How the ACC's renewed commitment to football has ensured the league's long-term survival
The ACC launched a football title game, expanded twice and emerged as one of the top leagues
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It was a national, almost made-for-TV scene at the ACC Football Kickoff. The Westin in Uptown Charlotte turns into a makeshift broadcast studio for two days every July, complete with sets, staging areas and strict schedule that keeps all events tied to an always-ticking clock. That's not the way it's always been at the ACC Football Kickoff, but when launching a conference network and celebrating national championships is on the agenda, the event demands a sense of urgency that will resonate throughout the league's footprint and across the country.
But before creating that sense of urgency and a demand for ACC content that could translate to television sets and revenue dollars, the league had to get serious about football.
In the 2000s, ACC commissioner John Swofford began to plot the future of the league alongside conference leadership, both what the ACC wanted to look like and where it wanted to fit in the national landscape of college athletics. Clemson and Georgia Tech brought high-level success decades before, but at the time, the ACC's part of the national football discussion was as the resting place for Bobby Bowden's Florida State dynasty.
Swofford describes the state of the ACC at the time as a nine-member league that was "basketball-centric." There was not the consistency of success in football, nor the depth of nationally competitive football programs, for the ACC to be perceived as much else than a basketball league.
Looking into the future, Swofford identified a shift in the business model for college athletics. Television was becoming the primary avenue of revenue for a conference's members. Football, not basketball, was the best vehicle to secure lucrative media rights deals. If the ACC wanted to be competitive financially with the other major conferences, it needed to get better on the gridiron.
"It was going to be necessary for us to improve ourselves football-wise, if for no other reason the business aspects of it for our league," Swofford told CBS Sports. "That's when we started thinking really seriously about evaluating things. We felt like we've got to get larger, we've got to increase our footprint. We need more television sets, and we need to get better in football, collectively. We've got to do it in a way that doesn't damage the best basketball conference in the country. Here's where we need to head to, quite frankly, retain all of our members then as well as give ourselves the opportunity financially to do what we need to do."
The decision was first made internally. The ACC was going to pursue expansion for the preservation of its status as one of the country's elite leagues. Next was the hard part: getting the many competing interests aligned within the conference to vote in favor of adding new member schools.
Swofford has been commissioner of the ACC since 1997, and throughout multiple waves of expansion, television rights negotiations and the creation of the College Football Playoff, he's seen challenging times trying to get conference and university leadership on the same page. Through it all, those first expansion efforts in the 2000s remain an key pivot point in Swofford's career as a commissioner and the league's history as a power conference.
For all the good that has come from the expansion since, it's fascinating to remember how difficult it was internally within the conference to get everyone on board.
"It was tough to sell a few of them," Swofford said. "There was a core that was not tough to sell at all, that could see that vision and totally agreed with it. There were a couple that were kind of fence-sitters that ultimately came along in strong fashion, and quite candidly, there were a couple that never came along. Our first expansion was not unanimous. We needed seven of nine votes, and we only had seven. Duke and North Carolina were the only schools that their leadership, at that time, voted against expansion."
Things were difficult externally, too. Mark Warner, the then-Governor of Virginia, began lobbying to get Virginia Tech added to the ACC once it became clear the league was looking to add members. A lawsuit was filed by the state of Connecticut trying to force the ACC to take UConn or not expand at all.
Conflicts within the league continued, and beyond adding Miami -- which was still enjoying its early 2000s dominance in 2003 -- there was no candidate that appeared to have enough support to get the necessary votes for expansion. Eventually, the lobbying worked and both Virginia Tech and Miami were approved for expansion in 2004 with Boston College joining the league in 2005 to give the ACC two divisions and a much-coveted conference championship game.
Swofford noted that the creation of the ACC Championship Game "brought a significant bump financially, and I think sent a message that we were more serious about football than maybe we were perceived to be."
Results, realignment and a commitment to the future
The next challenge was outside of the hands of the commissioner. Truly changing a conference's perception requires the on-field product to back up a verbal commitment. Frank Beamer and Virginia Tech carried the load for much of that early ACC Championship Game era, rolling off consecutive 10+ win seasons from 2004-11 and finishing in the top-10 four times in that stretch. But Beamer and the Hokies could only accomplish but so much in terms of carrying the league's reputation nationally.
The ACC had two future national championship winning coaches already in the league in 2007, they just weren't head coaches yet. Prior to Jimbo Fisher and Dabo Swinney leading their programs to national championships and national title contention, the ACC still had to fight "basketball conference" perceptions even with the more intentional commitment to football from within the league. The ACC produced men's basketball national champions in 2005, 2009 and 2010, but prior to Fisher's 2013 run with the Seminoles, had not even made the BCS Championship Game since 2000.
As things started to turn for the ACC in the national landscape, Swofford and league officials were also working to navigate a wave of conference realignment that shook the entire country and reached every power conference in some way, shape or form. The conference's top programs were reported as potential targets for expansion elsewhere, and in order to secure the future of the league, the ACC made four moves in less than two years that calmed the realignment hysteria -- not only within the league but across the country.
- Sept. 2011: ACC votes to add Pitt and Syracuse
- Sept. 2012: ACC adds Notre Dame as a partial member in football
- Nov. 2012: ACC adds Louisville, replacing Maryland (Big Ten)
- April 2013: ACC's 15 schools announce a grant of rights agreement
"We really needed to do what we did or we would not have remained one of the nation's premiere conferences," Swofford said. "It just would not have happened; we would have lost members, and we wouldn't have been able to keep up."
The next fall after the grant of rights agreement -- which has since been extended from 2026-36 with the launch of the ACC Network -- saw Florida State win the national championship for the first time since 1999. Three years later, Clemson won its first of two national titles and as we enter the 2019 season the ACC is set to launch its conference network with Swinney, Trevor Lawrence and top-billed Clemson Tigers' pursuit of another national championship as its most intriguing story to follow.
As Swofford and the ACC realized in the early 2000s, football drives eyeballs. It's going to help the ACC's case that its football has evolved and improved to the point where its success alone demands attention. The fact that Clemson, Dabo and the rest of the Tigers are so compelling in their own right will only make it easier to promote the product.
In total, it has been a linear journey of moves from recognizing the need for better football to the ACC's current status among the Power Five conferences and the upcoming launch of its network. Swofford recognized that media rights deals were going to be the key to financial success in college athletics, and the only way to keep pace with other conferences was going to be to get bigger as a league and better in football.
Being financially competitive has helped schools make better hires and greater investments than they ever have in football, and those investments have paid off in the record numbers of bowl teams, national championships and Heisman Trophy award winners that have come in the last decade. Without convincing its member schools to get on board with this football-forward approach, the ACC as we know it might not exist as it does today.
"It's gratifying to see the results," Swofford said. "... and we're not finished yet."
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