Athletic Conference Realignment Continues Apace

The latest rumors concern UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State.

The college sports world is bracing for impact, as several teams may be looking to switch conferences in the coming seasons. A FanNation report on possible departures from the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) reminds readers that Oklahoma and Texas are set to make their Southeastern Conference (SEC) debuts in 2024, while Oregon and Washington have been given the green light to join the Big Ten in the future.

It is no secret that the SEC and Big Ten are the powerhouses in college sports, specifically when looked at from a financial perspective. These two conferences have successfully adapted to the changing nature of college athletics by poaching marketable teams from competitors, leaving the other three “Power Five” conferences in the dust. At least seven ACC teams are aware of this power shift and have been conversing with each other in the hopes of sidestepping their “grant of rights” deals, which are in place until 2036. (A “grant of rights” agreement is a legal document that attempts to keep schools from pursuing conference membership elsewhere.) On the Martin Center’s own home turf, NC State and UNC-Chapel Hill are reportedly considering ditching their ACC alignment for a different Power Five conference, as FanNation reports.

Conference realignment is about money and little else.These schools are looking to the future. Currently, the ACC has “one of the most network-favorable [media and television] deals on the planet,” according to The Ringer’s Kevin Clark. On the other side of the ledger is the fact that the SEC and Big Ten may soon pay upwards of $100 million annually to their programs, a sum that far exceeds what ACC universities can hope to receive. Joining the SEC or Big Ten would boost income and revenue, a fact that is leaving many schools questioning their current position.

There are, of course, potential consequences when a school moves (or considers moving) conferences. Waiting to see if the deal goes through can induce stress for athletes, especially those outside of the big-money sports of football and men’s basketball. Furthermore, conference realignment is about money and little else. Such decisions tend not to be based on academic “fit” or ideas concerning sportsmanship. They are simply business deals, in which universities follow the money as best they can. Right now, the Big Ten and SEC are the jackpots of college sports.

Finally, a potential conference shift raises concerns about the longevity of the ACC as an organization. The Fayetteville Observer makes the point that schools in the ACC will likely find other conferences’ offers too promising to resist. A “mass exodus from the league” could be in the offing.

In short, the ACC must find a way to upgrade itself, or it will succumb to the powerhouse conferences. That may be good for schools’ bottom lines, but it isn’t necessarily good for academics and student athletes.

Maggie Szura is an intern at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal and a junior studying psychology at Rollins College.