Thad's Thoughts on Expansion

Sometimes, Coach K gets it right.

One of those occasions was this week, in which the Duke head basketball coach took the ACC to task for not pausing to consider the costs its original expansion plan might have imposed on the broader college sports landscape. "We've obviously gone into another person's yard with our tractor-trailer and knocked down a few trees," noted Krzyzewski.. "This isn't about big business swooping in and getting another company--and if that's what it's about, the hidden cost there is the destruction of in essence what intercollegiate sports should be about."

Kryzyzewski's comments helped break the silence of expansion skeptics and put to an end a bizarre few weeks in which it was commonly assumed that no one in the ACC could really care about such things athletes being in class and not having excessive travel or that there is something untoward about having due regard for other institutions which might be impacted by a conference's actions.

Expanding the ACC northward to include Boston College and Syracuse was a bad idea on multiple levels. As indicated by UNC Chancellor James Moeser and numerous faculty who supported his cautionary approach to expansion, volleyball, golf, soccer, baseball, and wrestling teams from the Piedmont of North Carolina have no business having to make the hike to Boston or Syracuse—about 3 times as long as the trip to the ACC's current northern peak in College Park—on a regular basis. That is just silly.

Second, the original ACC expansion idea would have decimated Division I college athletics in the Northeast, making a respectable multisport conference based on local rivalries all but impossible. Boston College needs to be playing teams like Providence and Connecticut on a regular basis, not Clemson and Virginia. Under the revised 11-team plan with Syracuse and BC staying north, a quality northeastern conference is still possible, although it will be seriously weakened in football. (On the other hand, Miami and Virginia Tech's departure will help reduce the gap that seriously struggling or brand new programs like Rutgers, Temple, and Connecticut need to bridge to become competitive in their own league.) The original plan would have been a death knell to big-time college sports in the the northeast of the United States.

Thirdly, the notion that the ACC was going to get a major boost in exposure by adding the Boston market was absurd. (Not too long, ago charts were trotted out purporting to show that the league's potential TV market growing dramatically due to BC's expected presence.) The fact is, very few people in Boston would have cared about an N.C. State-Wake Forest basketball game on a weeknight, certainly not enough to watch on TV, just because BC is now in the ACC—as it is, Big East regular season games not involving BC or Providence get only marginal attention in the Boston media.

Indeed, BC itself is low man on the totem pole in Boston's sports space: well behind the city's pro teams in football, basketball, baseball and hockey and maybe about on par with its professional soccer team in terms of media attention. Nor is this an accident: the same would be true for almost any college team not enjoying spectacular success--like UCLA basketball for a time or Miami football and Maryland basketball more recently--which is located in one of the nation's major media markets. (A partial exception is Atlanta, where Georgia Tech has more consistent media attention than most college teams in such a large city—a fact which can be traced to the fact that Tech's presence as an athletic power predates the arrival of major league pro sports in Atlanta in the late 1960s.) In cities like Boston, New York, Detroit, Seattle, and Los Angeles, pro sports are the leading game in town, and that is not going to change.

College sports have been most successful in the medium and small-sized markets, the places not big enough to attract a major league franchise. Places like Ann Arbor and Columbus, Austin and Bloomington, Raleigh and Chapel Hill. The Atlantic Coast Conference grew on the intense and lasting loyalty to schools which can arise in such places, taking advantage of the late and still sporadic growth of big league pro sports in the South to build an attractive and successful league.

The continued success of the ACC rests fundamentally on maintaining that loyalty and that interest within the geographical core of the conference (the Carolinas and Virginia), where the ACC has had special significance as the region's leading sports product—not on attempting to overreach into huge urban media markets where the league has little chance of competing with established major league professional sports for fan and media interest. Keeping the ACC as a place with what Moeser has termed a "geographically contiguous footprint" is the best way to keep and build on what made the ACC great in the first place: a conference of intense local rivalries among schools operating in a specific region where college sports are of particular importance.

None of this is to say that adopting a policy of no change ever no matter what would have been the right course of action. Because of the absurd way college football's championship is organized, there was, perhaps, legitimate concern on the ACC's part about a scenario (possibly involving a Florida State defection) emerging down the road in which the league was somehow shut out of the Bowl Championship Series. The plan to add Miami and Virginia Tech solves that problem, if it was a problem, at a lot less cost than the original northeast plan (leaving Big East football hung out to dry, of course).

True, under current NCAA rules, the league does not (yet) have enough members to stage the football playoff which so mesmerized ACC leaders, but as Krzyzewski also pointed out, the 12-team requirement is just a rule, and not one with any special moral significance. Surely after the near-debacle that has unfolded this spring, the NCAA can be convinced to relax the rule rather than risk more fratricidal bloodlettings between membership institutions undertaken for the sake of a single game.

In short, the ACC expansion saga looks likely now to end with an outcome that was no one's first choice and that was unforseeable at the beginning of a process..In a healthy political system—and this was politics at the highest level—outcomes like that are possible, healthy, and often desirable: they indicate that the process had an impact, that concerns about an original plan were taken into account, and that due deliberation took place before rushing to adopt a plan hatched by marketers and supported by hazy media and financial projections. Yes, there are some significant negatives to the current plan, such as the probable end of home and home round robins in basketball, but the revised expansion plan is a very substantial improvement over the original scenario.

Clearly, too, the concerns raised by the University of North Carolina (as well as Duke) about the proposed expansion had a tangible impact on the process which caused the ACC to change its plans. Needless to say, not every Carolina sports fan is pleased about the nature of those concerns or about the apparent result of those concerns being aired.

But being a lonely voice doesn't make one wrong—there is no shame and much to be proud of in an institution which takes a cautious approach to major changes and which actually takes the ability of its student-athletes to be students into consideration in making athletic decisions.

And at the end of the day, from the ACC's point of view at least, there is much to be satisfied about with an outcome to a strange and at times ugly expansion process which should maintain and expand the league's status as a big time football conference while also preserving the traditional geographic basis and regional flavor of the conference, rather turning it into an overblown monstrosity with a couple of ill-placed shoes that don't fit. The financial planners may not have prevailed on this one, but reason and the deliberative process did.

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