As many of you know, I was born and raised in Pittsburgh and grew up on Eastern basketball.
My buddies and I would hop down to the old Civic Arena on the 41B to watch the Eastern Eight tournament and get excited for doubleheaders featuring West Virginia versus Duquesne followed by Pitt versus Penn State. (Note: 41B is the bus that goes from Mt. Lebanon all the way downtown. You “Yinzers” already knew that.)
Pitt moved to the Big East in 1982, and those early years of that new league were really special for us hoops junkies. Before then, it was an awesome experience, especially when you’re 16 years old, and not much has changed in that regard.
My uncle and my best friend’s dad were both Golden Panthers, so I got tickets to see Pitt football with Danny Marino and Hugh Green just about each week, too. There were many Saturday mornings spent walking up “Cardiac Hill” in Oakland.
And you all probably know I attended Syracuse. I was at the Carrier Dome the night Pearl Washington’s halfcourt shot beat Gary Williams’ Boston College team. I was at Madison Square Garden the night Michael Graham punched Andre Hawkins. I had the chance to learn about hoops and interview the greats like Rollie Massimino [former Villanova head coach], Louis Carnesecca [former St. John’s head coach], and Jim Boeheim [Syracuse head coach].
The opening few paragraphs of this story serve as a disclaimer of sorts so that you know where I’m coming from when I say the following:
Moving to the ACC will be the best thing that’s ever happened to University of Pittsburgh and Syracuse University athletics.
It’s also one of the best things that has ever happened for the Atlantic Coast Conference.
To understand, don’t look at the short term. Don’t make a snap judgment based simply on the current landscape. Step back and look at the big picture of a school’s tradition, and look at the makeup of the East Coast, its massive population, and the growing importance of football.
Being a traditionalist, I long for the days of eight or nine-team conferences, full round-robin play, and rivalries based on geography. Who wouldn’t?
But there is evolution in sports and sacrifices to moving forward. In 1982, Pitt left behind its big rivals – Penn State, WVU and Duquesne – to join the Big East. That might have seemed like a quizzical move at the time, but looking back, it was the right decision.
This a home run for the ACC, especially in football, and here’s why:
By adding Pitt and Syracuse, the ACC now has the opportunity to renegotiate its television rights deal with ESPN. The current 12-year, $1.86 billion deal, which actually just went into effect this season, was signed in May of 2010. But subsequent rights deals signed by other conferences, notably the Pac-12 and the Big 12, offer substantially greater revenue for the institutions in those two leagues.
The current ACC contract with ESPN includes a “composition clause” that allows either the ACC or ESPN to renegotiate the deal if the conference’s membership increases (or decreases) by at least two schools. Thus, by adding Pitt and Syracuse, the ACC can automatically open negotiations and re-do its current contract, which is worth about $155 million per year. That was a blockbuster in May of 2010, but well below the subsequent deals for the Pac-12 and Big 12. The ACC can’t openly bid its rights to Fox or any other network, but will work with ESPN to increase the current deal, which currently nets each ACC school about $13 million per season.
By comparison, Pac-12 and Big 12 schools are receiving roughly $21 million and SEC schools are getting roughly $17 million per year. The one way for the ACC to trigger a contract renegotiation just three weeks into its new deal? Expand by two teams.
Pittsburgh and Syracuse are two of the most storied programs on the East Coast. Each team has won a national championship. Each team has a Heisman Trophy in its lobby. Some of the greatest names in the sport – Marino, Green, Tony Dorsett, Jim Brown, Floyd Little, Ernie Davis, Mike Ditka and dozens of others have played for these schools. Other than Penn State, Syracuse and Pitt have been the most successful Eastern football schools over the past 50 years.
During those 50 years, had Pitt and Syracuse had the resources – that means money – of Penn State, they’d had have a shot to be just as successful. Now, they will have that shot.
They’ll have the revenue, the exposure and the chance to build on a solid base like their neighbor in State College has had over the years. That’s the “big picture” to look at when you consider Pitt and Syracuse from the football side because they’ve been somewhat handcuffed.
Because of its hybrid nature, the Big East has been unable to sustain league-wide football excellence. It could work over the short term, and did, thanks to the remarkable Mike Tranghese, one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. He served three constituencies: the football schools, the basketball schools and Notre Dame. Remarkably, he made it work. But that model wasn’t going to work forever.
While the Big East was building the best basketball league in the country (a record 11 Big East teams made the NCAA Tournament this past year), other conferences (including the ACC, which added Florida State in 1991) were growing their football base. The revenue, the power and the television were all based on football. Plus, and this is critical, those other leagues thrived based on a model of complete revenue sharing, conference-wide collaboration and full membership of like-minded institutions.
Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College jumped to the ACC and now Pitt and Syracuse have followed because those schools all knew that, over the long term, over the next 20 to 50 years, the ACC was the best place to be. Stability was the word used over and over by the Pitt and Syracuse administrators over the past week when asked about this move. Now for the first time given the financial resources that they’ve never had before, both Pitt and Syracuse have a chance to become major players on the national scene in football again.
There’s a new ACC that covers the entire East Coast of the USA, and that’s something new. The possibilities here for financial, athletics and academic success at these member schools are about to grow exponentially. That’s why this is a home run for the league’s current members and for Pitt and SU.
This move ensured long-term stability for the ACC and will have a significant financial return for Virginia Tech and each ACC member institution.
It’s a new day for college sports in the most populous region of our country.
And if you’re a fan, coach, player or administrator of one of the 14 schools with a seat on this first-class bus, get ready for one fantastic ride.
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