Stanford and Cal join the ACC: The challenges of a choice the Bears and Cardinal had to make

The Bay Area schools signed up to remain in a Power Four conference, but at what cost?

It’s official: Stanford and Cal have accepted invitations to compete in all Atlantic Coast Conference sports beginning next summer, from football and basketball to soccer, swimming, and softball.

Although life in the ACC was a priority for the schools following the demise of the Pac-12, the Cardinal and Bears will face significant logistical challenges and have made contractual commitments that could come back to haunt them.

“I question whether this is a good move for Stanford and Cal,” a source in the industry said. “But they believe it’s the right thing to do.”

It appears that the schools successfully bargained for membership in the ACC’s Faustian division.

The primary reason for joining the ACC poses the most difficult challenge: each school’s athletes told university leaders that they wanted the opportunity to compete at the highest level of college sports.

Logistically, the Big Ten and Big 12 made more sense, but neither offered membership, and the SEC was never an option. Only the ACC provided a life raft among the Power Five conferences.

“We are very pleased with the outcome, which will support the best interests of our student-athletes and aligns with Berkeley’s values,” said Cal chancellor Carol Christ.

Given the Bay Area schools’ large and powerful alumni bases on the East Coast, the move makes sense. The ACC’s footprint stretches from Boston to Miami and includes a number of prestigious academic institutions, including Virginia, Duke, North Carolina, Notre Dame, and Georgia Tech.

“ACC membership aligns Stanford with a conference of leading peer institutions who share a deep history of athletic success and a commitment to the pursuit of academic excellence,” said Jerry Yang, chair of the Stanford Board of Trustees. “We appreciate the ACC member schools’ invitation and are excited to join them.”

Stanford and UC Berkeley aren’t the only newcomers. SMU, based in Dallas, has agreed to join the ACC in order to form an 18-team league. (With the exception of football, Notre Dame competes in all sports.)

The presence of SMU may allow the conference to schedule neutral-site games, reducing travel demands for teams on both coasts.

According to Stanford, “either no scheduling changes or minimal scheduling impacts” will be experienced by more than half of its sports (22 of its 36).

However, the travel impact on the others could be severe. Multiple trips to the East Coast for conference competition in men’s and women’s basketball, for example, are simply unavoidable.

Stanford and Cal competing in the ACC makes even less sense logistically than USC and UCLA competing in the Big Ten.

Furthermore, the Bay Area schools are contractually obligated to the ACC until the end of the conference’s grant-of-rights agreement with ESPN in 2036. In the rapidly changing landscape of college sports, that’s an eternity.

Yes, the long-term contract provides the Cardinals and Bears with stability. It also removes them from the market.

If another round of realignment occurs at the end of the 2020s and the Big Ten decides to expand its western arm, Stanford and Cal will be unable to join USC, UCLA, Oregon, and Washington.

“Do you really want to commit to 12 or 13 years?” a source in the industry asked. “There are two or three generations of students here.” You might squander an opportunity.”

Furthermore, Stanford and Cal are under contract with the ACC until 2036 at a reduced rate. They have agreed to share a portion of the revenue generated by the conference’s media rights agreement with ESPN.

Cal provided financial details in its official statement about the move:

“The university will receive a full share of all revenues, including media revenue, while contributing a portion of its media revenue back to the conference and its current member institutions to support and strengthen them.” UC Berkeley’s membership contribution will gradually decrease until the tenth year, when it will begin to retain 100% of its media revenue share. The fact that annual revenue will rise over time was a key consideration in the agreement.”

(Stanford’s deal is expected to be similar, if not identical.)

What does it mean in terms of raw dollars? The contract is not public, but the Bears and Cardinals could receive $10 million to $12 million less per year on average than the current ACC schools over the course of the contract.

This could result in a significant competitive disadvantage when it comes to critical resources such as recruiting budgets and coaching staff salary pools.

Stanford will seek assistance from the university’s administration as well as its wealthy donor base.

Cal could get help from the UC regents, who have the authority to levy a so-called Berkeley tax on UCLA, in which the Bruins would use some of their Big Ten membership revenue to support Cal.

Will the Bears be able to raise enough funds to support all of their Olympic sports? Central campus already contributes more than $20 million per year to the athletic department.

“While I understand that this is probably the deal they have to do,” a source with ties to Bay Area schools said, “I have zero excitement about it.”

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