With the dismantling of the Big East and several of its best teams set to migrate to the ACC over the next two seasons, and with Grants of Rights deals in most of the major conferences appearing to have stemmed the tide of conference realignment for the time being, the ACC seems poised to become the flagship college basketball conference in the nation.
Mike Krzyzewski created quite a stir last month by talking about how the league should aim to become the best conference of all time. In fact, this blog broke down what the league would have to do in order to justifiably enter that conversation. But the more reasonable question going forward is this: Can the ACC establish itself at a new, higher level than the rest of the nation's conferences in terms of quality and interest, thereby becoming the closest thing college basketball has to college football's SEC?
On Thursday, AL.com posted an interesting transcript with Burke Magnus, ESPN's senior vice president of college programming. In it, Magnus discussed the possibilities surrounding the newly enhanced ACC, noting that it will immediately take the old Big East's spot as the early game on the network's Big Monday package. Magnus thinks the league -- which already has been the most-watched conference in the nation almost annually -- has the depth of quality to drive ratings to a higher level.
"I think we could see 1.5 and 2.0 ratings regularly out of the ACC, which would be pretty spectacular," Magnus told AL.com. "We average about a 1.1 for all of the (men's basketball) games we put on ESPN for the season. That number has been fairly stable over the last decade. Last year, the Big Ten averaged around a 1.5 and broke about a decade-long run of the ACC being the highest-ranked conference. The ACC was around a 1.3 and the SEC was about a 1.1."
Realignment and the creation of a mega-ACC won't impact college basketball's overall TV ratings significantly, if at all. As Magnus points out, the entirety of ESPN's national games have drawn around a 1.1 average rating over the past decade. The latest realignment shuffling likely won't change the overall level of public interest, but the concentration of so many good teams in one league could help it create separation from the rest in terms of ratings, overall interest and -- perhaps most importantly -- NCAA tournament seeding and possible success.
According to Sports Media Watch, which tracks TV ratings for college basketball, among other sports, across all of the major national networks, only six regular-season college hoops games garnered a 2.0 rating last season: both Indiana-Michigan games, the second Indiana-Michigan State game, the second Duke-Miami game, Duke-Kentucky in the Champions Classic and Temple-Kansas (which had an NFL playoff game as the lead-in). If I counted correctly in examining multiple Sports Media Watch files, fewer than two dozen regular-season games got a rating of 1.5 or better last season.
As such, Magnus' estimate of the ACC's possible interest level looks -- on the surface -- to be somewhat ambitious. But taking into account that the most-watched matchups are not network- or league-driven, but matchup-driven, and it's easy to see where Magnus' optimism is coming from. The ACC will have a sizable number of league contests pairing two teams from among Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse and Louisville (starting in 2014-15). If another team emerges at a similarly elite level for a season (like Miami this year, for example), all the better. As the 2012-13 ratings demonstrate, league games involving two top-tier teams are the biggest draws outside of a rare mega out-of-conference matchup. The ACC already had the most consistent national interest in its product; now it will have a heavy proportion of the nation's best teams, too.
Having a quartet of heavyweights atop the league and a second tier of very capable programs should make the ACC into an annual RPI monster. That should not only help lift more of the mid-tier teams into the NCAAs, but it should make the seeding for its top teams very favorable as well. Duke masterfully schedules (and then performs) its way into a No. 1 or No. 2 seed every March, and these other programs should be able to follow in its footsteps (at least under current leadership). Syracuse has been a top-four NCAA seed in each of the past five seasons. North Carolina had four No. 1s and a No. 2 in the five seasons before this past year's No. 8 seed. And Louisville was at least a No. 4 seed in five of the last six campaigns.
Combining all of those programs into one league should only enhance that effect, producing more opportunities for quality wins and a stronger grouping of schools at the top. Obviously, a six-round tournament concept provides more national-championship variance than the BCS model or the forthcoming four-team playoff, but more ACC teams should be better positioned for title runs each season, and more ACC teams should be included in the field of 68 as well. There are too many elite programs elsewhere -- Kentucky and Florida in the SEC, Kansas in the Big 12, a number of teams in the Big Ten, Arizona and UCLA in the Pac-12 -- and too many quality teams from smaller leagues to believe we'll see the type of title (or even attention) hegemony for college hoops' ACC as we have for college football's SEC over the last seven years. But make no mistake: College basketball's ACC is on its way to becoming an obvious superpower. More elite teams, more elite games and maybe more deep NCAA tournament runs should create brand equity -- and TV ratings -- far above any other league in the land.