King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Greed comes out of the closet: At least the ACC is honest about its cash-grab expansion plans.

By Salon Staff
June 23, 2003 11:00PM (UTC)
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My favorite part of the whole NCAA conference expansion mess is probably going to be when Virginia Tech drops out of the lawsuit aimed at stopping the ACC from poaching Big East football schools. It's going to have to take its name off of the plaintiffs list ... so it can leave the Big East and join the defendant, the ACC.

Why stand on principle, after all, when there's real money at stake, real money being defined as 15 cents American, or more?


The Atlantic Coast Conference wants Big East schools Miami, Syracuse and Boston College to move over and turn the ACC into a 12-team league. This would allow the ACC, a basketball powerhouse but a middling player in football, to stage a lucrative conference championship football game, which it can't do with fewer than 12 teams under NCAA rules. The expansion would also bring the league, which now reaches north to Maryland and south to the Florida Panhandle, into the South Florida and Boston TV markets, and more importantly the presence of football behemoth Miami would give it greater leverage in negotiating its next national TV contract.

This attempted money grab is notable in the shifty history of the NCAA for the mostly straightforward way it's been advertised. With rare exceptions, ACC officials haven't even bothered to pay lip service to the idea that college athletics have anything to do with education, or even that they have much at all to do with college, or athletics for that matter. The only athlete of any interest to the ACC in all of this is Alexander Hamilton, a very good duelist. But that's only because his picture is on the $10 bill.

Can you remember the last decision, no matter how small, that was made by a major American sporting enterprise that wasn't designed to maximize revenue?


Now, there's nothing wrong with maximizing revenue. I've been known to try it myself from time to time, and I think I'm pretty clearly on record as something of a free-market extremist when it comes to whether college athletes should be paid or whether professional athletes' salaries should be artificially limited by salary caps and luxury taxes.

But I also sometimes make decisions, as you probably do, even in your business, that take other factors into account. This approach seems to be extinct in the sports landscape. No matter what it does to the playing of the game, or to the goodwill of the fans or the taxpayers or anybody else, if Door No. 1 has 15 cents more behind it than Door No. 2, there's not a single team, league, conference or governing body in American sports that will pick Door No. 2. Ever.

The ACC picked Door No. 1 by extending those invitations to Miami, B.C. and Syracuse last month. The other football schools in the Big East have sued the ACC, Miami and B.C., but not Syracuse, charging them with trying to destroy the less-prestigious conference. (Here's a PDF file of the lawsuit.)


Another wrench in the works came when Virginia balked at approving the expansion because of political pressure from the statehouse. Duke and North Carolina are opposed to expansion, and the league bylaws require seven yes votes. So when UVA president John Casteen reportedly had his arm twisted by Gov. Mark Warner to protect the athletic interests of Virginia Tech, ACC expansion was suddenly short a vote.

The solution? Invite Virginia Tech too! That was the report over the weekend, anyway. And there's no reason to believe Virginia Tech would say no. Other reports had the invitation being scaled back to just Miami, or shelved for a year. Any Big East team wanting to leave the conference has to pay a $1 million penalty, but that doubles at the end of the month, so it's all going to shake out within a week.


However it does, it'll be a business decision. There's no worrying about what's good for ACC athletes on the field or in the classroom, or what's best for the universities in question generally, apart from the athletic department financial statement.

A 13-team league, which is a possibility if the Virginia Tech invitation goes out, would be an unwieldy mess for basketball, where the ACC has made its bones. Even with 12 teams, every team in the conference wouldn't get to play a home-and-home basketball series against every other team, and in any given football season each team would miss playing two or even three league opponents. This not playing each other is sometimes referred to as "enhancing rivalries" when ACC officials forget themselves and try to sell expansion on grounds other than profit.

The typing classes have expressed shock -- shock! -- at the naked greed on display in this whole ugly affair, which is a lot like being shocked -- shocked! -- at the naked nudity on display at the Playboy mansion on New Year's Eve. College sports is all about greed. It's a multibillion-dollar business that profits from a heavy reliance on skilled, unpaid labor. If these people can't be relied on to display naked, unashamed greed, who can be?


Give the ACC some love for at least keeping the process relatively bullshit-free, with at least one hilarious exception, in the form of a letter to Wake Forest boosters from athletic director Ron Wellman explaining why expansion would be good for Wake.

Presumably typing with a straight face, Wellman began by saying that all the other big conferences were expanding to 12 teams and the ACC was in danger of being left behind. Then he constructed a sentence that is a marvel. As quoted by (Raleigh) News and Observer writer Al Myatt on the East Carolina fan site Bonesville, it contains 94 words and five -- five! -- dashes, sometimes in -- confusing -- places. But best of all, it buries the issue of money so deeply that it comes out sounding no more important than some incidental perk for a few grad students.

Behold: "A few of the advantages of expansion include -- strengthening of the ACC as a top conference, enhancing the ACC's position in governance of the NCAA -- enhancing the visibility of all member institutions -- intensified rivalries within the ACC, reflecting the interest of members north and south to have strong regional rivals who are also conference rivals -- maintenance of stable revenue in the future especially with the addition of new television markets from Boston to Miami -- more academic benefits of intra-conference cooperation that can result from new conference alliances."


Wellman goes on to cite as an example of these academic benefits a plan "to allow doctoral and masters' students to study at member institutions other than their own with full academic credits at no additional charge to the students."

Notice how he snuck the word "revenue" in there, right before the big finish with the academic stuff? Wellman doesn't even mention the millions in TV cabbage the ACC expects to add because of the championship football game and the addition of Miami. Sure, we're picking up a couple of TV markets, he's saying, but just as important, Medieval history Ph.D. candidates at North Carolina State can study at Georgia Tech for the same low price!

This guy's a beauty. Everyone who believes that ACC expansion has anything at all to do with grad students shuttling between schools, fly around the room twice. But you've got to like Wellman for hanging on to that quaint NCAA tradition of pretending that big-time college sports are really just a small part of a university's educational mission. It's sort of sweet, really.

This story has been corrected since it was originally posted.


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