Everything you need to know about the state of the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2015—and how it has changed now that revenues trump all other concerns—will be broadcast live this week from the Greensboro Coliseum. That's where 14 teams will play the last ACC Tournament in North Carolina, the state where it began, for the next four years.
Calling it the ACC Tournament is no longer adequate. For more than six decades, there was something soothing about the event's lack of financially motivated appellative artifice. While other conferences threw themselves at commercial title sponsors, the ACC Tournament remained a brand without adornment or pretense, a name that spoke for itself.
Not anymore: The league's signature men's basketball event is now called the New York Life ACC Tournament. If you're looking for a link between the Manhattan-based financial giant and the once-Southern sports conference, its headquarters sit at the site of the first two iterations of Madison Square Garden; Duke often plays in the current version, and Mike Krzyzewski won his 1,000th game there in January. That's a stretch, of course, but the conference didn't choose who bought the naming privileges, anyway. The decision was determined by ESPN, which holds the league's TV rights.
Sporting events make great TV inventory. They're best seen live, when it's tough for viewers to avoid commercials. Sports draw, too; this year's inaugural college football championship game between Ohio State and Oregon boasted similar ratings to the Academy Awards. In turn, the NCAA and networks now conspire to package, pace and produce games so they're TV shows just as much as athletic competitions, mere steps away from looking like reality shows. Forget the continuous action that was so refreshing during last summer's soccer World Cup. America's favorite sports are finely dissected, their natural flow stifled to make room for requisite commercial breaks.
Television shapes most every aspect of how we experience college sports, from what times and on what dates games are played to the pairing of teams in order to drive ratings. Consider, for instance, that North Carolina and Duke first met this year not at the season's midpoint but after 12 of 18 ACC games. The highly rated contest needed to fit within an advantageous window of ESPN's schedule. Television no longer just changes the way we watch sports; it has changed the sports themselves.
Today's ACC and its season-ending tournament are facsimiles of the original article. As recently as 1990, the tournament consisted of seven games spread over three days, including Saturday and Sunday. From 1992 through 2004, eight games stretched to four days, including the weekend. After two major expansions, the 2015 edition will include 13 games played between Tuesday and Saturday. That's a glut by most standards. Watching the tournament on television now requires a tremendous amount of time and a high tolerance for commercials. Attending it seems an impossible strain for all but retirees, the wealthy or both.
Yet here we are, after the death of Dean Smith and after Michael Jordan has become a billionaire, trying to get excited about the excellent basketball that the ACC Tournament can still muster. As it goes in money-besotted, big-time college sports, so it goes in the ACC.
In its early days, the ACC took heat for having a postseason tournament, which may be difficult to believe now that every major conference except the Ivy League has followed suit. Consider that the Big Ten only launched its tournament in 1998. The format came from the Southern Conference, from which the ACC sprang. The sprawling Southern included 17 members, so many teams that they didn't all face each other during the regular season. To select a champion, the conference used a postseason tournament, a one-and-done test of prowess.
When the breakaway ACC formed for the 1953–54 school year, it did so in order to guarantee its football teams would play each other once every year and its basketball teams twice, alternating home courts. Competitive balance and a like-minded commitment to academic excellence served as cornerstones of the conference.
So long as this mold remained, several qualities distinguished the ACC: the geographical proximity of its members, the quality of its basketball, the intensity of its rivalries, the familiarity of its participants. All of those strands intertwined at the ACC Tournament, a fiscal fillip that came to define the league.
The ACC's recent choices, however, would have confounded conference founders. The round-robin is now dead in basketball. For instance, Duke often plays N.C. State only once during the regular season. The new ACC includes almost as many teams as the old Southern Conference and places a higher emphasis on athletic resources than academic prowess, as exemplified by Louisville's recent addition to fill the void left by co-founding member Maryland, which defected to the Big Ten.
The recent spate of conference expansions and realignments was intended less to associate like-minded institutions than to build TV markets. That's how the ACC came to add Notre Dame (in all sports except football and hockey), Pittsburgh and Syracuse in 2014. The sasquatch-like footprint of the ACC improbably stretches from western Kentucky to New England, through the mid-Atlantic and deep into Florida.
Of the current 15 members, more come from the old Big East than the ACC's founding schools. Within that context, traditions are commodities, not defining qualities worthy of preservation. Traits and relationships venerated by longtime ACC fans are foreign to those late arrivals, just as the "ACC legends" that new members parade out at the tournament are largely unknown to longtime conference adherents.
Football drives approximately 80 percent of collegiate TV revenues, meaning that the sport's interests are paramount to many leagues. Because early efforts to establish the ACC as a football conference were in vain, most expansions over the years aimed to improve the conference's stature in the sport—Georgia Tech in 1980, Florida State in 1992, Miami and Virginia Tech in 2005 and Boston College in 2006. The mid-'00s expansion happened, in part, to gain enough teams to qualify to host a lucrative league championship game.
Instead, these moves helped to stoke an absurd athletic arms race that shows no signs of stopping. Football and basketball coaches command multimillion-dollar annual salaries, plus incentives. John Swofford, the ACC commissioner, earns a similarly munificent sum. Schools engage in constant one-upmanship with pricey capital improvements, like expanding stadia, indoor practice facilities and "academic excellence centers" that provide tutoring, training, meeting, snacking, practicing and studying under one roof. These hubs only isolate the very athletes touted as exemplars of the student body to which they do (or do not, as it were) belong.
This state of affairs is not peculiar to the ACC, as it's shared by all five "power conferences" that shape college athletics. Soon to be coupled with begrudging payments to players, these fixations have simply grown with the revenues driven by television.
What started as a way to raise money, then, has become almost an end in itself.
The need for funding to sustain league operations led the new ACC to create its own basketball tournament. Most league coaches complained. If money was the objective, Maryland coach Bud Millikan suggested, simply start a Christmas tournament.
Only the winner of the ACC Tournament, the official league champion, could advance to the NCAA Tournament, thanks to a nationwide rule. N.C. State coach Everett Case, whose teams won nine titles in the Southern Conference and ACC between 1947 and 1956, served as an understandably vocal advocate for the system.
A pair of Tar Heel coaches, however, became its most ardent detractors. Frank McGuire flatly declared, "The tournament is ridiculous." His successor at Chapel Hill, Dean Smith, was similarly critical, even after the NCAA began taking multiple entrants from the same league in 1975.
"To me, there's no way you could say that the best team was the one that won a three-day tournament instead of proving itself over an extended regular season," said Smith. "It would be analogous to having a one-set U.S. Open tennis tournament, or a one-game NBA playoff. "
Arguments over the ACC Tournament's competitive wisdom endured, but doubts about its revenue-generating capability didn't. By 1965, the ACC Tournament was sold-out every year. The event remained a tough ticket for more than four decades.
Because each school received a pre-allocated number of tickets, the desire to attend even drove booster club contributions. When Georgia Tech and Florida State entered the league, supporters of other schools joined their booster clubs in order to pay lower entry fees to qualify for ACC Tournament tickets. Fans without connections or much cash, meanwhile, tried creative means to scam their way inside. The late Marvin "Skeeter" Francis, the tournament manager for more than 20 years, remembered "the telephone guy," a character who tried to sneak in wearing a leather work belt loaded with heavy tools. He also intercepted a bogus pizza-delivery person and a pretend priest, his shirt turned backward to simulate a clerical collar.
The tournament's do-or-die nature supplied much of its early intensity. To see how the season-long drama turned out, an entire region ground to a near-halt while the competition unfolded. Schools and workplaces began piping game broadcasts over public-address systems; unwieldy TV sets popped up to interrupt the business at hand. Newspapers gushed coverage.
That period led to some of the most iconic moments in conference history, even that of college basketball: The unsung Larry Worsley coming off the bench to lead N.C. State to the 1965 championship, with a dying Case lifted by players to cut the last strand of net. Charles Scott scoring 40 points in the final to rally the Tar Heels against Duke in 1970 at the dawn of full racial integration. Two great teams—Maryland and an N.C. State squad led by the ACC's best player ever, David Thompson—battling into overtime in 1974 before the Wolfpack emerged victorious and went on to an NCAA championship.
As it happened, that was the last season only one conference team could advance to the NCAA tournament. Still, fans were addicted to the year-end excitement, and the tournament rolled ahead.
During Smith's 36-year tenure at UNC, his Tar Heels finished first during the ACC regular season 17 times and won 13 ACC Tournament titles.
"Over the summer, when coaches are watching tapes, they're watching Carolina tapes. That's the game they want to get ready for," the Hall of Fame coach, who died last month, said in 1987.
He was being realistic, not immodest. Smith's basketball program became a standard of measure that truly elevated the entire conference, helping it become the college game's best by the mid-'80s. That shine benefited the ACC Tournament, which continued to grow with the game at large.
Venues outside North Carolina soon vied to become host sites. For 13 years, the tournament was held exclusively at N.C. State's 12,400-seat Reynolds Coliseum. Since then, non-campus arenas at Charlotte and Greensboro—the latter the conference's headquarters city—have hosted the ACC Tournament 38 times. To placate other conference members, the event began to stray in the mid-'70s: to Washington, D.C., and its suburbs, to Atlanta, even to Tampa, Florida. After a year's absence, it always returned to North Carolina
If the ACC long seemed North Carolina-centric, it was. For much of the league's history, Duke, UNC, N.C. State and Wake Forest dominated on the court and represented the most potent, even controlling, voting bloc. The tournament was always in some Piedmont backyard.
But those days are over. In keeping with a shifting paradigm, the tournament is about to go away from its roots for an unprecedented three years in a row. First, it will be staged in Washington, D.C. in 2016, as if to recapture interest lost when Maryland bolted for the Big Ten. Then it's on to Brooklyn's Barclays Center in 2017 and 2018. Madison Square Garden was already taken, but at least the New York media can't help but take notice. The tournament comes back to Greensboro, at last, in 2020.
This is a new ACC, where the money and attention once needed simply to survive have taken the conference in an uncomfortable direction. Perhaps that truth helps explain the dissatisfaction with present arrangements.
- Illustration by Skillet Gilmore
This year Syracuse won't be participating in the tournament, choosing to sit out voluntarily in anticipation of the second probation of coach Jim Boeheim's tenure, handed down late last week. (That penalty included the forfeiture of more than 100 victories for Boeheim, the loss of 12 scholarships and financial fines.) You have to love the irony: The sole New York member of the super-sized ACC will miss the first of three ACC Tournaments hosted by New York Life.
Despite league woes, the ACC Tournament still manages to be a lot of fun. The ACC continues to attract many of the college game's top players, if only for a year. A handsome sampling of the nation's premier basketball teams form and circulate here, too. Many of the coaches are some of the best. With home-and-home encounters during the regular season the exception rather than the rule, the tournament has regained its Southern Conference role as the league's only level competitive ground. More compelling, an all-or-nothing quality remains for the majority of conference members who must either win the ACC's automatic bid, or come close, to have a chance at getting into the NCAA Tournament. The ancient rivalries also endure, even in modified form.
We are left, then, to go on as before or to act on our sense of betrayal and loss and turn our backs on this new ACC, a league whose character has been compromised by the need to survive in a changing competitive environment.
Or we could withdraw a step emotionally and heed the advice of many a coach: Take fortune's blow in stride, and go on to the next play.
For more ACC history, check out Lisa Sorg's review of Scott Ellsworth's new book, The Secret Game.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Atlantic Cash Conference."