As the ACC continues to brace for the new realities of realignment, a variety of buzzwords constantly seep into the conversation. It’s a practice that would seemingly please Jack Donaghy of 30 Rock, but the word “brand” is unavoidable in these discussions. It’s the perfect filler, functioning as a through line between clunky recognizability metrics and potential draw as a TV product.
Unsurprisingly, North Carolina routinely pops from a brand awareness standpoint; years of basketball dominance, an appealing color scheme and the presence of Michael Jordan, one of the most marketed people in human history, have created somewhat of a juggernaut. (Advertisements: they do things to our brains!)
While the football program lacks, Duke basketball (powered by Coach K’s program-building) is one of the most powerful sports brands in the world. When it comes to the hardwood, the Blue Devils — backed by the unparalleled success and longevity of Mike Krzyzewski, the Nike swoosh and a slick social media presentation — have a global reach.
UNC and Duke basketball serve as two obvious examples; however, with realignment on the mind, let’s take a slightly more holistic approach to examining the top brands in the ACC, and why some of these programs could be on the move.
Who Are The Most Popular College Sports Teams?
YouGov, an online market research and analytics firm, constantly tracks two benchmarks to determine the famousness of various college sports programs: Fame and Popularity.
Fame is defined as the percentage of people polled who have heard of a college sports program. Meanwhile, Popularity is defined as the percentage of people who have a favorable opinion of these programs.
According to YouGov polling data (on all adults in Q2 2022), here’s how the ACC programs stack up, in alphabetical order, along with the national ranking for both metrics.
- Boston College
- Fame: 53 percent (No. 65)
- Popularity: 25 Percent (No. No. 46)
- Fame: 70 Percent (No. 10)
- Popularity: 34 Percent (No. 4)
- Fame: 66 Percent (No. 17)
- Popularity: 31 Percent (No. 16)
- Florida State
- Fame: 66 Percent (No. 18)
- Popularity: 30 Percent (No. 18)
- Georgia Tech
- Fame: 58 Percent (No. 40)
- Popularity: 26 Percent (No. 42)
- Fame: 70 Percent (No. 10)
- Popularity: 29 Percent (No. 22)
- Fame: 69 Percent (No. 12)
- Popularity: 31 Percent (No. 13)
- NC State
- Fame: 50 percent (No. 80)
- Popularity: 22 Percent (No. 83)
- North Carolina
- Fame: 64 Percent (No. 23)
- Popularity: 31 Percent (No. 19)
- Notre Dame
- Fame: 80 Percent (No. 2)
- Popularity: 41 Percent (No. 1)
- Fame: 55 Percent (No. 51)
- Popularity: 20 Percent (No. 131)
- Fame: 58 Percent (No. 39)
- Popularity: 25 Percent (No. 52)
- Fame: 55 Percent (No. 52)
- Popularity: 24 Percent (No. 63)
- Virginia Tech
- Fame: 56 Percent (No. 47)
- Popularity: 26 Percent (No. 40)
- Wake Forest
- Fame: 52 Percent (No. 70)
- Popularity: 26 Percent (No. 41)
- Boston College
Unsurprisingly, the high end of the YouGov lists are skewed towards universities with massive football operations; however, strong basketball programs carry weight as well. The Big Ten, SEC and ACC are well-represented, several of which hail from some of the largest athletic departments in the country.
In fact, three SEC programs — Florida (No. 1), Alabama (No. 5) and Georgia (No. 6) — all rank in the Top 10 of the Fame metric. Go out a little further, three additional SEC programs land inside the Top 11-20: Kentucky (No. 13), Arkansas (No. 14) and Texas A&M (No. 16). (LSU currently polls at No. 21.)
Of course, Texas and Oklahoma are set to join the SEC in 2025, although that date could advance, too. Regardless, both the Longhorns (No. 4) and Sooners (No. 20) land in the Top 20.
For the Big Ten, five current programs rank inside the Top 20 of the Fame metric: Ohio State (No. 3), Michigan (No. 7), Indiana (No. 8), Michigan State (No. 11) and Nebraska (No. 15). UCLA, which is set to join the Big Ten in 2024, checks in at No. 20. USC lands at No. 22.
Five full-time members of the ACC land in the Top 20, too: Louisville, Clemson, Miami, Duke and Florida State. North Carolina is just outside.
Notre Dame, famously independent in football, ranks No. 2 in terms of Fame, although those numbers skew older. According to the Baby Boomers (born between 1946-64) who were polled, 87 percent had heard of Notre Dame. Alternatively, 70 percent of millennials (born 1982-99) knew of Notre Dame sports.
The Irish are still a powerful football brand, but it seems obvious: their dominance in the mid-to-late portion of the 20th century has a big influence here.
There also feels like some recency bias in this polling, too. In general, it’s weird to see a program like NC State, with a massive alumni base and a strong athletics department, rank behind smaller private schools like Wake Forest — in a smaller market, but coming off a run to the ACC title game in football — and Boston College.
This is just one datapoint, mostly devoid of context, but it creates an interesting dichotomy for the ACC. On a program-by-program basis, the league has more recognizable brands than the Pac-12 and Big 12 — at least at the top of the spectrum. As of right now, within this bit of 2022 polling data, no teams that project to be in either the Pac-12 or Big 12 by 2025 land inside the Top 20.
However, the ACC finds itself in a similar territory with the other two lower Power Fives leagues: lacking in annual payout money, subject to being sacked by the SEC or Big 10.
👇🏼👇🏼👇🏼this is why grown ass adults are losing their minds right now pic.twitter.com/35FijI83Uw
— Hazen III (@lazehancaster) July 1, 2022
This could very well explain why several schools in the league may be frustrated with the current state of affairs.
Now, university officials and wealthy athletic administrators aren’t exactly the most sympathetic of individuals; however, it seems as though those who were atop the ACC during Realignment 1.0 and 2.0 may have misread some of the important trend lines.
Almost 20 years ago, when it raided the Big East, the ACC started a realignment/expansion trend that now imperils it. “I feel really badly for Jim Phillips,” Mike Tranghese told me. A look back, to help us understand the present: https://t.co/Finj5MGDqp
— Andrew Carter (@_andrewcarter) July 11, 2022
It’s also noteworthy that the ACC’s current leader, commissioner Jim Phillips, was the most public-facing detractor in major college athletics of expanding the current College Football Playoff formart. At the time, Phillips and ACC football coaches were anxious about playoff expansion without first addressing other aspects of the sport — namely NIL and the transfer portal.
Phillips wanted these things ironed out ahead of when the current arraignment expired, in 2026. That move, however, could prove costly for the long-term sustainability of the ACC.
Six months ago the Pac 12 and ACC rejected a golden ticket football playoff plan with automatic bids and a cut of a $1 billion revenue pie. It may go down as the most ill advised decision in college athletics history. https://t.co/J9gn9vtxZf
— Dan Wetzel (@DanWetzel) July 1, 2022
Looking at things from another angle: this is why some of the more powerful universities within the conference, which is armed with a seemingly strong Grant of Rights arraignment and not much else, could be ripe for the picking.
Value-Add: College Football
Back in 2019, the Wall Street Journal assembled a chart that ranked the value of each FBS football program. The WSJ sorted the data into three categories: revenue, 2018 value and 2017 value. According to these metics, no ACC program ranked inside the Top 25 in terms of value. The closest program was — no surprise — Clemson, which ranked No. 26.
Here’s how the Tigers looked three years ago within the WSJ’s value/financial snapshot:
- Revenues: $72,218,581
- 2018 Value: $298,051,865
- 2017 Value: $328,411,000
It’s wild, according to this metic, that the reigning national champs would land so far down in terms of financial value.
Furthermore, it’s interesting to see Clemson’s value drop by $30 million from 2017 to 2018, when Tigers went undefeated (15-0) en route to a national title, the program’s second in three years. Keep in mind: Clemson’s CFP run included blowout wins over Notre Dame and Alabama, ranked No. 5 and No. 3, respectfully, in the WSJ’s 2019 value index.
It’s worth pointing out that the ACC Network launched in Aug. 2019. While the network has experienced all kinds of issues, it’s been a nice financial boon for the league, albeit nowhere near the SEC Network and Big Ten Network in terms of revenue.
Outside of Clemson, only seven other ACC programs ranked inside the Top 50, towards the backend of Power Five programs.
- No. 27 Florida State
- No. 28 Virginia Tech
- No. 36. Georgia Tech
- No. 41 Miami
- No. 46 NC State
- No. 47 Louisville
- No. 50 North Carolina
With equal revenue sharing in terms of television dollars, along with lackluster performance (with the exception of Clemson), it doesn’t feel all that surprising to see this many ACC teams bunched up in this range.
Mike Nowoswiat, a college football writer and marketer, founded the website OfficialVisit with former Miami wide receiver Ahmmon Richards. OfficialVisit is a source for detailed analysis of college football and college athletics, in general.
Recently, the website conducted a study to evaluate the different brands of college football in 2022. For the project, OfficialVisit polled 1,000 high school football players and asked them a broad-yet-simple question: “If you were the No. 1 recruit in the nation with offers from every program, how likely (on a scale of 1-10) is it that you would choose [Program X]?”
Here are the Top 10 programs for that study:
- No. 1 Alabama
- No. 2 Ohio State
- No. 3 Georgia
- No. 4 Oklahoma
- No. 5 Clemson
- No. 6 LSU
- No. 7 Texas A&M
- No. 8 Texas
- No. 9 Oregon
- No. 10 Miami
There are few — if any — surprises in this group. These programs, all flushed with cash and fancy facilities, dominate the national recruiting landscape. Two of those programs — Clemson and Miami — hail from the ACC. (I’m sure stakeholders in those programs love to imagine what they could do with even more television money running through the system.)
It’s also worth pointing out: all but one of these schools are Nike/Jordan Brand programs. Miami is the lone adidas representative. Nike has invested heavily in college football and it seems to be working rather well. However, Nike’s favorite platform for college athletics apparel, Oregon, is in a tough spot with USC and UCLA set to leave the Pac-12.
Moving along, here’s how the the rest of the Top 25 looks:
- No. 11 Florida
- No. 12 Notre Dame
- No. 13 Penn State
- No. 14 North Carolina (Mack Brown deserves a lot of credit)
- No. 15 Ole Miss
- No. 16 Michigan
- No. 17 Florida State
- No. 18 Tennessee
- No. 19 USC
- No. 20 UCLA
- No. 21 Auburn
- No. 22 Michigan State
- No. 23 Mississippi State
- No. 24 Maryland
- No. 25 South Carolina
Within the Top 25, here’s how each conference is represented: SEC (10), Big 10 (5), ACC (4), Pac-12 (3), Big 12 (2) and Independent (Notre Dame). This speaks to the overall branding of the SEC; it’s cultivated itself as the premier football conference. Recruiting, on-field output, spending and value: it’s all correlated, in some form.
Moreover, this is just looking at where things stand currently. Over on the horizon, things will change, quickly. Once USC and UCLA leave the Pac-12, the Big Ten will have seven teams from this Top 25, while the Pac-12 will be left with one (Oregon), hence Phil Knight’s concern.
Of course, the only two Big 12 programs repped in the Top 25 — Texas and Oklahoma — are set to join the SEC. This would give their new conference 12 of the of the 25 teams, nearly half. That’s pretty insane, yet not at all surprising.
When it comes time to negotiate television deals with ESPN — or other TV partners — and plan the future of the CFP, the SEC and Big Ten are poised to dictate the terms of engagement. Their consolidation efforts and robust TV deals give both leagues a great deal of bargaining power.
Back to the ACC, though: here’s where the rest of the league stands in these study:
- No. 32 Georgia Tech (Geoff Collins is fumbling the bag, man.)
- No. 39 Wake Forest (this, too, feels like recency bias, although Wake Forest’s unique, go-go spread offense could be another big selling point)
- No. 42 Louisville (given Louisville’s 2023 recruiting class, this ranking seems likely to climb higher)
- No. 43 NC State
- No. 43 Virginia Tech
- No. 46 Pittsburgh
- No. 50 Duke
- No. 53 Virginia
- No. 54 Syracuse
- No. 60 Boston College
Notre Dame: Will The ACC Come Up Lame?
Once again, this reinforces Notre Dame’s leverage and its importance to the ACC (and also the Big Ten). This is a wildly popular program — in the eyes of old, wealthy people; young recruits and, obviously, television executives. Notre Dame is a goldmine, which has little to do with the color of the helmets, although that’s certainly part of its brand, too.
After a decade of partial membership, Phillips’ predecessor, John Swofford, and the ACC had a chance to put Notre Dame in a tough spot ahead of the 2020 season. As the sport stumbled awkwardly and dangerously towards the start of the 2020 season — in the middle of a global pandemic — many leagues adopted new scheduling models. For the ACC, this meant a “10 + 1” model: 10 conference games — five home, five away — and one non-conference game.
Notre Dame loves to flaunt its Independent status; however, this approach temporarily left the Irish (and NBC) without a home for the 2020 season. That’s a lot media content just floating in the ether, plus a trip to the CFP at stake. Simply put: a great deal of money was in jeopardy.
The ACC, Notre Dame’s partner, arrived and offered temporary membership for the football program: one year, no strings attached. In the only season of conference play in its storied history, Notre Dame went 10-0 in the regular season and made it to the ACC title game.
Clemson stomped Notre Dame in the championship game, 34-10, behind a superb performance from quarterback Trevor Lawrence. However, Notre Dame got to play a full schedule and a second postseason game — losing to Alabama in the 2020 Rose Bowl. After that, things returned to normal; Notre Dame continues to play five ACC opponents in each season as non-conference foes.
Hindsight is 20/20, but the ACC could’ve held Notre Dame’s feet to the flames; the university is currently tied to the ACC. As is presently constituted, Notre Dame is unable to join another conference in football while also having its other Division I programs remain in the ACC. To join another conference in football, Notre Dame would need to fully exit the league. (The line feels awfully flimsy at the moment, but for now: the two parties are tethered together.)
The ACC could’ve tried to force a potential deal out of Notre Dame: join the league in 2020 for football, and then join as a full member by some future date. Alas, that didn’t happen. Perhaps the timing was bad, given the state of the pandemic; everything was in flux, including college sports and higher education. Two years later, though, it looks like another missed opportunity to strengthen the long-term solvency of the ACC.