In a move that was as swift as it was stunning, the Atlantic Coast Conference introduced Syracuse and Pittsburgh as conference members Sunday morning. Citing the desire for more long-term financial stability, the two universities departed the Big East to make the A.C.C. the country’s first major conference with 14 football teams.
Before they join the A.C.C., Syracuse and Pittsburgh are contractually obligated to wait more than two years and pay a $5 million exit fee. But they could negotiate an earlier exit.
Perhaps more important for the delicate conference landscape in college sports, the move could be a harbinger of more moves around the country. Texas A&M is awaiting legal clearance to join the Southeastern Conference, and Oklahoma and Texas’ boards of regents are scheduled to meet Monday to discuss a move to the Pacific-12. There has been enough chaos that it could raise the interest of Congress this week.
“In all my years of collegiate administration, I’ve never seen this level of uncertainty and potential fluidity among schools and conferences,” said A.C.C. Commissioner John Swofford, who said more than 10 colleges inquired about joining his conference. “Schools are looking for stability. When that stability doesn’t exist, as long as that’s going on, I think that the conferences that appear to be stable moving forward are going to receive inquiries from schools that desire that kind of stability.”
The move leaves the Big East scrambling — much as in 2003, when Boston College, Virginia Tech and Miami decided to leave for the A.C.C. As the league attempts to regroup again, probably by collaborating with universities from the Big 12, league officials say they are not pleased that Swofford has discussed holding the A.C.C. basketball tournament at Madison Square Garden. The Big East has played there since 1983 and has a contract with the Garden through 2016. A Garden spokesman did not comment on the possibility of the A.C.C. tournament’s being played there.
The Big East is expected to retain its automatic bid to a Bowl Championship Series game through the 2013 season.
This move by Pittsburgh and Syracuse, like others around the conference landscape, was driven by the money that comes from televising football games. The administrators at the A.C.C., Pittsburgh and Syracuse issued statements discussing academics, geographic footprints and peer institutions, but the decision came down to more money in a more stable environment. (The A.C.C. presidents also agreed to increase the league’s exit fee to approximately $20 million.)
Big East officials will open negotiations for television rights in September 2012, and they had been optimistic that new deals would be richer than the A.C.C.’s, which is worth $155 million annually. That possibility is now remote. Swofford said that the addition of the two universities would allow the A.C.C. to renegotiate its contract with ESPN.
“We’re confident that it will have a positive impact,” Swofford said of the addition of Pittsburgh and Syracuse.
Swofford said he was comfortable with the size of the league but not averse to change. Two universities that are interested in joining the A.C.C. are Connecticut and Rutgers, with UConn making much more of an effort to be invited. Swofford declined to answer a question specifically about Rutgers, but did say that further expansion was an option.
“We are not philosophically opposed to 16,” Swofford said.
The A.C.C. has spoken with Texas, one of the biggest prizes remaining in the conference landscape, but Swofford’s comments hinted that the conference’s philosophies would not mesh with Texas and its Longhorn Network. He declined to comment specifically on Texas, but did say that it could not get more money than its peers in the A.C.C., as it does in the Big 12.
“Equal revenue-sharing is sacred,” Swofford said. “That’s been a very important, fundamental part of this league since the early 1980s. I do not see that changing.”
Swofford said the additions of Syracuse and Pittsburgh came after assessing the shifting college-sports landscape, not specifically the threat of a current A.C.C. university leaving for the SEC.