Could North Carolina Crumble the ACC? What’s Next for the Tar Heels and the Conference?

    Will North Carolina leave the ACC? Financial concerns have rumors flying, but how feasible is it, and what would it mean for the conference?

    The 2024 season is the year of conference realignment — but more moves could be coming. Incumbent ACC members voiced their monetary concerns, and the conference responded by adding Cal and Stanford from the fractured Pac-12 and SMU from the AAC. The moves should increase revenue and tap into the West Coast media market, appeasing the top programs.

    However, recent events point to one school teetering closer to an exit from the ACC: North Carolina. What would that mean for the future of the Tar Heels and the conference?

    Latest North Carolina Football News Out of Chapel Hill

    Let’s begin with the facts. On Monday, the UNC Board of Trustees approved an audit of the school’s athletic department and demanded a discussion with AD Bubba Cunningham following questions about revenue and its management.

    According to trustee Jen Evans, the department submitted a preliminary budget proposal with a $17 million deficit for the 2024-25 academic year and $100 million in cumulative deficits moving forward.

    “With no plans to address that, to mitigate that. I don’t want anyone to think we’re talking in code,” Evans said. “There are real issues here, a real concern that one of the most valuable assets and something that really generates revenue is not being managed properly. That is the need for the question and answer, and that is the need for the audit.”

    Chairman John Preyer said that the trustees may not understand the “level of bad data that has been provided” and that it is on the board to get it right. Trustee Ralph Meekins also defended the department, explaining that the deficits were forecast during COVID because the school did not cut athletic programs.

    Across Cunningham’s 13 years as AD, North Carolina has won over 20 national titles and sustained success in multiple sports, namely men’s basketball and football and women’s soccer. However, in 2023, UNC had $139.3 million in total operating revenues and $139 in total operating expenses.

    Universities, like any business, are no strangers to budgeting and cost-cutting to maximize success, but most of the outcome comes down to one factor: revenue. Knowing this, trustee Dave Boliek said what everyone else was thinking: “A lot of it is due to the revenue — or lack thereof — of revenue that we’re not receiving from the ACC deal.”

    So, what’s next?

    The Tar Heels’ Future Is Uncertain

    Currently, the ACC distributes roughly $40 million per school, while the SEC and Big Ten are projected to deliver up to $70 million to their programs in the coming years. Plus, the new “Power Two” is scheduled to earn more money than the ACC in each year of the new College Football playoff.

    One solution for UNC? Leave the conference for one of those two leagues, or even the Big 12, whose recent additions (Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah) could propel the annual revenue above $50 million.

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    That’s the avenue Boliek is advocating for this offseason.

    “That’s what we need to do. We need to do everything we can to get there. Or the alternative is the ACC is going to have to reconstruct itself. I think all options are on the table.”

    Last summer, the SEC announced it was not looking to bring in any more teams following the acquisitions of Texas and Oklahoma, which brought the roster to 16 programs. However, with the Big Ten sitting at 18 teams and making no such announcement, the two could endure a conference realignment bidding war in the near future, especially if UNC and other programs continue their push for an exit from the conference.

    Yet, as ESPN’s David Hale reported, there is not widespread support on the board for the Tar Heels to draw up a lawsuit to exit the ACC, and conference commissioner Jim Phillips said the lawsuit talk is “campus politics” and hasn’t heard anything about a potential UNC departure.

    What’s Next for the ACC?

    Florida State and Clemson have already sued the ACC, aiming to lessen their fees and penalties for leaving the conference. Outside of UNC, Miami could be another blueblood program seeking to do the same, though the Hurricanes have backed the ACC and have said they do not plan on leaving.

    At conference meetings yesterday, FSU AD Michael Alford discussed if the relationship between the school and the conference could be salvaged.

    “We’ll just wait for that to play out. We have great partners in this conference, great relationships. But at the end of the day, we’ve got to do what’s best for Florida State and look at the changing environment of collegiate athletics and make sure we’re there to be successful.”

    Last offseason, reports surfaced that seven schools explored possible exits from the ACC  before the league’s media deal with ESPN, which runs until 2036, expires.

    The result was that Clemson and Florida State took the conference to court, claiming that the exit fees were “unconscionably high” and that the grant of rights only applied if the schools were part of the conference. This means that if they exit the league, they should retain control of their media rights to their home sporting events.

    Much of what happens next will come down to the result of those court cases — if they favor the two top-tier programs, they’ll likely make swift exits. In response, the ACC would presumably aim to their vacated spots with teams from other conferences.

    Oregon State and Washington State are the only two teams remaining in the Pac-12 and would be the obvious choices to begin with. After that, it would be difficult to poach schools from the other three Power Five conferences, so another dip into the Group of Five seems plausible.

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    Programs such as San Diego State, Tulane, Memphis, Boise State, UTSA, and USF could draw attention, but it would be a volume play as no one or two schools to make up for the losses of Clemson, Florida State, and possibly North Carolina and/or Miami.

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