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Luke DeCock: ACC’s choice to leave Greensboro says a lot about what league is now — big business

The (Raleigh) News & Observer logo The (Raleigh) News & Observer 9/21/2022 Luke DeCock, The News & Observer
The ACC logo on the court during a quarterfinal game between Georgia Tech and Miami in the ACC Men's Basketball Tournament at Greensboro Coliseum on March 11, 2021, in Greensboro, North Carolina. © Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images North America/TNS The ACC logo on the court during a quarterfinal game between Georgia Tech and Miami in the ACC Men's Basketball Tournament at Greensboro Coliseum on March 11, 2021, in Greensboro, North Carolina.

RALEIGH, N.C. — The most jarring thing about the ACC finally finalizing its inevitable move from Greensboro to Charlotte is that, unlike just about everything else that’s so disorienting about college sports these days, this was not done by perceived necessity. It was entirely by elective choice.

That says everything about the ACC’s motivation here and what was driving the new commissioner and the 15 presidents and chancellors who pushed and approved this decision. They didn’t have to leave Greensboro behind. They wanted to leave Greensboro behind. It was one of the first items they put on Jim Phillips’ agenda when they hired him.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s their league to run how they see fit. The rest of us, from athletic directors to boosters, athletes to fans, have no option other than to abide by the choices they have made.

Greensboro was good enough for the ACC for six decades, but they have decided it is not for a seventh.

It’s another choice down a decision tree that has left very little about the ACC that resembles what it was 20 years ago, for better or for worse. This otherwise minor decision — that truly affects only the 30-something people still left working at the ACC office who now have to decide whether to leave an affordable housing market for one that is, in a word, not — does tend to have an outsized effect driving that reality home, like the frog that realizes the water is, oops, indeed boiling.

The ACC’s been heading this way for a while, driven by forces both inside and outside of its control. Change is inevitable, and was way back when, whether that was South Carolina leaving or Florida State arriving, long before Syracuse was a gleam in John Swofford’s eye. As college sports became a bigger and bigger business, the ACC got bigger and bigger to keep up. The once-unthinkable, like playing the basketball tournament in Brooklyn — Brooklyn! — became the routine.

It’s always been a balancing act. The expansion that added Virginia Tech and Boston College and Miami was essential to the ACC’s survival, even if it was the first of several recent moves that diluted the essence of the “old” ACC and brought people into the league who cared not for its history or tradition. There’s good and bad in everything, and the ACC did what it had to do to keep up.

As the Baltimore philosopher Slim Charles once said, “The thing about the old days — they the old days.”

Even this iteration of the ACC may look very different in four or five years, given the pace of change in the industry. Who would have thought, five months ago, that UCLA and USC would be in the same league as Maryland and Rutgers? Phillips’ name has come up for the open presidency of the Chicago Bears; maybe he won’t even make it to his new office in Charlotte, although leaving the ACC for the second-worst franchise in the NFL would be a choice.

But it’s a day like this that underlines just how much the ACC has changed, no longer an athletic conference but a television network that offers sports, a profit center masquerading as a nonprofit. There’s no better way to represent just how Big Business a move this is than to secure office space in the Bank of America Tower, for years Charlotte’s Biggest Business building.

For all of Phillips’ talk about the higher purpose of college sports this July — at football media days, in Charlotte — listen to Duke president Vincent Price on Tuesday, talking like a private-equity vulture Duke alum excited to dismantle a beloved local newspaper for parts: “We are excited to partner in meaningful ways” with Charlotte and bring “two incredible brands together.”

That’s the language of high finance, not higher education. Can you imagine those words coming out of the late Bill Friday’s mouth?

In the end, this move isn’t going to have any impact on fans, other than the ACC holding enough championships in North Carolina to fulfill the requirements of the state’s $15 million handout, which is the same number of championships the ACC was going to hold in North Carolina anyway.

But it does symbolize the final evolution of the ACC from what it once was to what it is now, increasingly unmoored from what made it the ACC, headed straight into the uncertain future of college athletics at a close haul, in untrammeled pursuit of the almighty dollar.

As for that $15 million of taxpayer money, it’s easy to criticize and justifiably so, because the state drove such a soft bargain. Once Orlando’s bid became a matter of public record it would have been easy to call Florida’s bluff. But it’s equally important to note that a Democratic governor and Republican legislative leadership all thought it was worth that much as bipartisan insurance to make sure the ACC didn’t leave the state on their watch. That’s not a campaign issue any of them want to run against.

It mattered that much to them. And it mattered this much to the ACC’s leaders. If this was really about a fiduciary responsibility, as it was staked out 13 months ago, the ACC would have stayed in Greensboro. No, this was a statement of intent, a conspicuous move to a center of commerce and ESPN hub, because whatever the ACC once was, that’s what it is now. That’s all it is now. It’s been that way for a while. It just takes a day like Tuesday to put a period on it.

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