The recent Wall Street Journal feature on the attendance decline in the ACC has me thinking about a longer piece about the decline of the conference. One of the great things about Atlanta as a sports town is that it sits at the junction of the ACC and SEC, which meant that we traditionally got the two best college sports experiences: SEC football and ACC basketball. While the former is as strong as ever, the latter is as weak as it's been since I've been following sports.*
The league is fifth in Ken Pomeroy's ratings this year, which is covered in the article, but it was also fourth last year. In the old days, it would be unheard-of for the ACC to be in the lower half of major conferences. Now, the league is on a two-year streak of doing so.
So what are the potential explanations? I'm interested in readers' opinions on this:
1. Conference expansion - the WSJ article mentions this and quotes Lefty Driesell on unfamiliarity, but there is more going on than just that. A 12-team league that only plays 16 conference games does not really have a coherent competition for the regular season title because teams play more teams once than they do twice. The league could alleviate this problem with an 18-game conference schedule like the Big Ten, but ACC coaches were opposed to that idea because, like SEC football coaches before them, tough is bad. Also, the addition of a number of football schools has caused brand dilution. Whereas the ACC used to be a tight confederation of schools that favored basketball over football (except for Clemson) and were academically strong (again, except for ... nah, I'm not going to go there), it's now a hodge-podge of the original members and bigger football schools.
2. Bad coaches - the WSJ article mentions that coaches don't have personality like they used to, but I don't remember tuning into games because of the extroversion of Terry Holland or Dave Odom. Those guys were good coaches and they put strong teams on the court, so fans were drawn to the product. The current crop of coaches is nothing special. In at least two cases - Georgia Tech and Maryland - athletic departments are hamstrung by financial issues caused by poor hiring and firing decisions. Is it an accident that the football schools in the ACC are doing better than the traditional, hoops-oriented middle class: Virginia, Wake Forest, N.C. State, and Maryland? The football schools have the revenue to pay top coaches (and the buyouts that are necessary when they make mistakes), whereas the schools that don't have cash cow football programs do not.
3. The NCAA Tournament - this is a pet theory of mine, but I am of the opinion that the NCAA Tournament has damaged college basketball because it has become all-consuming. It is so big and so hyped that there is little reason to pay attention to the regular season unless you have a particular rooting interest. What do I care about who wins a regular season conference title when all the teams are playing for are marginal seed differences in a neutral-site tournament? If college basketball went back to its roots with a smaller tournament that only had 1-2 teams from the major conferences,** then maybe the NCAA Tournament would be less of a cultural phenomenon (we wouldn't have to deal with office twits who tout their successful picks that are little more than the result of successful tosses of a coin), but people would care more from the start. The Big Dance is affecting interest in college basketball generally, but the effect would be most pronounced for the ACC as it had the farthest to fall in terms of fan interest. Give people a narrative and ACC basketball will be more interesting.
4. Small sample size - we are looking at a two-year blip. Don't get carried away.
* - I first became a sports fan at the age of five in 1980 when my family lived in Charlottesville. This was at the outset of the Ralph Sampson era, so ACC basketball was literally my first sports love. UVA basketball was the first team that I loved (the Pittsburgh Steelers were a close second because I used to spend hours at the library reading a series of books on past Super Bowls and the Steelers stood out because they had won over a quarter of all Super Bowls played) and UNC basketball was the first team that I hated.
** - My favored format: 16 teams. Eight conferences get auto-bids for their champions (with a results-based formula looking back 3-5 seasons used to determine which conferences get auto-bids), four spots go to champions of other conferences using a play-in format, and then there would be four at-large spots. You would care more about Duke-UNC, Syracuse-Georgetown, and Kansas-Missouri if a Tournament berth were on the line.