The Atlantic Coast Conference is expanding from its Eastern roots.
The ACC presidents and chancellors met Friday morning and voted to add three schools — Stanford, Cal and SMU — the conference announced. It will bring the conference to 18 members, with 17 playing football full time in the league. The additions are in all sports and will begin in the 2024-25 school year.
The moves have been the subject of much drama the past month, as commissioner Jim Phillips worked diligently to appease a group of members eager to add the schools and others seeking more revenue. The protracted process ultimately ended with the ACC growing amid a backdrop that brought to light some of the fundamental tensions within the league.
“We are thrilled to welcome three world-class institutions to the ACC, and we look forward to having them compete as part of our amazing league,” Phillips said in a statement. “Throughout the evaluation process, the ACC Board of Directors, led by [University of Virginia] President [James] Ryan, was deliberate in prioritizing the best possible athletic and academic experience for our student-athletes and in ensuring that the three universities would strengthen the league in all possible ways. Cal, SMU and Stanford will be terrific members of the ACC and we are proud to welcome their student-athletes, coaches, staff and entire campus community, alumni and fans.”
The move unfolded in an atypical process, as votes in league matters usually are cast as unanimous and are simply a formality when the presidents meet to decide. The ACC needed 12 of 15 votes. Heading into the meeting Friday morning, it was uncertain whether the league had the votes, a significant variance from how conference expansion typically works.
In a straw poll more than three weeks ago, four ACC schools dissented: Clemson, Florida State, North Carolina and NC State. One of them needed to flip for the vote to pass, and all eyes were on NC State chancellor Randy Woodson going into the meeting.
It was a 12-3 vote Friday with NC State flipping, sources confirmed to ESPN’s Andrea Adelson.
“The NC State brand, and historical competitiveness of our programs, is already well-recognized and established,” Woodson said in a statement. “The addition of these outstanding universities gives us even greater opportunities to build on the Wolfpack’s national presence, which in turn will generate more long-term benefits for our student-athletes, our athletic programs, and our loyal fan base.”
The focus on Woodson had intensified Thursday night when members of the University of North Carolina board of trustees issued a statement to voice their objection to the additions. That move was perceived around the ACC as a political statement intended to ensure UNC chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz didn’t flip his vote.
“I respect the outcome of today’s vote and welcome our new members to the ACC,” Guskiewicz said in a statement Friday. “My vote against expansion was informed from feedback I have gathered over the last several weeks from our athletic leadership, coaches, faculty athletic advisors, student-athletes and a variety of other stakeholders who care deeply about our University and the success of our outstanding athletic program. I look forward to working with all our colleagues in the ACC to ensure excellence in academics and athletics — something our conference has long been known for.”
UNC and NC State did not need to be tied together, but some of the uncertainty around Woodson’s vote came from the political ramifications of not being aligned with North Carolina.
Florida State also voted no on Friday.
“We appreciate the efforts of Commissioner Phillips and our conference partners,” Florida State president Richard McCullough said in a statement. “There are many complicated factors that led us to vote no. That said, we welcome these truly outstanding institutions and look forward to working with them as our new partners in the Atlantic Coast Conference.”
Discussing the additions in a teleconference Friday afternoon, Phillips said “there is something for everybody in here.”
“When you have a threshold like 80%, I think you can understand that a great majority of the schools were in favor and are in favor,” Phillips said. “When we left that call today, everybody was in a really good place and felt very good about the process and that their schools had a chance to state what they believed were the positives of this move and maybe some of the things that weren’t necessarily, in their minds, best for the league.”
The ACC joins the ranks of a rapidly changing collegiate landscape. Starting next year, the Big Ten will have 18 teams and the Big 12 and SEC will have 16. The move leaves the Pac-12 with just two remaining programs, Washington State and Oregon State, a continued spiral that has seen the league lose eight teams since late July.
“We are confident that the ACC and its constituent institutions are an excellent match for our university and will provide an elite competitive context for our student-athletes in this changing landscape of intercollegiate athletics,” University of California-Berkeley chancellor Carol Christ said in a statement.
Cal, Stanford and SMU will come at a significant discount, which will help create a revenue pool to be shared among ACC members. SMU is expected to come in for nine years with no broadcast media revenue, sources told ESPN, and Cal and Stanford will each start out receiving just a 30% share of ACC payouts.
That money being withheld is expected to create an annual pot of revenue between $50 million and $60 million. Some of the revenue will be divided proportionally among the 14 full-time members and Notre Dame, and another portion will be put in a pool designated for success initiatives that rewards winning programs.
For Stanford and Cal, it will be 30% of a whole ACC share for the next seven years. That number will jump to 70% in Year 8, 75% in Year 9 and then full financial shares in the 10th year, sources said.
The move delivers a life preserver to the athletic departments at Stanford and Cal, which were left twisting amid the Pac-12’s implosion. Stanford has an athletic department that is considered the gold standard in college athletics. Both will face increased travel costs, which will significantly impact a Cal athletic department that faces hundreds of millions in debt.
“Student-athletes come to Stanford to pursue their highest academic and athletic potential, and joining the ACC gives us the ability to continue offering them that opportunity at a national level,” Stanford president Richard P. Saller said in a statement.
For SMU, the decision to forgo television revenue gave it a seat in a major conference, and the school will lean on its wealthy boosters to help it stay afloat until revenue comes in. It marks a significant moment in SMU’s climb back from the death penalty for major infractions that led to the school not playing football in 1987 and 1988. SMU didn’t return to a bowl until 2009 after the penalties.
“A very healing moment,” SMU president Gerald Turner said. “There’s still a lot of resentment about that as well as hurt feelings and everything else. So the fact that in the expansion that occurred, that we weren’t a part of that tied back probably to the death penalty. This is sort of like a new beginning. It’s a fresh start.”
Even with the vote going through, the nearly monthlong saga to decide on the additions illuminated the divisions in the ACC. Florida State and Clemson have spoken publicly about how the revenue gap between the ACC and the Big Ten and SEC needs to close.
Although those schools had not been supportive of the additions heading into the final meeting, the decision does give them access to millions more in annual revenue if they succeed on the field. With the ACC television contract running through 2036, the past few weeks have highlighted the uncertainty that will linger into the upcoming years.
Florida State officials have been particularly vocal about leaving the league, with McCullough saying the Seminoles would “very seriously” consider leaving if the revenue-distribution model didn’t change significantly. This move by the ACC does not appear to change that tenor.
For other schools in the ACC, the three new schools represent both the addition of quality academic institutions and safety in numbers. Cal and Stanford were the last major conference schools that offered significant value left on the board.
Phillips said the additions are good for the ACC financially and from a stability standpoint, alluding to the possibility that some schools might one day decide to leave.
“If anything happens with your league and a school wants to go explore something else — we have a grant of rights through ’36 and feel really good contractually about what that says and exit fees but feel very good about the position of that and, hand in hand, it is a step forward in addressing some of the concerns our schools have from a revenue standpoint,” Phillips said. “So this was always going to be a combination of both that our success initiative program would be met and connected to expansion and expansion would be connected to success initiative. So it was a really good business proposition for us, and I feel thrilled about where this ended and what this means for the ACC now and into the future.”
Phillips said he does not anticipate adding additional schools in the near future.