The ACC's next commissioner has some tricky questions to answer

Whoever takes over for John Swofford has the bulk of their ACC Network troubles already solved, but they'll have big shoes to fill and big questions to figure out.

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Now, let’s talk about the ACC for a moment.

The ACC is going to need another commissioner.

After leading the conference since 1997, ACC commissioner John Swofford announced he’ll be retiring next June, at the conclusion of the 2020-21 academic year.

Swofford’s long tenure has had its ups and downs, but I think he can leave his post feeling good about the direction of the conference. There was absolutely a time, back during conference realignment pandemonium, when it wasn’t crazy to think the entire league could be picked apart by the Big Ten and SEC. It’s probably fair to say that not all of the ACC’s expansion acquisitions have completely worked out exactly as the league hoped — and that bloating to 15 teams has caused some tensions and concessions — but the league can now claim a sense of stability, a TV network with a big-name partner, and a roster of teams competing at an elite level in virtually every NCAA sport.

So, it’s not like whoever replaces Swofford is walking into a gut-rehab, like taking over at the WAC or MEAC right now. This is a P5 commissioner job. There’s a reason those jobs turn over about as often as a Supreme Court vacancy, or a papacy. You don’t generally shop for other jobs once you get this one. It’s a pretty good gig.

But I can’t help but think that this is a really critical hire for the ACC. Whoever gets this job next isn’t just filling the big shoes of a popular, long-tenured leader. They’re stepping into a major college athletics leadership role at a time when the very structure of the sport could be changing.

Here’s what I think ACC presidents — and potential candidates — will need to consider.

What exactly is the job of the ACC commissioner in 2021?

College football has changed so much since 1997. We had a “split” national title that season. The Big West conference was in existence.  Not only did the College Football Playoff not exist, but neither did the BCS. Alabama was a 4-7 program that lost to both Kentucky and Louisiana Tech. Hell, Michigan AND Nebraska were both elite programs back then, if you can imagine.

I tease, but it’s hard to get too hyperbolic about how the scope and responsibility of college athletic leadership has evolved.

So, in 2021, are you primarily looking for a leader who can maximize broadcast revenue potential? If that’s the case, then there’s no reason to limit your candidate pool to sitting athletic directors. Just go grab pro sport or ESPN executive.  Are you looking for somebody to build P5 coalitions and dictate the future of NCAA governance? Maybe you’d consider an actual politician. Do you want merely a figurehead — so university presidents, ADs, and high-profile coaches can take larger leadership roles in college sports?

Swofford, himself, has recently acknowledged the changing nature of his job. Here, via The Athletic:

When asked for the biggest challenges his successor will face, the 71-year-old quickly fired off the hot-button issues — COVID-19, NIL, revenue — before going long on the bigger picture.

“Obviously the importance of the racial inequities and injustices that exist and have a sports world and particularly college athletics play a role in helping us address those issues in a productive way takes us leaps and bounds beyond where we are,” Swofford said. “I’ve been very encouraged by that, by the willingness and outspokenness of a lot of our athletics, because I think that’s important. I think it’s appropriate. It creates some new challenges for coaches and administrators and everybody involved in college athletics, but I think that it can have a positive impact.

“The days of societal issues being sort of set aside in terms of college athletics are over, in my opinion. The idea that those kinds of issues are separate from the sports world, that just doesn’t resonate anymore. And so we need to be a part of the solution. I think sports to a degree have been a part of a solution for a long time, but I think we can be a bit more of that solution.”

I think he’s right. Any illusion that a college sports leader has right now about their ability to simply “stick to sports” ought to be dismissed out of hand. Whether they like it or not, these jobs increasingly entail social, political and cultural considerations. Does the ACC want a new leader who can take charge and lead on those issues — intraconference and nationally — or do they want somebody who focuses more on facilitating those conversations at the institutional level?

Leading a major conference has become such a large and unique responsibility that I don’t think there are any job titles that would give a candidate the perfect experience. There will be plenty of athletic directors who will be interested and have ties to the league (Michael Kelly, Dan Radakovich, Shane Lyons, Carla Williams, etc.), but, depending on what leadership background ACC leaders prioritize, there could be excellent candidates from different corners of the college sports landscape.

Shouldn’t the ACC at least reach out to WCC commissioner Gloria Nevarez and America East commissioner Amy Huchthausen. Both women have experience running leagues with very different types of institutions, have seen athletic and financial success, have had to deal with realignment threats and opportunities, and have been unafraid to use conference resources to lead in off-the-field issues, especially in areas that relate to athlete health and academic success.

But there may very well be excellent candidates in the pros, in government, in higher ed academic leadership, or even in the private sector. The Big Ten wasn’t afraid to buck the status quo, last year hiring Kevin Warren of the Minnesota Vikings over the likes of Northwestern AD Jim Phillips and other candidates with more conventional ties to the league. Perhaps the ACC could also benefit from a true outsider’s perspective, especially given some of the philosophical questions the conference faces.

How will the ACC lead in the NIL and athlete rights conversations?

The safe money is that the name, image and likeness debate will still be unresolved up by the time the ACC’s new boss takes the big office in Greensboro. Maybe there will be federal legislation establishing uniform policies, or maybe other states within the ACC footprint will pass their own NIL bills. Even if a national standard has been established by 2021, it seems safe to assume that heated conversations over specific regulations and “guardrails” will carry forth.

I think it’s awfully hard for somebody who has worked in college athletics for decades and decades to embrace real reformist principles. For the last several years, many of the loudest and most prominent voices in NCAA legislating and commission-holding have been folks who have been leading for a very, very long time. Sure, it’d be fun to see a 35-year industry vet have a Jay Bilas-like revelation when it comes to athlete compensation rights…but I wouldn’t bank on it.

The longest tenured P5 commissioner is Larry Scott — of all people — and even he’s spent large swaths of his career outside college sports. A leadership change in the ACC could be a catalyst for a change in attitudes about NIL and other athlete rights issues.

That won’t be easy. Athletic directors at two of the most important ACC institutions, Duke and North Carolina, have already staked out pretty conservative opinions about what should be permitted in an NIL marketplace — or how malleable the definition of amateurism could be. Will a new hire be willing to fight for change internally, even if already established conference leaders disagree? Or will they bring a renewed energy and vigor to defend the current state of affairs?

Can the ACC close the potential revenue gap?

The next ACC commissioner won’t have to worry about a new media rights deal from Day One. The ACC signed a long-term deal with ESPN for their first-tier rights, and their new network has already achieved mostly full distribution — with any straggling carrier issues likely to be solved in the next year or two. They don’t have to worry about some of the potentially terrifying questions that the Pac-12 and Big 12 might have to answer in a few years.

But that also means that they don’t have an obvious path to increasing that media revenue, which the other major conferences do. One future revenue projection, from Navigate Research, showed the ACC trailing the Big Ten and SEC by more than $30 million a year in per school distributions by the year 2029, and trailing the Big 12 by over $10 million.

There’s basically no way the ACC will ever achieve financial parity with the Big Ten or SEC. They were far too late to the conference-network party to reap the same windfall, and they don’t have the depth of powerhouse football brands or markets as the other two leagues. But a potential $30 million gap is enormous and could make it harder for the schools not named Clemson and Florida State to compete on a national level. For the ACC to reach its greatest potential, they need better and more consistent football from Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Louisville, and especially Miami. That takes money.

Does a new commissioner decide to take up the cause of limiting athletic spending, in part to limit the ACC’s disadvantage? Do they try to find significant new revenue growth outside of broadcast media? Do they punt on trying to remain in the same budgeting ballpark and do something completely different? Who knows! Who they hire might give a clue as to what the ACC’s real long-term strategy will be.

I don’t know what the correct answer is. If I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, who the perfect commissioner would be, and what that person should do to ensure another three decades of elite ACC performances, this newsletter would cost a lot more than seven bucks.

There’s a lot of unknowns. For the sake of improved college athletic policy, I hope the ACC brings aboard a deep and creative thinker, one who isn’t afraid to envision a powerful athletic conference approaching things differently.

The right person can take this job and do a lot of good: not just for the balance sheets and Director’s Cup standings of ACC institutions, but for their campus communities, students across the country, and, well, society at large.

No pressure!

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