Major League Baseball had its annual trade deadline last week. It’s a last opportunity for teams whose seasons aren’t going as well as expected to prepare for the future, usually by trading away veteran players expected to leave as free agents in the offseason to gain prospects who will help the franchise down the road.
Some teams take a more aggressive approach. The Angels employ the best player in baseball in Shohei Ohtani. He’s expected to leave for a team more likely to win the World Series when he becomes a free agent in the fall, and most observers expected him to be traded so the Angels could get something back when he departs.
Instead, the Angels were active in acquiring more players to improve the team and make it a more appealing place for Ohtani to remain when he chooses his future home in a few months.
The worst thing a team can do when faced with players who might be looking for greener pastures is to point to the contract the player signed and declare that everything will be fine until that contract expires.
In other words, the ACC approach.
For months, there have been reports that several members of the ACC are unhappy with the conference’s revenue when compared to fellow conferences like the SEC and Big Ten. Florida State has been the most vocal critic.
“We are not satisfied with our current situation,” Florida State President Richard McCullough said last week. “We love the ACC and our partners at ESPN. Our goal would be to stay in the ACC, but staying in the ACC under the current situation is hard for us to figure out how to remain competitive unless there were a major change in the revenue distribution. That has not happened.”
That statement came after the ACC implemented its so-called iron-clad grant of rights, which carries heavy financial penalties if schools depart. It came after the league came up with a better revenue model in the spring, allowing schools to keep more of what they earn instead of sharing it. And it came after commissioner Jim Phillips pointed out that the ACC was third in revenue among big conferences, and “third is certainly a good position.”
Clemson has also been reported to be unhappy with the revenue situation, and other big earners in the conference — including Miami, UNC, NC State, Virginia and Virginia Tech — have shown that they also would be willing to join a revolution and/or mass defection from the league.
So the ACC appears to be the St. Louis Cardinals of the Power Five. They have plenty of members under contract who are ready to leave as soon as the agreement expires in 2036.
Like the Cardinals and Angels, the ACC has three choices: Act now to prepare for the future, even if it means some key contributors are gone; act now to make the conference more appealing for those big hitters to stick around; or do nothing because everyone is under contract for a little while longer.
Like it or not, college sports is moving toward a few mega conferences. It will include the Big Ten, SEC and Big 12, which has gone from the endangered list to a major player by grabbing several Pac-12 schools to add to its roster.
Meanwhile, the ACC has not added anyone. Its third-place revenue position, which seems likely to drop to fourth with the reborn Big 12 on the ascent, makes it less attractive a landing spot, and the fact that more than a half-dozen teams appear to be looking at the door also isn’t a selling point.
However, even if the current approach works — even if the legal teams from the seven schools looking to break away can’t find a loophole in the grant of rights binding everyone to the league — there doesn’t appear to be an endgame for the ACC.
If everyone stays put through 2036, what do we have? A fourth-place league, smaller and less influential than the Power Three. The better programs make more than the others, but still not enough to match the lure of the SEC and Big Ten. The league remains a small, boutique basketball league that has its moments in football — until 2036 when it ceases to exist the moment the grant of rights expires.
Alternatively, the league already has seven members unhappy. The new revenue plan clearly isn’t enough to calm their concerns, as FSU’s president proclaimed at the board meeting. On the other hand, seeing their payout get cut in favor of the FSUs and Clemsons may cause dissatisfaction with the revenue model to spread to the have-nots in the league. And eventually, the number of unhappy schools will reach a critical mass, because all it takes to change the rules — including grant of rights agreements — is a vote among members.
The ACC is running out of options as each Pac-12 school announces its new conference home. The league office needs to realize that a contract is not a plan and that legally binding doesn’t mean security for the future.
It may already be too late, but if not, that deadline is coming. It’s time to make a deal.