Five Years After the ACC's Expansion, Is Bigger Really Better?

By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 13, 2008

When the Atlantic Coast Conference extended membership invitations to Virginia Tech and Miami in June 2003 and to Boston College four months later, ACC officials offered visions of soaring revenue and heightened national prestige for a conference known traditionally for men's basketball. The plan was to make the ACC more like the Southeastern Conference and the Big 12, with conference championship games, opulent television contracts and national renown for its football teams.

In the five years since realignment was initiated the ACC, with its expanded roster of 12 schools, has signed a seven-year, $258 million contract with ABC and ESPN -- which nearly doubled the annual income of its previous TV deal -- and hosted three football conference title games at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla.

ACC Commissioner John Swofford said expansion "has met expectations in every way," and several officials inside and outside the conference say the overall level of play of both football and basketball has improved. Others, however, say the benefits of growth have in many ways fallen short of predictions.

And in one of the most critical and unforeseen byproducts of the realignment, the rival Big East Conference -- forced to expand in response to the flight of three of its schools to the ACC -- has strengthened its standing as a big-time football conference and fortified the depth of its basketball programs to an extent the ACC has yet to realize.

Traditional football powers Florida State and Miami have suffered through disappointing seasons the past two years, leaving Virginia Tech and a slew of middling programs to maintain the ACC's clout among Bowl Championship Series conferences. Three seasons after the ACC introduced its two-division, superconference format, it has yet to earn an at-large bid to a BCS bowl in addition to the automatic bid one of its schools gets for winning the conference championship. In BCS bowls since expansion, the ACC is 0-3.

Revenue generated by the ACC conference championship game decreased from 2005 to 2006, a development that left outgoing University of North Carolina chancellor James Moeser unimpressed with the financial payoff from expansion.

"There was a financial concern, and [the expansion] has not been an enormous benefit," said Moeser, who stepped down June 30 after eight years. "Certainly, it has done no damage. It has been positive, but not overwhelmingly."

Meantime, the Big East has experienced a broader range of success, especially considering the condition it was left in after losing three of its most competitive football schools to the ACC.

The Big East was regarded as a fragile entity ready to crumble following the departure of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College; "close to extinction," as Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese described the conventional wisdom of the time. Instead, the Big East fought back with an aggressive expansion of its own that in some ways has trumped the ACC's growth.

"We ignored" comments about the Big East's demise, Tranghese said. "We couldn't sit there and whine about it. We had to focus on rebuilding. And then we had to win."

A Boost for the Hokies

Confined to a recliner in his Blacksburg home, Virginia Tech Athletic Director Jim Weaver had plenty of time to reflect on the past five years. Nearly two weeks removed from hip surgery, Weaver had limited mobility, but that didn't keep the inflection in his voice from altering pitch as he described his school's still relatively new environment.

"We had longed for the ACC to be our home way back when the league began in 1953," Weaver said in a recent phone interview. "We're just delighted that it finally is."

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