The phone rings. It is an unfamiliar number.
“Hello,” a voice comes from the other end, “this is Condoleezza Rice.”
The phone rings again, also flashing an unfamiliar number.
“Hello,” the voice says from the other end, “this is George W. Bush.”
Powerful figures connected to Stanford — as well as SMU — are on a campaign to encourage leaders within the ACC to rethink their position on acquiring the two schools, as well as Cal. Both of those figures, Rice and Bush, have communicated with conference officials in pursuit of a membership invitation for the schools in which they are vested, multiple sources tell Yahoo Sports.
Rice, the former U.S. secretary of state, is a Stanford professor who serves as director of the school’s Hoover Institute, a public policy think tank and research institute. Bush’s wife, Laura, attended SMU and his presidential library is located on the school’s campus.
It is not unusual for influential members of a university to embark on such lobbying efforts. But their campaign is another interesting wrinkle in the wave of college realignment washing across the country, the most impactful version in modern history — a monsoon that’s washed away a power conference and put in motion a cascade of other changes.
At its center currently is the ongoing saga of ACC expansion, where officials continue to discuss the possibility of adding Stanford, Cal and SMU. In a straw poll of presidents last week, an expansion vote fell at least one vote short of passing. In needing 12 of 15 votes for approval (Notre Dame receives a vote) there were four dissenters: Florida State, Clemson, North Carolina and NC State.
The expansion vote is another concept dividing a conference that is fracturing under the weight of money — itself a microcosm of college sports, where the biggest football (and basketball) brands are consolidating to increase their own value and keep their own profits.
While the ACC expansion decision features other aspects, a future revenue distribution model is at the heart of the issue. Yahoo Sports explored the positives and negatives of expanding to add the three — or just the two — in a story last week.
Will the lobbying efforts of powerful political figures change minds and alter votes?
The door to expansion remains cracked open and discussions have continued into this week. However, another vote isn’t scheduled and a decision isn’t imminent.
From Stanford’s perspective, there is urgency. The Cardinal has no home starting next July. To make matters more urgent, its decision is impacting the remaining Pac-12 schools, as Yahoo Sports detailed Friday.
“The clock is ticking,” says one administrator.
“Stanford is the domino,” says another. “We’re all waiting on Stanford.”
Follow the money
Stanford holds the country’s fourth-largest endowment: $36.3 billion.
Could it afford to enter a conference for free and forgo any league distribution? Sure. Will it? In conversations with Big Ten and ACC officials, that prospect has been discussed. Such a move would change the calculus in the single most important piece of the ACC’s expansion decision: money.
The ACC’s television contract with ESPN includes a pro-rata clause requiring the network to increase the value of the deal by one share for every new member. However, ESPN is only required, or is only willing, to give its base share and not the share tied to the ACC Network.
Each additional expansion share is believed to be about $20 million to $25 million — roughly 70% of the full share that current members receive.
With deep-pocketed boosters and a hungry desire to join a power conference, SMU officials are prepared to forgo a share for as many as its first seven years in the league. Stanford may be willing to do the same or take a significantly reduced share. Cal, on the other hand, is owner of the country’s biggest athletic department debt, roughly $450 million. The Bears, it would seem, can’t join for free.
If at the very least the ACC receives $60 million in new money from three newcomers and Cal is the only program taking a share, where does the rest of the money go? In theory, a portion of it is distributed across the conference to offset travel costs.
But the bigger question: What happens to the rest? That number could be in excess of $25 million.
Either way, this is new money coming into the league. It’s good news for a conference that’s spent the past year working to find additional revenue. ACC schools are handcuffed for another 13 years as part of a binding agreement tied to an ESPN contract that pays league members only a portion of Big Ten and SEC TV cash — a growing gap that has sparked unrest among the conference’s biggest brands. You’ll remember that seven ACC schools were involved this spring in an organized effort to explore an exit path from the conference, such as dissolving the league entirely.
Disgruntled league members are still disgruntled. The additional cash from expansion, and how that cash is distributed, is at the center of the debate.
“That is the issue,” says one administrator. “There is not a clear plan for that.”
The obvious answer is to distribute the additional revenue evenly across the conference. And while many schools in the league are in support of such a move, the conference’s biggest brands are not, most notably Florida State and Clemson.
Both schools have been vocal about the ACC’s fiscal situation, to the point that the league approved a new revenue distribution model in the spring. Instead of evenly splitting revenue from the College Football Playoff and NCAA men's basketball tournament, such money will be distributed based on a school’s athletic success.
But that is one small portion of conference revenue. The largest portion — that from the television deal — will continue to be spread evenly among schools. In two board meetings over the past eight months, Florida State officials have made clear that they believe a change to the distribution model should go further: TV revenue should be split unevenly, too.
“They want more performance-based distribution, such as creating a pool of money to be distributed to teams with games that have higher TV viewership or put more money into the success-incentive pool,” says one ACC official.
An important note: All of this is contingent on ESPN increasing its payout to the ACC for expansion members. While that is a contractual obligation (as mentioned), it’s unclear exactly how willing the network is. After all, ESPN has been selective lately given the dip in linear subscribers and influx in streaming.
There are other matters preventing the ACC’s expansion decision. For instance, travel, not just its cost but its toll on players, coaches and fans. Seven of the ACC’s 14 full members are less than 200 miles from one another. The Bay Area is at least 2,000 miles for most ACC schools.
The waiting game
Oregon State and Washington State have hired a familiar name as a consultant.
Oliver Luck, the former West Virginia athletic director and NCAA executive, is working with the two schools to coordinate their next moves. The obvious options are somewhat limited:
1) Join the Mountain West.
2) Join the American Athletic Conference.
3) Merge with the Mountain West in an attempt to keep the Pac-12 brand.
4) Rebuild the Pac-12.
Stanford is necessary for options Nos. 4 and maybe 3.
The Cougars and Beavers are delaying any decision of their own until Stanford’s path is clear, but they can’t wait too long. “It’s a matter of days, not weeks,” says one person.
All four remaining Pac-12 teams have six games scheduled next season. In 11 months, the schools have no home. There is urgency.
Stanford has its own set of pathways that don’t involve Oregon State and Washington State. If ACC membership ultimately fails, the Cardinal may choose to turn to independence, at least in football, while parking their Olympic sports — the most successful such group in NCAA history — in another conference.
Or, the school could help rebuild the Pac-12, a task fraught with issues. Few believe the school is seriously considering joining the Mountain West.
Another issue lingering over Stanford is leadership instability. School president Marc Tessier-Lavigne announced his resignation after an independent review of his research found significant flaws in studies he supervised. Its provost, Persis Drell, is on her way out as well.
All of that said, the school has a few folks in its corner. One includes the former U.S. secretary of state.
“Hell,” says one conference executive, “if I had Condi Rice in my camp, I’d use her too.”