The Atlantic Coast Conference voted Friday to add Stanford, California and SMU to the league next year, providing a landing spot for two more schools from the disintegrating Pac-12 and creating a fourth super conference in major college sports.
The additions make the ACC the latest power conference to expand its membership and footprint westward. Starting in August 2024, the league with Tobacco Road roots in North Carolina will increase its number of football schools to 17 and 18 in most other sports, with Notre Dame remaining a football independent.
“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,” ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips said in a statement.
The ACC needed 12 of its 15 members to approve expansion, and the vote was not unanimous. Florida State said it voted no because the move did not fully address its concerns about the conference’s revenue distribution model.
“All three schools are outstanding academic and athletic institutions, and our vote against expansion does not reflect on their quality,” Florida State athletic director Michael Alford said. “We look forward to earning new revenue through the ACC’s success incentives initiative, based on our continued excellence. We’re grateful to the league for continuing to listen to our concerns.”
Like the Big Ten and Big 12, the ACC now will be a cross-country conference. It will span from Boston in the Northeast to Miami in South Florida, out to Dallas in the heart of the Southwest and up to the Northern California, where Stanford and Cal reside. Notre Dame is currently the westernmost ACC school in South Bend, Indiana, with Louisville the farthest west among football members.
The ACC becomes the fourth league, along with the Southeastern Conference, Big Ten and Big 12, to have at least 16 football-playing members.
Stanford said it expects 22 of its 36 sports to have either no or minimal scheduling changes.
“The ACC is really interested in using Dallas as a place where teams may come together to minimize the travel,” Cal Chancellor Carol Christ told reporters.
The move seems to signal an end to this wave of realignment among the nation’s wealthiest and most powerful conferences after three years of turbulent movement that has whittled the so-called Power Five down to four.
For the Bay Area schools, it was a marriage of desperation after the Pac-12 was picked apart by the Big Ten and Big 12.
For the ACC, adding three schools will increase media rights revenue from its long-term deal with ESPN and allow the conference to spread much of that new money to existing members.
New conference members typically — though not always — forgo a full share of revenue for several years upon entry. Cal said it will not receive a full share for the next nine years.
The ACC has been generating record revenue hauls, yet is trailing the Big Ten and Southeastern conferences and staring at an even greater gap as those leagues have new TV deals kick in. The ACC’s deal runs through 2036.
The ACC reported nearly $617 million in total revenue for the 2021-22 season, according to tax documents. That included distributing an average of $39.4 million to full members, with Notre Dame receiving a partial share (roughly $17.4 million) as a football independent.
Yet the Big Ten reported $845.6 million in total revenue (an average of $58 million in school distributions) and the SEC reported about $802 million in revenue ($49.9 million per school) for that same time period.
The ACC outgained the Big 12 (by roughly $136 million) in total revenue for third among the Power Five that season, though Big 12 schools received more money per school (roughly $43.6 million) with the league having just 10 members.
The sticking point on expansion, which the ACC has been weighing for more than three weeks, has been how much of the new money from ESPN for three more members will go into the new performance-bonus pool and how much would be shared equally among existing members.
Clemson, Florida State, North Carolina and North Carolina State had been opposed to expansion when the conference presidents chose not to vote three weeks ago on adding the three schools. It was not immediately clear which schools changed positions on Friday.
As late as Thursday night, two North Carolina trustees released a statement saying they were opposed to the ACC’s expansion plan.
Stanford and Cal will be the ninth and 10th schools to inform the Pac-12 that this will be their last sports seasons in the self-described Conference of Champions.
“Conference affiliations and the broadcast revenue they generate provide key financial support for the wide array of sports that Stanford offers. Joining the ACC will ensure the Power Conference competitive infrastructure and long-term media revenues that are critical for our student-athletes to compete,” Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir said in a statement.
The Big Ten lured away Oregon and Washington earlier this month. That came a little more than a year after Southern California and UCLA announced they were leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten in 2024. The Big 12 has poached four Pac-12 schools for next year: Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah.
The Pac-12 will now be down to Oregon State and Washington State.
Officials at both Pacific Northwest schools have said their desired path forward is to rebuild the Pac-12, but without Stanford and Cal that becomes even more complicated. Joining the Mountain West becomes more likely.
American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco released a statement saying the AAC would no longer be pursuing expansion with Oregon State and Washington.
Stanford and Cal have athletic programs with rich histories of producing Olympians, all-stars and hall of famers, including Super Bowl-winning quarterback John Elway and swimmer Katie Ledecky from Stanford and NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers and swimmer Missy Franklin from Cal.
The Cardinal won the women’s NCAA basketball tournament 2021 and last year earned for the 26th time the Directors’ Cup, which measures overall athletic department success.
Success has been harder to come by in football lately for the Big Game rivals.
After a decade that included three Pac-12 championships and six double-digit victory seasons under coaches Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw, Stanford is just 14-28 the last four years and now have a new coach in Troy Taylor.
Cal has been mired in mediocrity — and athletic department debt — since not long after Rodgers was drafted by the Green Bay Packers 2005. The Bears have just three winning football seasons since 2010.
For SMU, the ACC is a return to major conference football for the first time since the program infamously was shuttered by the NCAA as part of sanctions for paying players back in the early 1980s.
While the schools are a long way from their new conference mates, they do have some similarities to smaller private schools such as Duke, Wake Forest and Boston College, along with flagship state schools such as North Carolina and Virginia, that make up the ACC.