ACC Adds Stanford, Cal, SMU

Stanford and Cal jump a sinking ship, while SMU seeks to regain its former glory.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer and higher education analyst with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former...
Published on September 5, 2023
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  • Stanford, UC Berkeley, and Southern Methodist University (SMU) are set to join the Atlantic Coast Conference starting in 2024.
  • The move leaves only two schools in the Pac-12.
  • SMU will forgo media revenue, but joining the ACC offers a chance to regain football relevance.
  • The Pac-12 appears headed for extinction, ending a 108-year history.

That tectonic rumbling you just felt was the latest landscape-altering realignment in college football. With one move, the Pac-12 was issued its death warrant, and the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) became a bicoastal powerhouse.

On Sept. 1, the ACC announced it was inviting Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley (Cal), and Southern Methodist University (SMU) to join the conference beginning with the 2024 season. Assuming the moves happen, Stanford and Cal will jettison the Pac-12, leaving only Oregon State University and Washington State University in a once-dominant conference now only a shadow of its former self.

Last month, the Universities of Washington and Oregon announced they were joining the Big Ten beginning in 2024, while the Universities of Arizona and Utah, along with Arizona State University, declared they would be departing for the Big 12, following the University of Colorado's decision in late July.

Washington and Oregon will reunite with two former Pac-12 schools, the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), both of which confirmed last year they'd be in the Big Ten starting in 2024.

Better competition and recruiting advantages aside, the driving force behind these moves is money. Last year, the Big Ten inked a seven-year media rights agreement with Fox, CBS, and NBC worth $7 billion. Each school could realize up to $100 million annually.

Among the Power 5 conferences, the Pac-12 ranks last in terms of per-school revenue. Its current television contract with Fox and ESPN, set to expire next year, is worth $3 billion. A new deal of the Big Ten's magnitude seems highly improbable, even if the Pac-12 reconstitutes its membership by merging with the Mountain West Conference.

For SMU, leaving the American Athletic Conference (AAC) for a Power 5 conference represents a potential return to national relevance. The Mustangs were a dominant force in the 1980s before recruiting violations led to an NCAA "death penalty" that derailed the program for decades.

So eager was SMU to join the ACC that it opted to forgo media revenue for nine years, leaving behind the roughly $7 million it's earning annually as an AAC member.

Meanwhile, the ACC gains essentially free access to the Dallas and the greater Texas market. It also establishes a foothold in Northern California, expanding its recruiting and media reach to the West Coast.

With the recent expansion of both the Big Ten and the Southeastern Conference (Oklahoma and Texas will join following this season) and rumors that Clemson and Florida State might want out, the ACC had to make a major move. Stanford and Cal aren't exactly championship contenders, though they do burnish the conference's academic profile, as does SMU.

Adding Notre Dame to its football roster would help the ACC keep pace with other Power 5 gridiron gerrymandering. For now, Notre Dame competes in the ACC across all sports except football, for which it remains independent.

The obvious loser in this deal is the Pac-12, which now appears headed for extinction after a glorious 108-year run. Adding new members would keep it alive in name only. But that's the new reality in today's money-driven market, where media contracts, transfer portals, and NIL deals dictate the fortunes of teams and players.

In this Darwinian universe, the Pac-12 simply didn't evolve.