College Sports

ACC Commissioner John Swofford on sneaker money, TV and football’s relevance

ACC Commissioner John Swofford says the relationship between schools and shoe-and-apparel companies should be reviewed and potentially reined in, in response to the recent federal investigation.
ACC Commissioner John Swofford says the relationship between schools and shoe-and-apparel companies should be reviewed and potentially reined in, in response to the recent federal investigation. AP

Even as more details emerge surrounding the federal investigation into corruption in college basketball and its relationships to shoe and apparel companies, ACC Commissioner John Swofford is sticking with his league.

In a phone interview with The Observer Thursday, two days before Charlotte will host the ACC Championship Game at Bank of America Stadium, Swofford reiterated that he believes the alleged wrongdoings at Louisville and some other college basketball programs are “not pervasive and my hope is that it’s not pervasive.”

However, Swofford says anything that reaches the consequence of a federal investigation must demand the attention of all the major-college conferences.

“Do I think it could be reined in? Absolutely I do,” Swofford said, “because I’m confident the shoe companies all really don’t want that type of stigma, don’t want that type of relationship” with prominent programs endorsing their products.

Swofford also addressed the future of the ACC Network, the conference’s exclusive television channel with ESPN, as well as his reaction to the North Carolina NCAA decision. The interview, edited for grammar and brevity, is below:

Q. Can you talk about your relationship with Charlotte as far as the football game, and also potentially the idea of any ACC basketball tournaments coming here in the future with the Spectrum Center?

A. The ACC-Charlotte relationship I don’t think has ever been better. It’s always been good, starting with basketball tournaments over the years and terrific success there, and well gosh, now in three different buildings.

From a football standpoint, I think this game, meaning the ACC Championship game, has really found a home in Charlotte. When you look at the fact that even with our expansions, Charlotte is still right in the geographic center of the footprint, and that’s a plus.

Q. The Spectrum Center as a venue potentially for ACC tournaments, what do you know about the building at this point?

A. Well, we’ll be back there for the 2019 tournament. We’re in the process of looking at the next rotation, and I would guess sometime in the first half of the 2018 calendar year, we’ll make decisions and have announcements on what that next rotation is.

With that kind of facility and all the other pluses to hosting a championship event, in this case the ACC tournament, and with the history it’s had in Charlotte, I’d be very surprised if Charlotte is not in the next rotation as well.

Q. You mention that rotation for the basketball tournaments – do you foresee that same thing potentially happening with the ACC football championship game, or like you were saying, is it in more of a permanent home in Charlotte?

A. Currently our contract runs through the 2020 game, but we are having discussions about the future, and the focus of those discussions is on extending the agreement and to continue to bring the championship game to Charlotte.

Q. When do you guys anticipate those talks will be concluded and when there will be a contract extension?

A. I can’t give you a specific date, but my best guess is that it would be on a similar time frame as the basketball tournament rotation discussions. I would expect it to be done here in the first six months of calendar 2018.

Q. How has your relationship with Notre Dame worked out?

A. I think it’s been a huge win-win, for Notre Dame as well as for the ACC. I couldn’t be more pleased with that relationship. Notre Dame is an excellent fit from an institutional standpoint first and foremost, and from an athletics standpoint, their program mirrors so many of our programs in the ACC in terms of the sports that they emphasize and are really good in.

They also fit our league in the sense that we have more private institutions in the ACC than any of the other major conferences. In fact, we have more than the other conferences combined, so we’re an interesting mix of public institutions and private institutions. So from that standpoint, it’s a good fit.

It’s obviously an excellent academic institution, so it’s a good fit from that standpoint. And the realities of the relationship, competitively and from a business standpoint, have worked extremely well. They brought value to our television agreements. It was important for us to have those five football games each year, and it was very important to Notre Dame to maintain their independent status in football.

They’re a full and very active member in every way from a full membership standpoint, except in football, but the scheduling relationship is excellent. If, and I don’t expect this to happen, in our agreement with Notre Dame that runs through 2036, if Notre Dame joins a conference in football, by contract it will be the Atlantic Coast Conference. But I do know their independent status continues to be very important to them.

Q. With the success that bringing Notre Dame has had for the conference, does that at all change your outlook on the future of the ACC Network, and what are your thoughts on that going forward? Is that still a focus for you, or less so now?

A. It’s very much a focus, it’s a different focus. It’s been a focus for a good while, and what I mean by that is, there were several things we had to do as a conference if we were going to have any opportunity at having our own network, which I think is extremely important to the future of the league.

Number one, we had to grow as a conference. We had to have a larger footprint with a greater population, and obviously we have done that.

We needed to get better in football from a collective standpoint, and our schools have responded to that challenge very well in terms of commitment to the sport and their understanding of the business aspects of college athletics and what an impact football has in today’s world. We needed to do those things without damaging our basketball in any way, and fortunately as it has turned out, it has actually enhanced our basketball and helped us bring our football up to a similar level, particularly over the last five years or so.

I think football in the ACC is the strongest it has ever been, and we’ve been on a really positive trajectory for the last five years, and I think the fact that the winner of our football championship game has either won the national championship or been in the College Football Playoff for the last four years, with two of those being national championships, and we’ve had five straight Orange Bowl championships, which had never happened for one conference in the history of the Orange Bowl, even going back to when they had relationships and tie-ins with other conferences.

I think our depth is greater than it has ever been, and then we had to have, with our growth, we had to have the commitment from all of our schools that they were going to be together for the long term, and that’s why we successfully went after and requested a grant of media rights (GOR) from our member schools. All 15 of those signed that, and so there’s an in-writing full commitment to each other until at least through 2036, and I gues it would be extended beyond that, but I won’t be around to see that.

But we had to have that commitment to each other so, as it turned out ESPN being our television partner, ESPN would be assured that they were making a deal with a conference that was going to stick together, and over the last 10 years with the turbulence that was going on in the college athletic landscape, that was critical. And our schools were able to make that happen.

All those things together gave us the opportunity to negotiate the agreement that we have with ESPN and to have our own channel with ESPN as our partner. Our efforts to reach the point where we are now have been long-term. We’ve been talking about a channel with ESPN since 2009, so that’s when we first started those discussions, and obviously a lot has happened since 2009, so we’re obviously beyond the contractual part of it now and into the implementation phase.

We couldn’t be more pleased as to where that is at this point in time, a lot of work being done on our campuses with production facilities that will be necessary at the local level, to do what needs to be done with the channel and ESPN is off and running in terms of distribution, and we’re beginning to talk about content. We’re beginning to talk about talent. So it’s an exciting time with the successes the league is having and with the upcoming ACC-ESPN channel nearing its launch in 2019.

Q. With the recent situation with Adidas et al., (federal investigation into possible payoffs to recruits or their families) are you concerned with the relationship between schools and shoe and apparel companies, and is that something that can be reined in?

A. I think you have to be concerned when something arises that’s connected to, at least apparently, a couple of individuals that brings about a federal investigation. Do I think it could be reined in? Absolutely I do, because I’m confident the shoe companies all really don’t want that type of stigma, don’t want that type of relationship and I know how good those deals can be between institutions and universities because I did the first one in Chapel Hill when I was the AD there.

I don’t think that’s a pervasive problem, but certainly it puts up red flags for universities to really make certain that the relationships with the shoe companies and apparel companies are transparent and positive in every way, which I think most of them are.

I think we have to be careful with the problems that have come into play, not to paint with too wide a brush until we really see how pervasive it is. My guess is it’s not pervasive and my hope is that it’s not pervasive.

Q. Along that same vein, and I know you addressed this at ACC Media Day recently, is there any regret at all over the decision to expand the conference and allow Louisville and Syracuse in, in light of the FBI probe and everything that has come up?

A. No. I think it was the right decision, I still believe it was the right decision, I think that most everybody in our league would agree on that, and over the long haul, I think that all of our schools are going to be positive contributors to the league.

If you look back historically, periodically institutions have issues. That’s the last thing you want to see, in terms of NCAA issues. But there are human beings in those programs, competing in those programs, and us human beings make mistakes at times. We want to minimize those, and when one of our schools in the conference, as a family member, has that kind of issue, the expectation is you deal with it, and you deal with it strongly and positively and effectively and move on, and the conference and the other members in the league are here to help that happen in whatever way that we can.

Q. It’s been a couple of weeks now since the NCAA decision came out about North Carolina – just wondering what your reaction was when you heard that and how you think that decision will affect the conference moving forward?

A. Couple of things – I’m not sure there are any real winners in that whole episode. The good part of it is it’s now over with, and Carolina has addressed what needed to be addressed on its campus, and I think they’ve done that effectively and aggressively.

I think that when you look at the process itself, we in college athletics, through the NCAA, need to take a look at how those processes in any investigation can be done more effectively and expediently. We saw a long-term issue there with the North Carolina case, we saw it with the Syracuse case. I think anybody would agree that we need to improve the process in that respect.

The other aspect of it that I think needs to be addressed from an NCAA standpoint is, you know, it doesn’t seem quite right to me that it takes until the end of an investigation like that, that took so long, to determine that it wasn’t within the NCAA’s jurisdiction to deal with that, according to its bylaws. Seems like that should have been realized early on in the process, rather than at the end of the process. So there’s work there to be done at the institution as well as at the NCAA.

I guess that could be the good that will come out of it, that when an investigation like that goes on for that long, that in itself becomes a sanction in a sense, with a university having that kind of cloud over it, as was the case for that period of time in Carolina’s situation, and to a lesser degree in the Syracuse situation and the Miami situation.

Q. I wanted to ask you about last year’s decision to move events out of North Carolina because of House Bill 2 (the since-rescinded law that was perceived by some as prejuidicial toward the LGBT community). That was obviously a huge undertaking and a lot of planning, a lot of quick planning, went into how to relocate all these events. Any lessons learned about what if that happens in the future, or how to handle something of that magnitude? And how things went after that? I know, for example, Orlando had a very positive experience with the football game.

A. We wish it hadn’t been in that situation to begin with, first of all. We as an athletic conference are not interested in being a part of political processes, but we are very interested, and our Council of Presidents emphasized this, very committed to the values and the cornerstones of the league and its commitment to nondiscrimination and to diversity and to inclusion. So it really was a value-driven decision by our Council of Presidents based on those strong bylaws and our cornerstones on which the league was founded.

Fortunately those kinds of situations don’t come up very often, and hopefully won’t again. But we couldn’t have been more pleased with the moves that we were able to make, the cooperation of places like Orlando, where the football game was played. They did a tremendous job, as did all the people in Louisville that hosted our baseball tournament and in South Carolina that hosted our golf and women’s basketball tournaments.

We also couldn’t have been more pleased and more appreciative to the venues and locations that we left, because their level of understanding was tremendous. Their willingness to accept us back at the first opportunity was there from moment one, and they couldn’t have been more cooperative, starting with the people in Charlotte.

Q. The last five years, you’ve had two national championships in football and a Heisman Trophy winner. You as a guy who started out in all of this as a football player, did you imagine the ACC hitting this point in football ever?

A. I felt like we could, and certainly that’s what I’ve wanted for this league for a long time. Quite frankly, I wanted our football to be respected at the same level our basketball was from a collective standpoint, and I think we have reached that, and I think that’s a very good feeling and hopefully we can maintain it for a long time, and I believe that we can.

As I said earlier, I think fortunately basketball has maintained its place from a national perspective – it’s actually even been enhanced while this growth in football has happened in our league. It’s good to see, because I always felt there was no reason the ACC couldn’t have that same level of national prominence and respect in football that it has had in basketball for a long time.

We’ve had great teams over the years in football, and terrific players and some national champions, but we haven’t had it as consistently as we’ve had in basketball nor for as long. It’s a terrific thing for our league.

Bonnell: 704-358-5129: @rick_bonnell