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Conference realignment: ACC one step closer to unleashing SEC vs. Big Ten arms race

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Throughout the entire history of conference realignment, the SEC and Big Ten, have largely avoided fighting each other. Only the Missouri Tigers, now in the SEC, could’ve been in either, but that wasn’t going to move any needle.

All of this is about to change, though. Maybe it was inevitable given the fact that the Power Five is dwindling to the Power Two. The Big Ten throwing all geographical boundaries into the dustbin of history by adding the USC Trojans and UCLA Bruins only made it more likely.

Now, the conference realignment arms race is about to explode overnight, and it comes down to one league: The ACC. Brett McMurphy of Action Network reports seven ACC schools are looking to get out of the league’s Grant of Rights agreement.

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The schools in play are the Florida State Seminoles, Miami Hurricanes, Clemson Tigers, North Carolina Tar Heels, N.C. State Wolfpack, Virginia Tech Hokies and Virginia Cavaliers. This move makes it clear that they all are aiming to leave the ACC.

If one more school supports the move, they’ll have a majority of the league on board, and then they can just theoretically hold a vote where the majority will approve to let them out of their GoR and maybe even their exit fees. Then the ACC dies, and the arms race starts.

While the Big Ten wants to expand into the South, the SEC wants to corner it. Last year, the Big Ten already made clear Miami and FSU were on its radar. It’s the worst-kept secret in the world that the SEC would love to add FSU and Clemson.

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So how will this all play out? Let’s start with the priorities of both leagues. The Big Ten has a base academic standard required for members: Schools have to be AAU member institutions. Then it values TV market first and brand second.

For the SEC, it’s simple: brand value is first. Then comes TV markets. Academics hardly matter. So with these priorities, let’s go back to the seven schools on the board right now. We’ll speculate on the eighth later.

By far the easiest split is Virginia. It’s not worth it to either conference to add both Virginia schools, but both have brand value and expand each conference’s regional footprint. VT is going to the SEC. UVA is going to the Big Ten. That’s easy.

Why? Well, they’re about equal in brand and market value. UVA is an AAU member institution, though, and its connections are more to the mid-Atlantic and DMV, so the Big Ten adding the Cavs wouldn’t necessarily be an encroachment on the SEC.

Problem solved with Virginia. FSU and Clemson, meanwhile, are headed for the SEC. The league made clear by adding the Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners that they don’t care anymore about expanding into new markets.

As a result, whatever the South Carolina Gamecocks and Florida Gators feel about this move is irrelevant. FSU and Clemson have elite brands, and they aren’t AAU member institutions. They’re joining the SEC.

Here come the real sticking points: Miami and UNC. Whether or not the SEC wants Miami is debatable, but they definitely want to keep the Big Ten from adding Miami. There’s no way around the fact that the Big Ten expanding into Florida would give it a huge leg up over the SEC.

This means the SEC may add Miami just to keep the Big Ten out. Then there’s UNC. By all accounts, the SEC really wants UNC. Remember, UNC was with FSU, Clemson and Miami as the teams who originally wanted out, meaning they are one of the top revenue generators.

Combine the revenue with the added market, which still matters to a degree to the SEC, and the irrelevant bonus of them being a strong academic and basketball brand, and they’d bring a ton to the table. The same is true for the Big Ten as well.

See where this is going? The SEC and Big Ten are going to be locked in a brutal, bloodthirsty battle to land UNC. Who wins that fight? Well, it depends on how committed the SEC is to keeping the Big Ten out of the South.

If that’s as big a commitment as any, the SEC has a shot. However, they still have a hurdle: The Big Ten just landed a TV deal worth twice as much as the SEC. Simply put, they have more to offer both UNC and Miami.

There’s also the fact that the Big Ten will be more desperate for UNC because it’s their only shot at getting into the North Carolina market. N.C. State doesn’t qualify for the league academically. In fact, that makes getting on board with this a big risk for N.C. State.

Sure, FSU, Clemson and VT don’t qualify for the Big Ten, but the SEC will add them in a heartbeat. If the SEC gets UNC, though, then N.C. State will be left out in the cold. They can’t join the Big Ten.

What does this all mean? Given the academic importance and the payouts, the Big Ten is a favorite to land UNC and Miami right now, joining UVA. Then the SEC could add N.C. State along with VT, FSU and Clemson.

Who will be the eighth school, then, to join in and get the league out of its GoR agreement? It would be the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. They may not have a lot of brand value, but they have market value.

Just to keep the Big Ten out of Georgia, the SEC would consider fighting to add them back in. Meanwhile, the Big Ten would get another elite academic institution with great history and, most importantly, a footprint in the Atlanta market.

If both premier leagues are prepared to fight for them, albeit for different reasons, GT’s willingness to leave would be inevitable. It would then all come down to how serious the SEC is about keeping the Big Ten out of the South.

This is where we are with conference realignment. The SEC is about to add three ACC schools, and the Big Ten will add one. Then the conferences will join an all-out bidding war for UNC and Miami with different motives. N.C. State is in the mix, and GT will join.

Buckle up. This fight is going to get ugly.

Currently the GoR agreement is until 2036 and gives the ACC complete control over every school’s media rights. That means they could blackball teams in their league from any TV games, even if they join another league.

Combine that with the $120 million exit fee, and it explains why it’s hard to poach the league. This is why FSU, Miami, UNC and Clemson were already working to ask for a larger portion of the revenue share. They bring in way more than they are paid out.

A TV payout of roughly $17 million by the ACC compared to upwards of $60 million for SEC and Big Ten schools set to come, caused this. How can FSU and Miami compete with Florida and now even the UCF Knights in the Big 12? What about Clemson with South Carolina?

Truth is, they can’t. As a result, conference realignment is coming, and the ACC is set to collapse. If the SEC wants to keep its advantage, it may have to add more than just Clemson, FSU and VT.

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One Response

  1. Would it not make more sense for UNC to go to the SEC, leaving NC St. out in the cold? Whereas if UNC goes to the B10 and NC St. goes to the SEC, they will split the NC market for viewers and recruits. Wouldn’t more NC athletes prefer to compete in the SEC?

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