How commissioner John Swofford brought stability to the ACC
AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. -- The man who started and finished the most chaotic reorganization in the history of major college sports lounged for just a moment in a squishy chair on Tuesday. But for his sport coat, John Swofford looked every bit like most of the vacationers who frequent this secluded beachside resort. Even though he's working this week, he wore the ruddy-cheeked smile of a man who left his cares at home.
But Swofford didn't stash his worries in a to-do tray on his desk in Greensboro, N.C., before he headed south for his league's spring meetings. Instead, he did what he has done for the past 10 years. He very quietly took decisive action to strengthen -- and possibly save -- his conference. Swofford may look like he stepped out of a Brooks Brothers ad and into a PGA tournament pro-am. He may talk with the aristocratic drawl of the lawyer you'd call before you closed on your beach house in the Outer Banks. He may seem the personification of the Old Boy Network in an era when the Old Boy Network has watched its power erode. But make no mistake, John Swofford is a ninja. He moves quickly and quietly, and by the time his enemies -- or, in his case, business rivals -- realize he's struck, it's already too late.
Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich, a veteran of the realignment tilt-a-whirl who has taken his school from Conference USA to the Big East to the ACC, has another word for Swofford. "He's a magician," Jurich said.
The ACC probably shouldn't be here right now celebrating newfound security and potential prosperity. Under different leadership, it probably would look more the league that will meet later this month two counties south in Ponte Vedra Beach. That league used to be called The Big East. Now, it is called the American Athletic Conference -- an alliance of misfit toys that more closely resembles the roster of Conference USA, circa 2003. About 10 years ago, both leagues were peers. Now the schools of the American occupy college sports' middle class. The ACC? It's one of the five conferences remaining at the big table. When the wealthiest schools inevitably form their own NCAA division, the schools of the ACC will be part of that group. While the SEC's Mike Slive and the Big Ten's Jim Delany usually make all the lists of the smartest, most powerful people in college sports, Swofford has quietly proven himself to be one of the most capable leaders in the business. He has had to be the wolf. He has had to be the sheep. And when things looked bleakest, he completed a Hail Mary that kept his league in the upper echelon.
Six months ago, the idea of the ACC surviving this round of realignment seemed a 50/50 proposition -- even though ACC presidents kept swearing their fealty to the league. Charter member Maryland had bolted for the Big Ten, and given the dollar figures the Big Ten dangled before the Terrapins, the school's move was understandable. The ACC had a media rights deal in place with ESPN that would produce an average annual payout in the neighborhood of $17 million a year per school. The Big Ten had its own cable network and an upcoming rights negotiation that could produce the richest payout in the history of college sports. If all goes according to plan, the Big Ten might be paying out nearly double in five years what the ACC deal in place at the time would have. Cash-strapped Maryland jumped at the offer. Because cable television is the Big Ten's biggest revenue driver, the notion of expanding into southern markets with schools that already fit the Big Ten's academic brand (North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia Tech) seemed a tantalizing possibility -- especially if a court in North Carolina struck down or reduced the $52 million exit fee Maryland owes the league. "I wasn't terribly worried about it," Swofford said. "I generally take my cue from our presidents. I believe our presidents until I have reason not to."
Swofford had already scored a coup last September when he lured Notre Dame to join in all sports except football with an agreement that the Fighting Irish would play five games against ACC teams each year. That strengthened the league as much or more than the additions of Syracuse and Pittsburgh during the realignment wave of 2011. But the Maryland move shook the conference to its core. The members wanted to stay together, but they had previously resisted agreeing to a Grant of Rights. Such an agreement transfers each school's media rights to the conference. Under the arrangement, a school is free to leave, but it cannot sell the television rights to its sporting events until the Grant of Rights expires. This essentially makes those schools worthless to another conference. The Big Ten has had a Grant of Rights for decades. The Pac-12 schools made one when the conference expanded from 10 members to 12. Meanwhile, a Grant of Rights stabilized the volatile Big 12, which nearly collapsed in 2010 and in 2011.
"This," Swofford said, "is the ultimate way to put it to rest."
On Dec. 6, the ACC's remaining presidents released a joint statement of solidarity. Swofford and Dean Jordan, the Wasserman Media Group managing executive who serves as a media rights consultant for the ACC, Big Ten and Big 12, predicted a dismissive response. They were correct. The 98-word statement, which used words such as "commitment," "strong" and "enduring," was almost universally lampooned in the media. After all, hadn't a few of these presidents sworn their loyalty to the Big East before stabbing that league in the back?
"Everybody looked at it and said, 'Yeah, sure,'" Swofford said. "I told them 'You believe it. I believe it. And the words are terrific. But the action that backs up the words is a Grant of Rights. That's what I would recommend to you that we do.'"
So Swofford and Jordan set out to convince every school to agree to the Grant of Rights. Most were already on board. The duo did their hardest work in Tallahassee, where Florida State trustees had expressed disappointment in May 2012 after the announcement of the media rights deal. Andy Haggard, the chair, ripped the ACC in an interview on fan site Warchant.com and suggested the Seminoles look into the Big 12. Florida State president Eric Barron wanted to stay in the ACC. The Big 12 wasn't adding members. But the story took on a life of its own, casting further doubt on the ACC's ability to stay together.
Swofford and Jordan met individually with trustees on March 6 in St. Teresa, Fla., to answer any questions they had about the ACC, the Grant of Rights and the revised media rights deal they were negotiating following the addition of Notre Dame. While Swofford prefers the personal touch, that wasn't his only reason for individual meetings. With only one trustee in each meeting, the information sessions didn't violate Florida's Sunshine Law, which requires meetings of state officials to be advertised and open to the public.
The Florida State trustees came away impressed, and with the Seminoles on board, the Grant of Rights was a go. On April 19, Swofford held a 7 a.m. conference call with his 15 presidents, who each confirmed their school's desire to sign a Grant of Rights that would last until 2027. For the next five hours, Swofford looked like a football coach on National Signing Day. Each faxed memorandum of understanding brought him one step closer to securing the league's future. The revised rights deal with ESPN would push the payout to more than $20 million per school per year, and thanks to the Grant of Rights, ESPN was suddenly willing to discuss the idea of the ACC creating its own branded cable channel similar to the one the SEC will launch next year.
"It has totally changed the conversation," Swofford said. "It has totally changed the perception, which was the idea. If you're going to jump into bigger and better ventures going forward, your assets -- the institutions -- are fully intact. Not only do we need to know that, our partners -- whoever they may be -- need to know that."
Because the nation was still mourning the Boston Marathon bombing earlier that week, Swofford said it seemed inappropriate to announce the deal on the day it was signed. So he waited until Monday, and just as they did during the Grant of Rights negotiations and the pursuits of Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Notre Dame, officials at the ACC schools kept their mouths shut. The following Monday, when the league made its formal announcement, Swofford received a flood of messages from people throughout the industry thanking him for pushing the stop button on realignment in the high-income bracket.
At this point, the SEC is the only league in the power five that doesn't have a Grant of Rights, and its members don't seem interested in looking around with the cable channel poised to infuse more cash. They also aren't interested in expanding. The Pac-12 and Big 12 are geographically boxed in. The Big Ten won't expand unless it can get significant value, and none of the remaining free agents provide that.
It's fitting that Swofford would shut down this period of realignment. After all, he started it in 2003 when he took Miami and Virginia Tech -- and, a few months later, Boston College -- from the Big East. At the time, the leagues were peers. Each was a BCS automatic qualifying conference. While the Big Ten and SEC had grown richer, the ACC and Big East remained near the top of the food chain thanks to their storied basketball programs. But the business of college sports was changing quickly. The BCS had codified the power structure, and it seemed most of the new money was coming from football. "I think that people for the most part didn't understand how big and important football was," former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese told the
At least one person understood: a former North Carolina defensive back named John Swofford. "At that given point in time, as much as anything, it was looking ahead and understanding that football was going to be driving the future more than it had," Swofford said. "We felt like we needed to be stronger and better positioned both from a football and a marketplace standpoint."
In taking those three schools, Swofford also learned something valuable. At that time, the ACC's bylaws required site visits before a new school could be accepted. After the ACC's pursuit of those schools leaked and caused a firestorm, Swofford and his presidents tweaked the bylaws so that if they ever needed to add more schools, they could do it quickly and in secret. At the time, Swofford couldn't imagine adding more schools.
The additions of those three schools didn't have precisely the intended effect. After Florida State and Miami dominated the sport in the '90s, Swofford and the presidents figured either the Seminoles or the Hurricanes would place the ACC in the national title picture on an annual basis. Both programs dipped simultaneously. In the end, it was Virginia Tech that helped the ACC cling to relevance as football became the driving force in the economy of college sports.
That doesn't mean the addition of Miami was a total bust. In 2006, Orange Bowl officials had to choose whether to align themselves with the ACC or the Big East. Had Miami still been in the Big East, that decision might have been difficult. With Florida State and Miami in the same league, it was a no-brainer. That proved critical last year when conference leaders scrapped the BCS and began designing the College Football Playoff. To stay with the big boys, the ACC needed an alliance with a major bowl, and the Orange Bowl needed an agreement to take the champion of a major conference. The relationship held, and it proved symbiotic.
Those meetings of conference commissioners to design the playoff remain collegial, Swofford said, despite the fact that most of the commissioners have tried to raid one another's leagues. Swofford has been both the raider and the victim, and he said neither side of the equation is much fun. "It's hard either way," Swofford said. "You're excited about new members. If you weren't, they wouldn't be joining. On a personal level, as a commissioner, there's an understanding that what helps you in your league probably does just the opposite to someone else in their league. That's the hard part of this." The best way to avoid being hurt feelings, Swofford said, is to accept that it's just business. "You try to separate the personal from the professional," Swofford said. "We all understand we each try to do what's best for our conferences."
Now, Swofford has other business to which he must attend. With his league stable, he can begin working with ESPN on an ACC network. He predicts taking the network from the idea stage to air will take about as long as it did for the SEC -- which will put its network on the air about three years after it began making plans. "We don't want to let any grass grow," Swofford said. "I don't think ESPN does either."
Meanwhile, the mood has shifted completely in the meeting rooms as athletic directors, coaches and faculty athletic representatives discuss the future with hope rather than with trepidation. Florida State athletic director Randy Spetman personified that demeanor this week. Last year, on the heels of Haggard's comments, Spetman ran away from reporters -- muttering "no comment" before anyone asked a question. On Monday, Spetman mingled with a clutch of reporters and smiled as he discussed the lighter atmosphere. "It's kind of like the stock market when the world is going all over. Nobody wants to invest," Spetman said. "But when you know there is stability in the economy, people start investing. The same thing has happened with the ACC brand now. We have some stability."
The ACC has that stability because it has a commissioner who, without much fanfare, pulled off a series of moves over a 10-year-period that kept the league at the upper end of the spectrum when wrong decisions could have sent it sliding backward. That may seem extraordinary, but it's all part of the gig for college sports' resident ninja magician.