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STEVE DESHAZO: ACC blinks first in merger stare-down
Call it an open-ended marriage of convenience—and, as often happens, one party calls most of the shots.
However rosily Atlantic Coast Conference officials try to spin it, they caved in by admitting Notre Dame as a partial member. Allowing the Irish to maintain their football independence is like your spouse saying “I do” while insisting on dating other people.
Before Wednesday, the ACC held most of the cards in their decade-long courtship. After the NCAA announced its plan for a four-team football playoff in 2014, Notre Dame desperately needed a seat at the table.
Yes, the Irish are a good fit for the ACC, academically and athletically (if not geographically). But commissioner John Swofford swore up and down for the past several years that the ACC was not interested in partial members. All or nothing, he said often.
Then came word that the Irish will join the ACC in 2015 (if not sooner)—in every sport except the one that matters most to Swofford and his fellow suits: football.
Under their prenuptial agreement, Notre Dame will play an ACC Light football schedule, facing five conference opponents each year. The Irish won’t be eligible for the conference championship, but they’ll have dibs on the league’s bowl tie-ins —without having to share the millions from their exclusive contract with NBC.
And this is good for the ACC exactly how?
Maybe ACC member presidents believe they can convince the Irish to renounce their football independence at some future date. Fat chance of that. Ask anyone who thought he/she could change his/her spouse’s behavior after the honeymoon how that works out.
Notre Dame football isn’t the franchise it once was, despite its grandiose self-image. The Irish haven’t been national title contenders for two decades, and NBC’s ratings have similarly declined.
In that sense, the Irish are a perfect fit for the ACC, which started the whole conference realignment dance in 2004 by luring Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College away from the Big East. The idea was to form a football power conference, but the ACC is 2–12 in BCS bowl games.
Adding Notre Dame’s powerful programs in men’s and women’s basketball and several Olympic sports will be a boon to the ACC’s overall prestige. But it also will increase the travel budgets and time away from class for the “student–athletes” the league so proudly trumpets.
And little of the ACC’s Manifest Destiny strategy involves hoops or soccer or track. Football fuels the furnace of intercollegiate athletics: A reported 80 percent of revenue from the ACC’s new 14-year contract with ESPN is football-related. (Swofford said Wednesday he plans to “revisit” that deal now that the Irish are at least partially on board, though the ink is barely dry.)
It shouldn’t have worked out this way. The Irish saw that the Big East (their home for everything but football) was crumbling and that the coming playoff system required them to have some sort of affiliation.
They got the best of all possible worlds: a new home (with a lot of very beatable opponents); continued East Coast exposure; guaranteed scheduling of five annual games; and the ability to keep traditional rivalries with Southern Cal, Stanford and Navy Not least of all, they still don’t have to share their NBC paycheck.
What does the ACC get? The ability to drop Notre Dame’s name, without the chance to crown the Irish football champions—or take a cut of their cash. An unwieldy 15-team league with logistical issues in scheduling regular-season and tournament games in other sports.
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said his school negotiated only with the ACC. The Big Ten also wanted the Irish, but was adamant that football be included in the package.
The ACC obviously wasn’t so demanding. Swofford said he realized long ago that an all-in deal was “not in the cards.”
Rather than calling the Irish’s bluff, the ACC folded its hand. That left Swofford and his league with a less-than-ideal deal.
Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443