Of, course the biggest topics were possible conference realignment, the recent news of the bowl tie-in between the SEC and the Big XII and the ACC’s television deal, but we also asked about Dabo Swinney’s contract and facilities.
Hopefully we can break this up into two parts. Of course, as soon as I left his office my phone was already ringing as people wanted to know one thing: Is Clemson leaving for the Big XII?
Of course, I can’t answer that, but I do think his answers to some of the questions are interesting to say the least and you can draw your own conclusions.
He did say that current conference affiliations and the college football landscape are “a moving target.” And he said that the Atlantic Coast Conference now understands that football is king, and that moves have to be made to protect those football interests. If you don’t, your relevance goes away.
Once again, I asked for this meeting on extremely short notice, and I was thankful for his time. Hopefully he will allot us a little more time in the near future when the dust settles a little bit.
Q&A with Clemson AD Terry Don Phillips
TN: The recent announcement of a game between the SEC and the Big XII shook the football world. What are your thoughts on what happened, and what this means for the landscape of college football?
TDP: It [college football landscape] is a moving target now. I think that has been well established over the last two or three years. You would’ve thought that it would’ve settled down a lot after what occurred late last summer and this past fall, but it hasn’t. The SEC and the Big XII and the arrangement to try and protect their champion if they’re not in the top four- actually, it makes a whole lot of sense of to me that now you can protect your champion and at the same time you create a vehicle that your conference can go out and sell and generate more funds for your conference. So, that was a good, solid, strategic move for both conferences.
TN: In your opinion, how does that move affect the ACC?
TDP: The ACC- we just got back from our spring meetings. Certainly, there were a lot of things discussed down there. The conference and the membership well understand what is happening. For example, in this latest contract with ESPN, 80% of it is generated by football. As good as basketball has been in the ACC, it is very evident just through this contract that football has to be very, very relevant. And the conference is well aware of that and they are going to be turning over every stone that they can and not just sitting on this contract. For example this new contract has two look-in windows- one at five years and one at 10 years. The purpose of that - in talking with ESPN people and our people in the same room – is to look at the end of five years where are we- competitively, what’s our performance, and does it merit a significant increase in the rights fee. There’s no question that on ESPN, the rights to television money is larger than any other conference. They’ve got other- the SEC has CBS and other conferences have other carriers, but there is tremendous exposure for the ACC football games as well as basketball games and other Olympic sports. As far as exposure, it’s a very good contract. Dollar wise as far as what ESPN is paying, it’s at the top, but overall because of the lack of CBS, you don’t have the same kind of dollars that other conferences have. But, having said that, ESPN has made it very clear that the purpose of writing in those look-ins is to see where we are in five years. You don’t wait until the end of the 15 years to say, ‘hey, how are we doing?’ That’s the purpose of the five-year and the ten-year look-in to challenge our conference and all of us associated with the conference know that football is extremely important and we have to perform and do everything we can to perform.
TN: Does the ACC contract put the conference’s schools at a competitive disadvantage?
TDP: You’ve got to look at what occurred during the period of time that it was negotiated. One of the interesting things that I’ve heard, with regards to the negotiations is that the conference didn’t do a good job negotiating. What’s interesting is that a lot of these conferences use the same consultants when dealing with the networks. When I came out here from the Big XII to the ACC, we had the same consultant that we had in the Big XII, and so what you have as a package has to speak for itself and provide whatever leverage that you have to negotiate at the highest rate. Some of these contracts- you’re really not privy to- they’re not subject to FOIA because they are privately owned and not for non-profit so you can’t get it there. The only way you can get information- not the provisions- is through tax returns which is always retrospective. You try to understand where you are, but you don’t have a quick and easy way to see what the provisions are. For example as reported, in the Pac 12, when they negotiated their contract- I guess it came about a year after the ACC negotiated its contract- at the time Fox and ESPN with the ACC were bidding against one another. What occurred in the Pac 12, I guess it was NBC Comcast, they came in as a bidder and Fox and ESPN joined forces to keep the other out of the market so that drove up the market value of that contract because of the market dynamics of what occurred at that particular point and time- a new group wanting to come in and get a piece of the college football landscape. And Fox and ESPN determined not to let them have a piece of the landscape so they came together and joined forces to preempt NBC Comcast. Then on top of it, the Pac 12 pulled in all of the multimedia contracts from all of the member institutions which pull that out of the control of the individual school and put it in the conference office, and now they have the multimedia rights. They control these third tier rights for the conference schools, which is part of that figure. Here, you say, ‘ok, what’s it worth to Clemson if you look at the Pac 12 model?’ We probably on our rights pull in 4.5 million annually and maybe a little more so you add that on top- that’s your sponsorships, radio, printed publications, and all of that. So, you could pull in those kinds of rights and put it on top of your television contract and instead of it being 17 million, it’s 21 million in a similar format as the Pac 12. Not being privy and not knowing what’s in the contracts, you don’t know what rights are in there. You only know what’s reported, and that’s sometimes accurate and sometimes not accurate. The conference offices don’t release those contracts and the only thing you can look at are the tax returns of the not-for-profit conference member offices. You don’t know what the provisions are or where those numbers are coming from.
TN: Speaking of third tier rights, it was my understanding that the ACC contract didn’t allow for schools like Clemson to negotiate on games that are not picked up by the networks. Is that correct?
TDP: Anything that’s not picked up by ESPN or Raycom- my understanding of the contract- is that we would be able to try to take it to the marketplace, but again there are some things that we need clarity on and that’s one of them. As far as membership, again we all understand that 80% of the dollars in this contract comes from football. Everybody is treated the same in regard to equal distribution and every school has the same opportunity with the third tier rights that they retain to go out and sell them in the marketplace so no one is being treated different than the other and I think that’s important for people to understand. The big challenge that we’ve got is in football we’ve got to maintain and have a stronger voice when it comes to BCS issues and that means that football has got to continue to improve and get better in our league.
TN: Does it worry you that events that are out of your control can change what happens to Clemson in regards to football playoffs and national recognition? Meaning, what if Florida St. leaves, or another ACC team leaves, thereby weakening the conference?
TDP: There are a lot of things that I or anybody can’t control. The only thing that I feel confident in saying is that I believe that the ACC understands the challenges that we have going forward that football is strong and gets stronger. We cannot afford to lose our seat at the table when it comes to the BCS and championships going forward. We simply cannot afford to allow that to happen. The conference and the conference leadership, as well as the presidents, understand the importance that has to be placed on football going forward.
TN: Does that mean you think the ACC will expand even further or needs to expand in order to keep that seat at the table?
TDP: I’m at a juncture to where you don’t rule anything out anymore. You simply can’t rule it out. The irony of it is that as I look backwards, I can still remember when I was at Arkansas when we went to the SEC and the consternation of us leaving the old Southwest Conference at that time. That was traumatic because of the ties that we had. Then I go to the Big XII when they expanded. I guess that should’ve been a signal that this is the times that we live in. I do believe that it’s going to continue. I do know this- football has got to be very strong because that is driving these contracts. At the ACC meetings, we had an interesting presentation that was in regard to basketball and football with regard to the public. Basketball is a great sport and has a great following, but over the last 10-15 years ,where at one time basketball was up as a sport in this part of the country and football was lower and now it has changed places. That in of itself tells you that football is what the public wants. They want a playoff. They want a championship game that’s not contrived, but one that pretty well matches up the two best teams at the end of the day. That’s what the public wants and conferences have got to position themselves to where their members have an opportunity to get there. One of the things that Dabo did a very good job of talking about at the conference level was about the concern that one of the [SEC] teams will start off ranked higher and they have a tendency to stay up there and Dabo said, ‘well, this past year was a great example that that is not true. If you base it on performance and who you are playing.’ We start off 8-0 and we go from being unranked to fifth in the BCS and had we finished out-fortunately we were able to come back and beat Wake Forest to get in the championship and then we beat a good, solid Virginia Tech team in the ACC Championship. But had we finished out the year the way we did those first eight games, we could’ve been playing for the national championship and that’s going from being unranked. That’s based on performance. I thought Dabo’s point was very good. This year showed what can happen and unfortunately, we were very grateful that our kids played well in the championship game and we won that against a good, solid Virginia Tech team, but our losses occurred at the end of the year which dropped us out of the BCS opportunity, but at one time we were sitting there pretty doggone good.
TN: The ACC teams have to perform better……
TDP: I believe that if you perform very well. And it’s about wins. Again, I go back to this year and would say that if we had finished out the year with how we started, I’m very confident that we would’ve been in one of those top four.
TN: Let’s look at a hypothetical situation, if FSU were to leave……
TDP: I’m not going to get into hypotheticals. I’m not going to discuss it. I hope you can understand that.
TN: So there has been no contact between Clemson and the Big XII or talks about Clemson joining?
TDP: There’s nothing of such between Clemson University and the Big XII.
TN: But that doesn’t mean things won’t change if the need arises?
TDP: Like I said, it’s such a moving target. The landscape has changed so dramatically here in the last few years that it just seems like it was yesterday that at Arkansas we were going to the SEC and then the Big XII was formed so it’s changing. It’s a changing landscape.
TN: And this administration will do what’s best for Clemson, regardless?
TDP: The short answer is absolutely. At the end of the day, we have to do what’s best for our program. Having said that, the conference knows the challenges that we have and the conference unquestionably understands that football has got to perform and perform at a very high level.
TN: So winning takes care of itself?
TDP: It’s going to help a great deal. One of the reasons, we felt it was important to keep Georgia on the schedule- we’ve got South Carolina on the schedule every year- because our thinking was that going forward we wanted to have two teams from really strong conferences that enhanced our non-conference schedule. The Georgia game was a game that we simply weren’t going to lose because of conference expansion. Granted, it has presented some challenges for us but we are going to play Georgia and we’ll work it out. It’s important to play those kinds of games. Football here has been the heartbeat. We’ve just got to keep building it.