Wake Forest basketball is going to be able to outdraw whatever the SEC and Big Ten can push out. But it doesn't have to. It just needs to make our conference mildly competitive with those leagues, and (long-term) make it more compelling to stick around. The ACC has no way to really increase its revenues without Notre Dame joining for football or forming a network. if we're assuming the latter's more likely, now we need to figure out what someone will pay for it.
Cord-cutting hurts this valuation. ESPN's recent cost-cutting does too.
But if a few providers can pick up a theoretical ACC Network, we're potentially golden. If not... well, things are going to get messy pretty quickly.
In any case, the first domino will be the upcoming Big 12 expansion vote. Once that's done with, we'll get a better sense of where everything's falling, for better or for worse.