The Atlantic Coast Conference logo. Courtesy of the ACC.
The Atlantic Coast Conference logo. Courtesy of the ACC

College sports, which first flunked math, has now flunked geography.

The Big Ten has 14 members and, come next year, 18.

The Big 12 has 14 members, and will be 16 next year.

The Pac-12 is now down to four, no, make that two.

And now the Atlantic Coast Conference will extend to the Pacific coast. 

On Friday, the ACC approved adding the University of California, Stanford University and Southern Methodist University, the first two in the San Francisco Bay Area, the latter in Dallas.

This is crazy, but not completely crazy. As Shakespeare has his character Polonius say about Hamlet: “Though this be madness, yet there be method in it.”

The ACC’s expansion from Tobacco Road to Silicon Valley is madness for all those sports other than football and maybe basketball. Missouri’s in the Southeastern Conference, which is considered a “football first” conference, but Missouri football coach Eli Drinkwitz came to the defense of other sports recently when he voiced his objections to conference realignments taking place: 

“We’re talking about a football decision they based on football, but what about softball and baseball who have to travel across country? Do we ask about the cost of them? Do we know what the number one indicator or symptom or cause of mental health is? It’s lack of rest or sleep. Traveling in those baseball softball games. Those people — they travel commercial. They get done playing at 4, they have to go to the airport, they come back it’s 3 or 4 in the morning, they got to go to class — did we ask any of them?” He said many student-athletes choose schools based on being close enough to home that their parents can see them play. “Did we ask them if they wanted to travel from the East Coast to the West Coast?”

The ACC certainly did not poll volleyball players or track athletes about this cross-country expansion. 

Now, here’s the method behind this seemingly illogical decision to take in three new members from completely different parts of the country: This is about holding the ACC together.

The driver behind all the tectonic shifts in college sports realignment over the past few years, and especially the past few months, has been money. Specifically, money from television networks. 

In 2000, the top conferences were all pulling in about the same amount of money, according to an analysis by the Alabama news site That year, schools in the ACC (which at the time included Virginia but not Virginia Tech) made more than any others in the country. They each received $8.1 million. Schools in the Big Ten made $7.2 million apiece, those in the SEC $6.6 million. At the time, Virginia Tech was in the Big East, where schools collected $2.8 million apiece. That’s one of many reasons why Tech was keen to get into the ACC.

Over the years, as new deals were struck, the gap between conferences began to widen. Just 10 years later, in 2010, Big Ten schools were making the most — $22.9 million — with the SEC second at $19.5 million, while the ACC was further back at $12.3 million, even though by that time the ACC had expanded to add Virginia Tech and new markets with Boston College and Miami.

Today, those disparities between conferences are wider still. Most Big Ten schools are receiving $58.8 million, according to USA Today (three recent additions — Maryland, Nebraska and Rutgers — are not yet receiving full shares). SEC schools are taking in $49.9 million per school, while ACC schools are making $37.9 million to $41.3 million apiece. 

You can see all the numbers and how they’ve changed here:

Atlantic Coast Conference8,100,00012,300,00037,900,000
Big Ten7,200,00022,900,00058,800,000
Southeastern Conference6,600,00019,500,00049,900,000
Big 124,800,00010,800,00042,000,000
Big East, later American Athletic Conference2,800,0006,500,0007,000,000
Mountain West50,315243,9094,000,000
Sources: and USA Today

Here’s another way to visualize that growing revenue gap. Those five top conferences, the so-called Power 5, were all bunched together in 2000 and now they’re not.

Here's how conference payouts have changed since 2000. Sources: and USA Today.
Here’s how conference payouts have changed since 2000. Sources: and USA Today.

If you’re an ACC school that’s trying to compete at the highest level, that growing financial gap puts you at a disadvantage relative to those Big Ten and SEC schools — that’s less money to spend on top-dollar coaches, on fancy new facilities, and ultimately, perhaps, on the athletes themselves if we ever move to a system where the players get paid as employees.

At least seven ACC schools — including Virginia and Virginia Tech — have been unhappy about the revenue they receive but Florida State has been the most outspoken of all. A few weeks ago, the president of Florida State made it pretty clear that if the school didn’t get more money, it would have to look at leaving the ACC, even if that meant paying a $120 million exit fee. Whether Florida State, or any other school, really could leave is a different matter; the ACC schools have signed away their TV rights to the conference through 2036. That “grant of rights” is said by some to be ironclad, others wonder whether a legal assault might find some opening in it. 

Over the past months, there’s been widespread chatter that Florida State and Clemson might leave the ACC — both might be attractive additions to either the SEC or the Big Ten because of their football reputations, and the TV audience they might bring, which could, in turn, lead to more TV revenue for the whole conference. 

If you’re an ACC school, you don’t want to lose any members, but you certainly don’t want to lose two of your marquee members. However, there’s a more urgent, and practical, reason why the ACC doesn’t want to lose any members. Before today’s action, the ACC had 15 members (with Notre Dame an independent in football but a member for other sports). The sports website ActionNetworkHQ reported recently that under the terms of the ACC’s TV deal with ESPN, the network can renegotiate the deal if the membership falls under 15.

With Florida State looking like it could depart — or at least try to depart — at any time, that posed a crisis for the ACC. Schools may not like the money they’re making now, but they’d risk making even less if Florida State left and ESPN insisted on a renegotiated deal. Adding schools serves as a kind of insurance policy; it creates a cushion in case Florida State and Clemson really do exit.

Geographically, schools in California and Texas may not be ideal for a conference that’s basically an East Coast league, but California, Stanford and SMU have the advantage of being available — and in big media markets. This is the classic marriage of convenience. The ACC was desperate to add more teams; California, Stanford and SMU were desperate to find homes in a so-called Power 5 conference. Geography was the last consideration on anyone’s minds.

The advantages for the ACC in this shotgun arrangement:

The ACC beefs up its membership so it’s not in danger of having to renegotiate its TV contract if other schools depart.

The ACC also counts on the three new schools to bring in additional TV revenue, which can then be distributed to existing schools in an attempt to appease those who want more money. ESPN reports that California and Stanford will only receive 30% of the standard ACC payouts for some unspecified period of time, while SMU will apparently forgo all ACC TV revenues for nine years. That’s how desperate those schools were to find a home amid this collegiate game of musical chairs.

The Pac-12 basically imploded. First, Southern California and UCLA bolted to the Big Ten. Then Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State and Utah left for the Big 12. Finally, Oregon and Washington jumped to the Big Ten as well. That left just four schools in the conference. California and Stanford were seen as the most desirable — academically prestigious and both in the San Francisco TV market, even though that’s not typically a big college sports market. By contrast, Oregon State in Corvallis, Oregon, and Washington State in Pullman, Washington, were regarded as afterthoughts in small markets who must now fend for themselves. Their only alternative now may be to join the Mountain West, which means going from a conference that was paying out $37 million per school to one that’s paying out $4 million.

Meanwhile, SMU faced a different situation. Once a football powerhouse, it’s never recovered from the NCAA’s so-called “death penalty” when its program was shut down in 1987-88 following a scandal over a slush fund for players. At the time, SMU was part of the Southwest Conference. With SMU shut down, that conference lost its luster and it eventually dissolved. Some former Southwest Conference schools found good homes — Arkansas wound up in the SEC — but SMU never has. When other conferences expanded over the years, they always passed over SMU. Its blackened reputation has lingered for decades. SMU has shuffled through a series of lesser-ranked conferneces and currently competes in the low-dollar American Athletic Conference, where payouts are just $7 million a year per team. You can see from the chart above how far behind that conference now is revenue-wise. SMU backers have chafed at being an outcast and wanted into a Power 5 conference so bad they were willing to pass up nearly a decade’s worth of TV revenue. If this were a Victorian novel, this would be akin to the son of a disgraced noble trying to marry his way back into society’s graces through an arranged marriage with the daughter of a well-known family that quickly needs a son-in-law to avoid losing the family estate.

As inconvenient as the new geography is, there are some potential advantages — again, dealing with TV revenue. First, the ACC picks up two big markets, which puts its schools in front of potential recruits in Texas and California in a way they weren’t before. Second, this expands the ACC’s potential inventory of TV games that it can monetize. A start time of 9 p.m. EST for a November game in Blacksburg doesn’t really work but isn’t a problem if that game is in relatively balmy Berkeley instead. (The average November low there is 48 degrees. In Blacksburg, it’s 35 degrees.)

Ultimately, though, the real advantage of this expansion is that it lessens the chance that the ACC will collapse, picked apart by scavengers from other conferences. If the ACC were to ever fall apart, some schools would have their pick of conferences and might actually be able to upgrade themselves in terms of TV revenue; others would not. That was what was behind Attorney General Jason Miyares’ warning a few weeks ago that he hoped neither Virginia nor Virginia Tech would do anything to hurt the other. It seems likely that message was aimed more at Charlottesville than Blacksburg. Virginia Tech fans remember all too well how the school had to beg for admission to the ACC when the Big East was teetering in 2003 — and then only got in through some political machinations by then-Gov. Mark Warner and others. More recently, Virginia has been mentioned as a school that the Big Ten might love, but Virginia Tech might not have good options. Tech fans ought to love this expansion because it heads off, at least for now, the prospect of Tech winding up in some lesser conference in the aftermath of an ACC apocalypse. 

It’s telling that the deciding vote for expansion came from North Carolina State. Clemson and Florida State were said to be opposed to the move — it’s unclear why, if this means more money that will wind up with them. North Carolina was also opposed. But all of those schools would also have other options in a post-ACC world, likely courted by both the SEC and the Big Ten. North Carolina State, though, does not have that kind of star power. An ACC collapse would risk making North Carolina State into the Oregon State or Washington State of the East Coast — athletically homeless. There had been speculation that North Carolina and North Carolina State would vote together but here’s where their interests diverge. North Carolina State had greater incentive to hold the ACC together than North Carolina did, even if the way to do that means road trips to the other side of the continent.

Virginia Tech fans should remember that someday when they’re watching that 9 p.m. Hokies  game from California. Things could be worse, a lot worse. They need only ask those SMU fans what it’s like to be on the outside looking in.

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at