Emails show UNC doubts about ACC after Maryland’s departure

acarter@newsobserver.comOctober 10, 2013 

— Amid the swirl of rumors and speculation after Maryland announced that it would leave the ACC to join the Big Ten, North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham expressed concern about the future of the ACC, and whether it could compete financially with other conferences.

“We are looking at all options,” Cunningham wrote last November, the day after Maryland announced its move, in an email to a concerned UNC supporter. “But keeping the ACC strong is our number one choice.”

That email was among hundreds of pages of documents UNC released last week in response to a public records request that sought correspondence related both to Maryland’s announced departure for the Big Ten, and to the speculation that suggested North Carolina might be the Big Ten’s next expansion target.

The records request, which The News & Observer filed in February, sought emails and other documents between November 2012 and February 2013. During one exchange, Cunningham expressed concern about the ACC’s ability to compete financially with other conferences.

Joe Frierson, a financial adviser from Athens, Ga., and a former UNC tennis player and assistant tennis coach, wrote Cunningham on Dec. 7, 2012, about a lunch meeting Frierson had with an SEC athletic director.

“He said the SEC pays out around $20 (million per) team right now,” Frierson wrote. “Thinks it will approach $35 (million per team) when TV contract is renegotiated in a couple of years.

“He said the SEC just signed a contract for the Sugar Bowl (between teams from the SEC and Big 12) for 2015 that will pay $40 (million) to each conference. … That is ridiculous money.”

Cunningham’s response was short and direct: “It really concerns me. If these trends continue I’m not sure how the ACC (can) compete financially.”

The rumors that Maryland would leave the ACC turned to reality on Nov. 19, 2012. At 12:35 p.m. the same day, the ACC emailed a memo to all of its schools. It included a statement from John Swofford, the conference commissioner, and also a directive to stay positive.

“I’ve included messaging that will handle any questions you might receive in the near future and overall messaging about the Atlantic Coast Conference,” Amy Yakola, the ACC’s senior associate commissioner for communications and public relations, wrote in the memo, which she sent to the conference’s athletic directors and football coaches, among others. “It’s imperative that we all stay positive in any responses.”

Nearly one year after Maryland announced its decision to move to the Big Ten, the constantly evolving landscape of major college athletics has found stability – thanks in large part to the ACC’s grant of media rights agreement, which the league announced in April. That agreement essentially binds schools together, because any school that leaves the ACC would not bring additional television revenue to another conference.

Still, during an interview earlier this week, Cunningham said he remains “concerned about the disparity in revenues of various conferences.” He is a member of the ACC’s TV subcommittee, which is exploring the possibility of creating an ACC channel – which could represent a potential revenue stream for the league.

The prospect of an ACC channel emerged after the grant of rights agreement. Before that, and especially during the days and weeks that followed the news that Maryland would leave the ACC, rampant speculation persisted about the future of the ACC and whether UNC would remain a part of the conference that it helped launch in 1954.

Big money

Emails to and from Cunningham, the UNC athletic director, reflect the uncertainty that fans, boosters, administrators and Cunningham himself shared in the days after Maryland announced its decision to leave the ACC. Financial concerns drove the speculation surrounding conference realignment. According to Maryland, those concerns also drove it out of the ACC.

Hours after Maryland announced its move, Sports Illustrated posted a story on its website that detailed how much more money Maryland would make in the Big Ten. The first paragraph read: “The University of Maryland stands to make nearly $100 million more in conference revenue by 2020 with its switch from the ACC to the Big Ten. …”

Martina Ballen, the Chief Financial Officer of the UNC athletic department, emailed the link to Cunningham and UNC’s associate athletic directors. She included a short note: “Wow! Big $$$ if this is accurate.”

While emails to Cunningham and other UNC athletic department officials expressed surprise and concern over Maryland’s move, the ACC’s memo reflected the apprehension inside league headquarters in Greensboro.

In addition to the instruction to stay positive, which Yakola described as “critical for our brand and image,” the ACC offered advice on how to answer questions. One part of the sample Q-and-A, meant as a guide for handling media inquiries, went like this:

Question: “Were you surprised about (Maryland’s) departure?”

Answer: “We heard some noise around this issue but it’s probably not best to get into any specifics on when I first heard.”

The conference eventually decided to replace Maryland with Louisville, which in July 2014 will join the ACC as a member in all sports. Before that decision, a former NCAA faculty representative from the University of Cincinnati emailed Cunningham, the UNC athletic director, lobbying for the ACC to add Cincinnati.

Other emails Cunningham received expressed shock that Maryland would leave, and they questioned whether the money in the Big Ten was that much greater than in the ACC. One came from Cappy Gagnon, a longtime Notre Dame athletic department employee who retired in 2011.

“I don’t get this one,” Gagnon wrote to Cunningham, who started his college athletic administration career at Notre Dame. “Maryland is going to be nobody in the Big Ten, with zero natural rivals and long travel. Is the money from the Big Ten Network that much greater than the ACC TV money?”

Cunningham’s response: “Yes. Likely $20 (million)/yr by 2017.”

After Maryland’s decision became public, one of the first emails Cunningham received came from Hunter Morin, a UNC graduate and athletics supporter. Morin had forwarded to Cunningham and others an email from a frustrated Maryland supporter, who wrote that he was “appalled” by Maryland’s decision to leave.

“Not an unexpected response,” Morin wrote. “Rumors are flying that we are next.”

Maryland’s announcement set off a wave of speculation and rumors. Some predicted an apocalyptic end for the ACC – that Maryland’s defection represented the start of a domino effect that would lead to the collapse of the conference.

Mainstream opinions

The rumors weren’t representative of a fringe minority. They were a part of the mainstream. Lowry Caudill, now the chair of UNC’s Board of Trustees, read a story on the popular website outkickthecoverage.com. The story predicted the ACC’s demise, and that 16-school membership in the Big Ten and SEC would be inevitable.

The day after Maryland announced its departure, Caudill emailed a link to the story to Cunningham and others and wrote: “This guy assumes the ACC is dying. I don’t buy this. But I do agree about footprint and market presence.”

Cunningham agreed: “Yes. The market analysis is accurate.”

At the center of all the speculation and predictions of the ACC’s doom were people like Yakola, urging the ACC’s membership to stay positive, and Cunningham, an ACC athletic director who was, like every other ACC athletic director, trying to separate fact and fiction and make sense of the swirl that surrounded him.

Cunningham had no shortage of input. A steady stream of emails from alumni, fans and boosters began on Nov. 20.

The notes came from everywhere: from people who graduated from UNC in the 1960s, and those who graduated in the past few years. Former athletes wrote in. There were Rams Club members. And emails from fans who had no tie to the school other than their allegiance.

One came from an Army major who wrote of how he’d followed UNC athletics throughout deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. He expressed concern about a conference move and wrote, “I will always love Carolina, but my fervor towards our athletic programs would die a rapid death should we choose to enter the BIG TEN.”

The emails – many coming after UNC fans on the message boards at InsideCarolina.com organized a push to fill Cunningham’s inbox – shared roughly the same sentiment: Lead the Tar Heels out of the crumbling ACC, to a better place. The overwhelming majority of fans preferred moving to the SEC. Among the more than 150 pages of emails that Cunningham received in the 10 days after Maryland’s announcement, only one email favored joining the Big Ten.

John Manzo, a 2010 UNC graduate, was the first to write to Cunningham. His email came before the barrage, on the afternoon of Nov. 20.

“My fear is that UNC will be left behind when the chips begin to fall and the conference subsequently dissolves into a shadow of its former self,” Manzo wrote. “I know you are aware of all of this and more, but the university MUST begin to explore a move to the Big Ten or SEC. … Please remember that this is not a game of chicken that we can afford to lose.”

And so it began. By the next day, Nov. 21 – two days after Maryland announced its move – the bombardment of Cunningham’s inbox had started. Most of the emails arrived with a sense of desperation and panic – that if UNC didn’t move now to another conference, it would forever be left behind.

“I simply feel that if Carolina does not take a seat at another table soon, we’ll be left without a chair when the music stops,” wrote Justin Carpenter, a 2009 UNC law school graduate.

Cunningham said recently that he doesn’t read message boards. In this case, he didn’t have to. The message boards came to him. A sampling of his reading material during those days:

•  “If we end up in the (Big Ten) and NCSU goes to the SEC then we may as well pack it in when it comes to football.”

•  “I am so tired of hearing ‘UNC-Cheat’ and other derogatory comments from our ‘loyal’ (ACC) partners. … I would find this ‘holier than thou’ attitude a little less likely in the SEC.”

•  “Many old school fans want to stay with Duke but Duke isn’t D1 football material.”

•  “There are so many great things about Carolina but as long as we are in the ACC we will be viewed as the rich kid who always gets preferential treatment and gets all the calls.”

Keeping Florida State

And so it went, day after day. The most dire speculation was that Florida State and Clemson might also leave for the Big 12. The possibility came up in communication between Cunningham and Dean Jordan, an ACC consultant who specializes in TV rights contracts.

Jordan, who works for the Wasserman Media Group, worked closely with Swofford and helped convince Florida State and Virginia, among others, that the grant of rights agreement would help secure the ACC’s future. Jordan also discussed with ACC schools the possible benefits of developing a TV network devoted to ACC coverage.

Back then, in the days after Maryland’s announcement, Jordan was like everyone else, trying to figure out whether Florida State might actually leave. In an email to Cunningham on Nov. 21, Jordan wrote:

“FSU’s life won’t greatly change in the Big 12. The Big 12 TV deal is pro-rata for any new member and their TV distribution is only about $1 (million) more than the ACC. The Big 12 is going to take in $13 (million) more in BCS money – around $1 (million) per school.

“So for $2 to $3 (million) bucks, FSU is going to go through the trauma of switching leagues?”

Cunningham didn’t just receive emails from interested colleagues and panicking fans. On Nov. 25 – six days after Maryland announced its move – former University of Cincinnati NCAA faculty athletics representative Frederick Russ wrote Cunningham in hopes of bolstering support for Cincinnati.

Russ and Cunningham spent time together days before at the Maui Invitational in Hawaii.

“As I mentioned in Maui, I’ve been hearing all kinds of rumors about which schools the ACC might seek to add, and I wanted to let you know why I think adding the University of Cincinnati to the ACC would benefit the conference and both UNC and UC,” Russ wrote, before listing his reasons.

The ACC, though, already was finalizing its plan. Less than two weeks after Maryland announced that it would be leaving for the Big Ten, the ACC on Nov. 29, 2012 announced that it was replacing Maryland with Louisville. About five months after that, the conference had secured a grant of rights agreement, which effectively put an end – at least for the foreseeable future – to speculation and rumors that were never more prevalent than in the days that followed news of Maryland’s impending departure for the Big Ten.

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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