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ACC hiring Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips as next commissioner

Maybe not as Tobacco Road-y as you’d have expected?

Big Ten will reveal its new commissioner Tuesday Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

According to a report from Yahoo’s Pete Thamel, the ACC is planning to hire Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips as its next commissioner. (Update: this has since been officially announced by the ACC)

Phillips was a finalist for the Big Ten commish gig that eventually went to Kevin Warren, and he’s been at Northwestern since 2008 while overseeing some large-scale facilities investments at NU (along with their own attempted branding as “Chicago’s College Team”... which, take from that what you will). Obviously it’ll be no small feat replacing outgoing commissioner John Swofford. Ninja Swoff has been in charge of the ACC since 1997, and his tenure has included the addition of six full-time members, the loss of one (later, Terps) and a non-football deal with Notre Dame — plus the formation of the ACC Network. All in all, a pretty resounding success as head of a conference that was once very regionally focused and now possesses a larger national profile and schools all across the Eastern seaboard.

Now, of course, Phillips does have SOME Tobacco Road ties. Specifically, he previously worked for Duke AD Kevin White while both were at Notre Dame and Arizona State. But beyond that, Phillips is largely a Chicago/Illinois guy without any real connection to North Carolina or the surrounding states that make up the base of the league.

While Phillips clearly possesses a lot of knowledge of the inner workings of college athletics, having been an AD for so long (he was also AD at Northern Illinois), Thamel notes in his piece that a big part of the role will be upgrading the conference’s media deal.

For 2018-19, the ACC was third in terms of overall revenue distributions, but fifth among the Power Five leagues by per-school payouts (at $29 million per full-time member). That’s before we really start getting into the additional dollars earned from the ACC Network deal — though obviously couch some expectations this year given the pandemic and all. Still, the ACC is still fighting it out for a distant third in the conference revenue battle, as the Big 12 (no league network) and the Pac-12 (minimally picked-up TV network) join them in lagging well behind the Big Ten and SEC.

While I think media rights are a major part of any commissioner’s role, it’s also tough to see them as the primary concern for an ACC head right now since the league’s deal with ESPN runs through 2035-36. Locking up rights for as long as they did was a key part of securing membership and getting Notre Dame on board for non-football sports in the long term. But the drawback there is that now they’re off the market for what could be the last big media rights deals before streaming fundamentally alters that landscape forever.

There’s no reality where the ACC is competing with the SEC or Big Ten in terms of revenue distributions just because of the nature of those schools and fans bases (large, land-grant, football-first) vs. this league’s (private, basketball-focused). Everyone involves knows that, but having rights locked up for another 15 years does likely leave money on the table. Chances are the ACC Network makes up some of that ground (maybe $3-5 million per school), but that still only pulls them ahead of the Pac-12 and Big 12.

Thamel mentions membership expansion as the main way to add revenue and he’s right, since ESPN’s not going back to the negotiating table here. Parent company Disney’s hemorrhaging cash in 2020 yet is also going all in on streaming and put a ton of money into SEC Saturday afternoon showcase games. There’s not this endless stream of cash from ESPN waiting for the ACC unless they make an addition like Notre Dame.

Yes, Phillips has connections there, but the Fighting Irish likely making the College Football Playoff this year as a temporary ACC member probably pushes that school even further from being in the league full-time. Notre Dame’s already made the CFP without league membership, and if they win the conference this year, it’ll sort of prove further that they don’t necessarily “need it” to exist. No league addition like Cincinnati/Navy/Temple or any other would-be, realistic expansion target is going to mean any tangible revenue boost. It’s really the Irish or a return to the nonsensical Texas ideas from back in peak realignment days.

Other than that, streaming as a means for growth seems like a closed door since anything the ACC does is probably embraced by the SEC as well as a fellow ESPN-centric conference, so there’s no gap closing (even if the ACC does take in more money as a result). Even another school or two rising up to the level we’ve seen Clemson exist at in recent seasons still likely just boosts interest in those teams. The ACC is never going to have the larger collective football “culture” that the SEC and Big Ten do, even if it finds more success. So... yeah, I don’t know if the media deal should be a major measure of success for Phillips, especially when media hasn’t been his level of expertise.

The search committee (which included Syracuse chancellor Kent Syverud) certainly knew that, which makes this feel like a move to strengthen member schools and league structure from an institutional standpoint. That doesn’t mean Phillips can’t make something happen on the media rights front. To me, it just indicates that it’s not the focus vs. strengthening what’s probably easier to strengthen. And then maybe going back to ESPN for a new deal once that’s already been established.