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Heel Tough Blog: Is It Time to Leave the ACC?

Rodney Overton

For the better part of the last year, the health of the Atlantic Coast Conference has been heavily declining. Last summer, there were hints that Florida State and Clemson were looking to depart the conference and since then, both have sued the conference in an attempt to leave. Florida State filed their lawsuit in December, Clemson followed in March and now the Tar Heel athletic department may be closing in on doing the same.

On Tuesday, Brian Murphy, sports investigative reporter for WRAL, reported that the UNC’s Board of Trustees approved an audit after frustrations arose about the financial state of the athletic department. The board hosted a closed session on Wednesday and Thursday planning for athletics to be the major talking point after the athletic department’s submitted budget for the 2024-25 academic year is set to have a $17 million deficit and $100 million in deficits moving forward. While a judge granted a temporary restraining order against the UNC Board of Trustees on Thursday restricting them from talking athletics in a closed session because of state law, it feels like a closed session will inevitably happen in the near future and some tough conversations about the future of the athletic department will be had.

The deficits are being tied to the choices made during COVID not to cut or suspend sports, but the trustees are pointing to the fact that the school is still in the ACC as to why the department is struggling. Trustee David Boliek spoke following Monday’s meeting and made it clear that he believes that is the main issue. "A lot of it is due to the revenue or lack thereof of revenue that we're not receiving from the ACC deal.” Boliek also confirmed that he is an advocate for a move to a higher revenue conference. "I am advocating for that. That's what we need to do. We need to do everything we can to get there. Or the alternative is the ACC is going to have to reconstruct itself. I think all options are on the table."

Boliek might be the most vocal of those pushing for the department to look for a way out of the conference, but he isn’t the only one. "The conference is not acting as if it is representing the best interests of the member schools including the top tier of those schools - Clemson, Florida State, North Carolina," trustee member John Preyer told WRAL back in a sit down they did in March. "Instead, it is acting at the expense of those schools to prop up the bottom tier of the conference in a way that I think is a gross abdication of responsibility. And I lay that at the feet of the commissioner."

All of this sounds nearly identical to what we heard from Florida State leading up to their lawsuit and it feels like this will be the push from board members when that closed session does happen. The question is, though, is leaving the ACC really what’s best for Tar Heel athletics?

From a financial standpoint, it’s hard to argue against a move to either the SEC or Big Ten. The gap that was once around $10 million has grown to around $30 million with the new TV deals that are in place after the additions each conference made this offseason. Making $70 million each year as opposed to $40 million would not only eliminate the deficit but give the team a surplus that they won’t even come close to having if the ACC remains in the state they’re in right now.

One of the issues that has been brought up for Florida State in their quest to get out of the conference has been the appetite of the SEC and Big Ten to add them. The Tar Heels won’t have that same problem. Back in March, Yahoo Sports’ Ross Dellenger reported that “many within the industry believe [UNC] is the most attractive expansion target for the Power Two”. Academically, the university fits exactly what the Big Ten is looking for and their addition would also expand their footprint into a part of the country they have not been able to dip into so far. For the SEC, the market expansion is why Carolina is so attractive as they attempt to expand their footprint further up the East Coast.

From a competitive standpoint, keeping the Tar Heels in the ACC is the best option, especially in the sport that conference realignment affects the most. Even with more money coming in from the conference move, it’s hard to see them being able to keep up, especially NIL-wise, in these bigger conferences. On the hardwood, there wouldn’t be any worry about the ability to compete, but some long time rivalries, including the one with Duke, would be severely affected. A move to the SEC would also cause certain Olympic sports to scramble and find other conference affiliations or be in danger of being cut.

As a fan, you should be wanting this to drag out as long as possible and because it will involve UNC having to sue the ACC, it will take some time. In the end, this feels like the first concrete sign that the school will be in one of the Power Two at some point. My advice: enjoy it while you can.


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