ACC revenue soars, but is outpaced by the Big Ten and SEC

The ACC during the 2017-18 fiscal year generated $464.7 million in revenue, a record for the conference that nonetheless reflects a financial disparity that the league will seek to close with the launch, in August, of the ESPN-backed ACC Network.

The ACC’s revenue, detailed in league tax records that recently became public, ranked fourth among the Power 5 college athletics conferences. The ACC was ahead of the Big 12 ($373.9 million) and not far behind the Pac-12 ($496.9 million), but hundreds of millions behind the Big Ten and SEC.

Those two conferences, bolstered by the success of their own television networks, have moved far ahead of their rivals amid a college sports financial market that continues to boom. The Big Ten generated $758.9 million in revenue during the 2017-18 fiscal year and the SEC $659.9 million.

The figures are detailed in the conferences’ 990 tax forms that, as income tax-exempt organizations, the leagues file annually to the IRS. The most recent forms that earlier this month became publicly available are from the 2017-18 fiscal year, which for the ACC ended on June 30, 2018.

During that period the ACC’s revenue increased by 11.1 percent, and the conference distributed an average of $29.5 million to its 14 full members. Notre Dame, a partial member that remains independent in football, received $7.9 million.

Overall, the Power 5 conferences combined to generate $2.8 billion in revenue, of which $2.4 billion was dispersed to 65 member schools. The five conferences’ combined revenue nearly doubled between 2013 and 2018, from when they generated $1.4 billion during the 2012-13 fiscal year.

Schools use the money they receive from athletic conferences to help fund their athletic departments. The sustained surge in revenue growth, which is the result of media rights deals that continue to grow ever more lucrative, feeds a college athletics enterprise that, for the richest schools, at least, shows no signs of slowing. Coaching salaries continue to rise. Newer facilities continue to be built.

Though no major conference has labored to make more money in recent years, the Big Ten and the SEC have separated themselves. Both leagues more than doubled their revenue between 2013 and 2018, and the Big Ten’s increased by 138.4 percent – from $318.4 million to $758.9 million.

The Big Ten’s most recently available financial figures reflect the first year of a six-year television broadcast rights deal with ESPN, Fox Sports and CBS. The deal was worth a reported $2.64 billion. The conference has also grown wealthier through the success of the Big Ten Network.

As a result of television revenue that has fueled growth across college athletics, the Big Ten distributed $685.3 million to its members last year. The 12 schools that received a full share – all except Maryland and Rutgers, both of which joined the league in 2014 – received an average of $54 million.

The SEC, meanwhile, distributed an average of $43.2 million to its 14 members. Before last year, the SEC held the lead among Power 5 conferences in distributions to member schools. The gap then, though, wasn’t as large between the wealthiest conference and those behind it.

As recently as six years ago, during the 2012-13 fiscal year, every Power 5 conference distributed an average full share between $25.7 million (the Big Ten) and $17.6 million (the ACC) to its member schools. Now, more defined financial tiers exist among the Power 5 conferences.

The Big Ten last year reported more than $100 million more in revenue than the next closest conference, the SEC. In turn, the SEC reported more than $150 million more in revenue than the Pac-12, which ranked third in conference revenue.

The Pac-12, ACC and the Big 12 are more closely bunched together. Every Power 5 conference increased its revenue by at least 48.9 percent between 2013 and 2018. The ACC doubled its revenue during that span, from $232.4 million in 2013 to $464.7 million last year.

Even so, during that period the conference lost ground, at least financially, to the Big Ten and SEC. The growing disparity between the ACC and the richest leagues magnify the importance of the ACC Network, which launches on Aug. 22. The league is counting on it to become a success, and to help close the financial gap between itself and the Big Ten and SEC.

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Andrew Carter spent 10 years covering major college athletics, six of them covering the University of North Carolina for The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer. Now he’s a member of The N&O’s and Observer’s statewide enterprise and investigative reporting team. He attended N.C. State and grew up in Raleigh dreaming of becoming a journalist.