ACC commissioner looks to prioritize growing football's audience across conference

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- ACC commissioner Jim Phillips has made it his goal to make football more of a priority across the conference, a shift that puts a more aggressive emphasis on branding, marketing and television exposure in addition to future plans to consider a change in its division model.

Already, each league team will be featured on ACC Network as part of a fall-practice tour, in addition to more coverage from games and live events. In another change, the league has now required all league schools to hold Pro Days and spring games for air on ACC Network.

While no changes to the division or scheduling structure are imminent, Phillips noted that the entire collegiate landscape has shifted over the last several months with name, image and likeness, proposed playoff expansion and one-time transfer rules. With the loosening of rules across the board, Phillips said at some point, the ACC will go back to the NCAA to ask that divisions no longer be required for conferences with 12 or more teams to hold a championship game.

"That's something that we're going to want to do," Phillips told ESPN on Thursday. "To test the waters to see if we can go with no divisions like we did last year. We saw what that could look like.

"I don't think you can be married to everything that you've done. Then you get just so cemented in what's been done in the past or, or what you think is best for you. I think it's going to take a lot of a lot of flexibility across all of our schools to understand what that new model looks like for ACC football."

Last year during the coronavirus pandemic, Notre Dame joined the ACC for one season only and the ACC scrapped its division format. Clemson and Notre Dame each made it to the playoffs. Notre Dame returns as an independent this year, but Phillips has not been shy about discussing what a future could look like with the Fighting Irish in the ACC as a full-time member.

That is especially important as speculation has swirled around the idea of Texas and Oklahoma joining the SEC. Before that news broke, Phillips noted during his news conference Wednesday, "Who knows where the future's going to go. You always have to be ready to add. Notre Dame, contractually, if they were to join a conference, would join the ACC. That's where we're at. We'll see where this goes."

Currently, the NCAA requires schools to have divisions in order to play in a conference championship game, unless it can play a round-robin conference schedule. The ACC has tried to get the legislation changed in the past and failed. But this time around, the considerations are also important in a newly expanded 12-team College Football model, where the league would love to have multiple teams invited per year.

Asking for legislative relief would allow for the flexibility to look at all avenues for the league moving forward. During his meeting with ACC football coaches on Wednesday, Phillips talked about reimagining college football in this new era.

"If it goes to 12, it's going to open the door to say, 'OK, where's our best opportunity to get multiple teams in this thing?'" said Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson, one of three coaches on the ACC football subcommittee. "Does it lie with divisions or without? And so I think if it goes to this new format, all of these things are open. Do I see that changing in the next year or two? No. But I think that's part of a longer-term conversation."

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, also on the ACC football subcommittee, noted he likes the division format, but would love the league to consider doing away with permanent crossover opponents as a way to get more teams to play each other. The only problem is there are multiple important ACC rivalry games that involve permanent crossovers, including Miami-Florida State and NC State-North Carolina.

"I think it's good to have divisions and to have some tradition within your league," Swinney said. "But if you do away with divisions, then you put everything in the hands of the TV people on scheduling."

That has to be part of the consideration in order to bring more exposure to ACC football. But part of the issue in that regard has been Clemson's dominance over the entire conference. Swinney doesn't necessarily view it that way, pointing out Alabama has been just as dominant in the SEC. But perhaps the narrative in the SEC is different because it has gotten more exposure, and more teams in position to compete for national championships.

That is ultimately where the ACC needs to get. Shortly after Phillips was hired as commissioner, replacing John Swofford in January, he established the football subcommittee to look at ways to elevate football across the conference. Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi joined Swinney and Clawson in the group, in addition to athletics directors Heather Lyke (Pitt), Whit Babcock (Virginia Tech), Pat Kraft (Boston College), Bubba Cunningham (North Carolina), Carla Williams (Virginia) and Blake James (Miami).

The league asked the group for new ideas for ACC football. The biggest feedback was twofold: a more aggressive approach to football marketing and promotion, and to have a football-first culture. That is why there have been changes, from increased coverage on the ACC Network, to exploring different ways to promote players of the week, to a larger social media presence, to planning a primetime announcement for schedule reveals and buy-in from coaches to make more television appearances to promote their schools and the conference.

That was evident at ACC Kickoff, with three ACC Network sets positioned across the hotel. In addition, the ACC took photos of each player who attended, and within 15 minutes provided the content to them to push on their own social media platforms.

The league has also established three more focus groups to get more feedback on an ongoing basis: one with recruiting coordinators, one with 28 players (two per team), and one with digital social directors. In addition, coaches asked the league to address its officiating program.

"There's been a good exchange of ideas. In the past, that never happened," Narduzzi said. "They don't ask the coaches, 'what do you think?' If you're not listening to the people that are in the arena, what are we doing here?"

But getting everybody on the same page, perhaps at times putting the good of the league ahead of the good of the program when it comes to more possible changes ahead, is going to take more collaboration as the discussions turn toward doing more than just increasing its exposure.

"There is discussion about what is best for the greater good," Phillips said. "Is there movement to get there? I would say that there is."