ESPN apparently has a simple plan for launching The ACC Network in three years — at least on the basketball end.
The plan seems obvious enough: Flood the market with intra-conference matchups.
How else to explain the ACC’s recent decision to expand its hoops schedule to 20 games for the 2019-20 season? Among Division I conferences last year, only the Sun Belt had a league slate exceeding 18 games per member.
Among the Power 5 conferences (Big Ten, ACC, SEC, Pac-12, Big 12), this certainly qualifies as a bold move.
However, it also begs the question: If the ACC was so excited to break this news at its football media days last week, then why won’t the league make the basketball transformation from 18 to 20 games for the 2017-18 season? Why wait two more years for such a landmark change?
With football schedules, non-conference agreements are drawn up years in advance. For basketball, however, it only takes the spring and summer months to consummate a one- or two-year arrangement between schools, with play beginning that November or December.
To me, the ACC’s avoidance strategy is rather elementary: League officials aren’t in a rush to learn the layered consequences of a 20-game conference schedule … and understandably so.
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At first blush, the addition of two conference games doesn’t seem like a major deal. But there are tangible concerns to address:
- A 20-game schedule would likely be exhaustive for the league champion, along with the first wave of title contenders, relative to preparations for the NCAA Tournament.
- Athletic directors would be reluctant to beef up the non-conference schedule, aside from two or three made-for-TV outings. Or maybe the adjusted plan would merit one high-profile preseason tournament … and a bunch of proverbial tomato cans after that.
- From a national perspective, an extended schedule would minimize – or dilute – the conference tournament, no matter how competitive the tourney games might be.
- Late-season matchups among bottom-feeder clubs might yield new record lows for arena attendance.
- Perhaps most importantly, an overall tally of 20-23 conference games, including the league tournament, might delude certain powers into thinking they’re adequately prepared for the NCAA tourney.
The last point could be Exhibit A for why the Big Ten should never consider a 20-game conference schedule — even if membership increases to 16 schools in the coming years.
The Big Ten, which adopted the 18-game scheduling model for hoops in advance of the 2007-08 season, has been overtly chasing a national title for 10-plus years. Yes, the league boasts 14 Final Four participants in this century (Maryland from 2001 and 2002 does’t count), but it also hasn’t claimed a men’s national champion since 2000, when Michigan State won.
As such, the head coaches and league powers are smart enough to know a true national title contender must have sufficient exposure to different playing styles from around the country and not just be banging heads with their conference neighbors.
Remember when the ultra-physical Big East adopted the six-foul rule for conference play during the late 1980s and early 1990s?
On the surface, it seemed like a brilliant way to accommodate – read: enable – the contentious rivalries among Syracuse, Georgetown, Villanova, Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Providence and St. John’s, etc. In reality, though, the rough-and-tumble ways — especially with big men — carried over to the high-pressure NCAA Tournament and led to a number of early exits, fouling-wise.
Well, similarly dispiriting consequences could arise from a 20-game conference model if the contenders are limited with their exposure to other great teams. Also, let’s not forget about the down-the-road importance of playing games on neutral floors. By extension, it’s hard to see the Big Ten partaking in this experiment. Eighteen league games easily satisfies the mission to determine a worthy league champion, even if the schedules are unbalanced for January and February.
But let’s not be totally naive here. Money talks, meaning it’s certainly possible that TV networks might lobby for the Big Ten to expand its basketball inventory in six or seven short years when the conference’s TV deals are open for bidding. (The Big Ten will reportedly collect $2.64 billion from its upcoming TV pacts.)
Let’s just hope Commissioner James Delany — or whoever’s calling the shots at the Big Ten’s shiny headquarters in Rosemont, Ill. — can resist the allure of the 20-game conference model. You know, there are other ways to make a buck in the scheduling business.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.