Stanford, Cal, SMU to join ACC in 2024-25: How the vote went down

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After nearly a month of discussions about expansion, the Atlantic Coast Conference has finally reached a decision. The ACC will add Stanford, Cal and SMU as new members in the 2024-25 school year, the conference announced Friday.

The finances were the key to final approval: Multiple league sources told The Athletic that SMU was willing to accept no ACC media rights revenue for nine years, and Stanford and Cal were willing to join as partial members receiving a significantly reduced revenue share initially. The math worked well enough for the current ACC members to vote to add them in a meeting Friday morning.

The ACC’s footprint will now stretch from the Atlantic — as its name indicates — to the Pacific Ocean. It joins the Big Ten as the only power conferences to include members on both the West and East Coasts. The three schools are the ACC’s first additions since Louisville joined in 2014.

The ACC invitations are important lifelines for Cal and Stanford, whose options were extremely limited after six Pac-12 schools left the league this summer. The two schools had been holding out hope for the ACC, despite the stop-and-go nature of the process in recent weeks. The league needed 12 of 15 members to support expansion, and a straw poll taken mid-August showed 11 yeses and four dissenters.

In the weeks since that straw poll, ACC commissioner Jim Phillips has presented various financial models aimed at achieving the necessary votes. He also spent quite a bit of time talking to the dissenters, listening to their concerns and trying to address them.

The ensuing conversations did not lead to unanimity, however. On Thursday, the chair and vice chair of the UNC Board of Trustees released a statement ahead of the final vote, expressing the opposition to expansion by the “strong majority” of the board: “Although we respect the academic excellence and the athletic programs of those institutions, the travel distances for routine in-conference competitive play are too great for this arrangement to make sense for our student athletes, coaches, alumni and fans. Furthermore, the economics of this newly imagined transcontinental conference do not sufficiently address the income disparity ACC members face.”

Other administrators in the ACC believed the statement was sent to apply pressure on UNC chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, ensuring that he would not flip his vote. UNC and NC State were not required to vote together, but the political climate within which the schools operate makes it difficult to make decisions in which they are not aligned. For that reason, NC State chancellor Randy Woodson has been a subject of much fascination around the league over the past few days and weeks.

League sources confirmed NC State flipped and voted yes Friday morning. UNC voted against the move.

UNC chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said he “respect(s) the outcome” in a statement Friday, but that his vote against expansion “was informed from feedback I have gathered over the last several weeks from our athletic leadership, coaches, faculty athletic advisors, student-athletes and a variety of other stakeholders who care deeply about our University and the success of our outstanding athletic program.”

The financial agreements between the ACC and the three new members paved the way to make expansion possible and address the additional travel costs associated with adding schools in California and Texas. The only way expansion would have worked for the ACC was to ensure that the revenue distributed to current ACC members would not decrease. But the financial boost goes even further than simply covering travel costs.

As part of the ACC’s long-term deal with ESPN, the network must pay a full pro-rata share for any new members. Per the ACC’s 2021-22 tax return, the league made $443 million in TV revenue, the equivalent of $29.5 million per school, a number expected to rise modestly each year. Because SMU is willing to accept no ACC media rights revenue for nine years and Stanford and Cal were expected to take shares beginning at around 30 percent, the additions would create a pool of upwards of $50 million of new money to be distributed among the current members starting in 2024-25. Cal and Stanford’s shares would escalate annually over 12 years until they reach full membership.

“There’s something for everybody in this, and that’s difficult to do. But in the end, it drives greater revenue to our schools,” Phillips said Friday. “It’s tough to get unanimity all the time. When we left that call today, everybody was in a very good place.”

That new pool of money from SMU’s share and Stanford and Cal’s partial share is expected to be used to reward schools for on-field performance in a new revenue-distribution system, helping the schools that invest heavily in football (such as Florida State and Clemson) to work toward closing the financial gap with their peers in the SEC and Big Ten. The ACC is expected to reward schools for College Football Playoff participation, conference championships and other benchmarks, with incentives expected to total $10 million for a school that hits all of them in one year.

Most of the incentives are tied to football, but not all.

Cal, Stanford and SMU would be required to sign the ACC’s grant of rights, which runs through 2036. Although they would receive either no or partial media rights revenue, the three members would still receive other league revenue tied to the CFP and the NCAA tournament.

The ACC has had a number of highly publicized meetings this month to discuss expansion and to sift through the financial details that could make it possible, but the move is still rather stunning. A conference that originated in North Carolina now includes the Bay Area and Dallas. The ACC will soon have 17 full members, plus Notre Dame, which plays football as an independent.

Multiple league sources believe that one of the primary goals of expansion was to ensure strength in numbers for the ACC moving forward. Even if Florida State or others try to leave the ACC (and pay whatever it costs to get out of the league’s grant of rights, which binds schools to the conference through 2036), there would already be schools in place to essentially backfill those spots — and this was an opportunity to add two of the nation’s most prestigious academic institutions that boast elite Olympic sport programs.

Stanford expects 22 of its 36 sports “will see either no scheduling changes or minimal scheduling impacts” because of the move, the school said Friday. Stanford added that much of the scheduling will continue to be on weekends — and the school will work with the ACC to “optimize” solutions to “mitigate the impact of travel.”

Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir said the school will start at a 30 percent revenue share for the first seven years, then go to 70 percent in Year 8, 75 percent in Year 9, and 100 percent in Year 10.

“We thought this would be a great opportunity, even though the travel might not make some sense to some,” Muir said. “Our student-athlete leadership told us, ‘We want to continue to compete at a high level.’ We think we can balance the travel with the academic rigor.”

SMU president R. Gerald Turner called the move “an historic milestone in our institution’s history” in a statement Friday.

“From early on in my tenure here on the Hilltop, we had a vision to reestablish SMU Athletics as a nationally recognized and relevant program, one to complement our outstanding academic reputation,” Turner said. “It is truly an exciting time on the Hilltop.”

The ACC additions represent one of the final power conference ripples from the chaos of Aug. 4, when Oregon and Washington left the Pac-12 for the Big Ten and Arizona, Arizona State and Utah left for the Big 12, all after Colorado had jumped to the Big 12 days earlier. The remaining four Pac-12 schools were left to figure out their futures. From the beginning, Stanford and Cal were hopeful that they could land in the ACC — even at a partial share — instead of having to step down from a Power 5 league to a Group of 5 league. Influential alumni, such as Stanford’s Condoleezza Rice, made calls this month to try to nudge ACC leadership across the finish line.

Washington State and Oregon State are the last two schools remaining in the Pac-12, and any hope to backfill and rebuild the conference appears to be extinguished. These two schools have received interest from both the Mountain West and the American Athletic Conference, and they will be expected to choose their new homes relatively soon — but the AAC said Friday it will no longer “look westward” for expansion.

“We’ve gone from regional conferences to national, coast-to-coast conferences,” Phillips said.”College sports is going through its next iteration of change, and it’s really drastic.

“You either get busy or you get left behind.”

(Photo: Bob Kupbens / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)



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