Typically, the annual ACC Football Kickoff is primarily about the upcoming football season. But as commissioner Jim Phillips took the stage Wednesday morning in Charlotte to begin the two-day event in earnest, his comments veered more toward the conference’s long-term plans than its immediate future.
Phillips displayed confidence and stressed an equal-footing approach to conference realignment during his hour at the podium, fielding questions about the ACC’s future amid the rise of the SEC and the Big Ten. While those two conferences have opened an extensive revenue gap over the ACC and the rest of the Power Five, the second-year commissioner seemed confident in the ACC’s place in collegiate athletics.
“It remains my belief there is no better conference in the country,” Phillips said of the ACC. “When you combine our incredible student-athletes, world-class institutions, broad-based sports offerings and our commitment to maximizing the educational and athletic opportunities for students.”
Just less than one year ago, the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 officially announced a monumental conference alliance, seemingly setting up the majority of the Power Five for years of cooperation and collaboration. That was brought to a screeching halt in June, as the Big Ten finalized plans to add USC and UCLA beginning in 2024. Similarly, the SEC is set to add Big 12 leaders Texas and Oklahoma in the coming years.
As the SEC and Big Ten continue to grow financially and in terms of membership, the balance of power in the Power Five is shifting further than ever. The ACC has been unaffected by realignment to this point, but the rapidly changing landscape has made it necessary to question where the conference stands moving forward. Phillips spoke directly to those questions Wednesday, putting the ACC’s financial disadvantages in perspective and seemingly condemning the approaches of the SEC and Big Ten.
“I will continue to do what’s in the best interest of the ACC, but will also strongly advocate for college athletics to be a healthy neighborhood, not two or three gated communities,” Phillips said. “Resources may be different, but access, education, and competitive opportunity will remain the foundation going forward.”
Phillips made clear Wednesday the importance of media and entertainment to the ACC moving forward, both in generating revenue and preserving conference membership. Notably, Phillips and the ACC have the grant of rights agreement—a conference-wide television deal running through 2036—in their favor. For Texas, Oklahoma, USC and UCLA, the grant of rights has played a large role in dictating the timetable of conference moves, and with the ACC in control of its membership’s media revenue for more than a decade, Phillips is confident that departures are unlikely for the time being.
“People talked about Oklahoma and Texas leaving [their conferences] immediately. I think that's pretty well-stated now that that's not the case,” Phillips said. “They're going to wait until their grants of rights is over…. You can follow the logic there. I would think that the significance of what that would mean, the television rights that the conference owns as well as a nine-figure financial penalty, I think it holds, but your guess is as good as mine.”
It is worth noting, however, that Phillips’ comparison here is not exactly one-to-one. The departing schools from the Pac-12 and Big 12 have only a handful of years remaining on their respective grant of rights deals, as one reporter pointed out Wednesday, meaning that ACC schools inclined to head elsewhere might have to think differently with so much time left on the clock. In response, Phillips reiterated that “everything is on the table.”
If the ACC’s membership is as solid as Phillips claims, however, the conference could be in a reasonable position to pursue new additions. Phillips—who mistakenly identified the ACC’s membership as 17 schools in a brief moment of comic relief—recognized the possibility of expansion Wednesday but also made clear that it’s not the conference’s only path forward.
Predictably, the expansion conversation Wednesday included Notre Dame, a proudly independent program with existing ties to the ACC. Any conference decision from the Fighting Irish, a historic football program, would have a ripple effect across the Power Five and college football as a whole, and the ACC would benefit greatly should that decision fall in its favor.
“If there comes a time that Notre Dame would consider moving to a conference and away from independence, I feel really good about it being the ACC,” Phillips said.
In other areas, Phillips covered a pair of important topics that were somewhat overshadowed Wednesday by all the questions about the ACC’s future. That future will take place in one of three cities, as the commissioner reiterated that a decision on the conference’s next headquarters is coming, although the timetable is not yet clear. Charlotte, Orlando, Fla., and the current location of Greensboro, N.C., are the three options on the table.
Early on in his remarks, Phillips touched on the future of name, image and likeness policies across the NCAA. Like many, he recognized the importance of NIL as well as a need for regulation and structure, and ultimately called for enforceable changes to the current model.
“[NIL] has provided some outstanding opportunities that we all celebrate,” Phillips said. “However, the lack of a single enforceable standard for NIL across the schools and all states has created an environment where inducements inaccurately labeled as NIL are disrupting recruiting. Fair regulation of recruiting is essential for fair competition.”
It remains to be seen how Duke fits into the bigger picture of conference realignment, but three Blue Devils—DeWayne Carter, Shaka Heyward and Jacob Monk—and head coach Mike Elko were also present in Charlotte this week to speak about this upcoming season. Regardless of how the ACC navigates the future of college football, the conference and Duke have an exciting fall season to look forward to.
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity senior and was previously sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.