'Eliminate as much of that burden': How the Duke student athlete experience will change when the ACC expands

The Wallace Wade Stadium crowd celebrates during Duke football's 2023 clash with Notre Dame.
The Wallace Wade Stadium crowd celebrates during Duke football's 2023 clash with Notre Dame.

It has been more than three months since the ACC announced its expansion with three new member schools — Stanford, California and SMU. However, conference realignment is still in its nascent phase and there are a lot of questions about the future. 

The concerns are especially pertinent surrounding scheduling, and there will obviously be growing pains, but what will the student-athlete experience be like? Traveling from coast-to-coast is not unusual for many sports, but the frequency and length of stay will certainly increase due to this move. 

“One of the biggest hurdles was that we had great pause about the student-athlete experience,” said ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips in a Sept. 6 media availability. “We want to eliminate as much of that burden on the student-athletes as we can so we have to be creative in how we schedule.”

First, Phillips mentioned that 14 out of the conference’s 28 sports will not be affected because they already play in invitationals and jamborees across the country against multiple schools from different conferences, rather than one-on-one matchups. These include golf, track and field, cross country and rowing. 

“Many of our teams will see no increase in travel,” wrote Heather Ryan, the Senior Associate Director of Athletics/Student-Athlete Experience at Duke, in an email to The Chronicle. “Duke sponsors 27 sports and we will see changes in conference scheduling for 13 of those teams, so less than half of our teams will be impacted from the perspective of regular season conference scheduling.”

For the sports that are affected, the ACC has begun a plan to minimize travel and maximize competition. 

“We do not foresee a large increase in missed class days for our student-athletes given many of the teams currently have multiple competitions a week,” Ryan wrote. 

“Honestly, we didn't want to move forward until we had [scheduling] answered,” Phillips said. “As we sit here today, we feel good about the direction we’re going and understanding what that looks like.”

Phillips distinguishes teams on the East Coast — all of the current ACC teams plus SMU — and then the West Coast teams of Stanford and California. 

“Travel East to West will be once every other year for our current 14 football member schools,” Phillips said. 

The ACC announced its new football scheduling model for the next seven seasons Oct. 30. For Duke, cross-country travel will occur three times in that span, with trips to Berkeley, Calif., in 2025 and 2029, and Palo Alto, Calif., in 2027. 

The commissioner pointed out that Stanford’s academic calendar is based on the quarter system, which does not start until late in September, so he will try to schedule some of the road conference contests for the Cardinal before then.

Similarly, for East to West travel in basketball, conference realignment will demand just two trips every four years. For example, Duke could play California and Stanford on a Saturday and Monday, or a Wednesday and Saturday, in the same trip. It will be three to four trips per year for the Golden Bears and Cardinal coming East, again by playing two nearby teams in the same trip. 

Finally, for the Olympic sports that are affected by scheduling — think soccer, baseball, softball and lacrosse — travel will be zero to one trip per year from East to West and three or four trips per year the other way. 

“The Board of Directors provided guiding principles to use while constructing schedule models, one of which was that no team should travel West more than once per year during the regular season,” Ryan wrote. “I believe we will be able to construct schedules in a manner that follows those guiding principles, which will limit the academic impact on our student-athletes.”

Student-athletes will still have to face the added hurdle of adjusting to different time zones for multiple days. However, Duke women’s soccer traveled to California to face the Cardinal this season and welcomed Southern California to Durham, so trips of this length are not unprecedented. 

Phillips has not made decisions about conference tournament locations, although with Charlotte being the new ACC headquarters as of August, he emphasized maintaining tournaments in both Greensboro, N.C., and the Queen City. These changes are still in the works, and the league has tried to make sure that students have a voice at the table. 

“It’s also important to note we have involved our student-athletes in the scheduling process,” Ryan wrote. “Each sport has a student advisory committee, and the ACC has met with those committees to allow our student-athletes to voice their thoughts and concerns as it relates to expansion and their experience.”

There was certainly no unanimity for expansion, and after a summer of Florida State openly speaking out against the league and amid recent reports that Clemson may be headed elsewhere, the future of the conference is as uncertain as ever. Nevertheless, Phillips firmly believes in the advantages of adding these three schools to the ACC.

“In the end, it drives greater revenue to our schools,” Phillips said. “It gets us into amazing markets. It allows us to brand with three tremendous institutions, get into new time zones, all the things that we've seen happen over the last several years.”

Currently, every ACC school is locked into a grant of rights contract through 2036, effectively giving away their home-game broadcast rights to the conference. In other words, if an ACC team were to leave the conference, they would be missing out on TV revenue generated from home games. Phillips noted that the three additional schools signed this grant of rights and there were no adjustments to the deal. 

However, many teams are frustrated with the growing revenue gap between the ACC and other expanding conferences like the Big Ten and SEC, and this move was an attempt to appease some of these concerns. 

Despite the pushback to these changes, the ACC is cementing its identity as a premier athletic and academic conference, and Phillips cited this as an additional reason for adding those particular schools. 

“When you add those three schools, it’s going to be hard to say that there’s a conference that has greater balance in the country, academically and athletically, than the ACC does,” Phillips said. 

Clemson, Florida State and North Carolina all voted against expansion, but Phillips is still bullish about the unity of the conference. In May, he introduced the Success Initiative plan endorsed by the Board of Directors, which will launch in the 2024-25 season and reward teams financially for postseason success. 

“Even those that dissented voted for other things like the Success Initiative plan that will provide some revenue in a disproportionate way and provide some rewards for those having success and investing at the athletic level,” Phillips said. “It has something for everyone, it may not have everything for everyone. But whether you voted for it or not, you’re going to benefit from this new arrangement and these three world class schools joining the ACC.”


Ranjan Jindal profile
Ranjan Jindal | Assistant Blue Zone editor

Ranjan Jindal is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.

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