The Atlantic Coast Conference hopes its success of last season can boost the league this year — on the field and the balance sheet.
The ACC returns the Heisman Trophy winner, the reigning national champion and has two top-five teams in the national polls. The league’s success has helped make the conference even more attractive to fans and viewers — starting with a list of opening-week matchups that include Florida State-Alabama, Virginia Tech-West Virginia and Georgia Tech-Tennessee.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Commissioner John Swofford said 2016 “may well have been the best year in our league’s history” while saying the league has trended up for about five years.
“And in today’s world, from the conference’s standpoint, that’s really important,” Swofford said. “It’s helped us tremendously in terms of where we’re headed, television-wise. It’s helped us tremendously in terms of our bowl associations that we now have and will have for a good while to come.”
He hopes that success will buoy the entire league as it prepares for the launch of its ESPN-affiliated television channel in two years, added to its roster of corporate sponsors and begins work on negotiating the next round of bowl contracts.
“Everybody wants to be associated with something that’s high-quality, something that’s successful, something that wins,” Swofford said of those sponsors.
ACC football certainly seems like an easy sell this year.
Louisville’s Lamar Jackson is back for his junior season after earning the top individual honor in the sport. No. 5 Clemson is out to defend its first national championship since 1981. And No. 3 Florida State shapes up as a top contender for another College Football Playoff berth.
Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College in Massachusetts who has written dozens of books on the business of sports, expects a bump in general across the ACC.
“Whenever you have star charismatic players who get a lot of publicity, and you have a championship team, you get more attention,” Zimbalist said. “There will be more interest at the schools, and therefore stronger attendance at the schools that have not been selling out their games. … Because of the increased interest, there will probably be more sponsorship money available. There will be a boost. Usually, all of these things interact.”
If so, such a box-office boost figures to be tough to tangibly measure.
The last Heisman winner to return to school was Jameis Winston, who came back to Florida State in 2014 after leading the Seminoles to their most recent national title. Their home attendance increased by 9 percent that year — probably due to several factors including Winston and Florida State’s schedule that season included home games against Clemson, Notre Dame and Florida.
Also, the financial impact of Jackson and Clemson to the league’s bottom line won’t be known publicly for a while.
The ACC’s most recent tax documents cover the fiscal year that ended in June 2016. That covers the 2015 football season, which ended with Clemson losing to Alabama in the CFP title game.
They show total revenues of $372 million, with payouts to schools ranging between $27.9 million (Clemson) and $22.5 million (Wake Forest and Georgia Tech). The league brought in $226 million that year from its television deal with ESPN, and — in yet another indication of how football drives the finances of college sports — its nearly $86 million in bowl revenue was more than four times larger than its NCAA basketball tournament money.
That money helps the schools pay for improvement projects and other expenditures.
Shortly after Jackson won the Heisman, Louisville began work on a $63 million expansion of its stadium to increase capacity by 10,000 seats. Clemson recently gave coach Dabo Swinney a new eight-year, $54 million contract.
North Carolina is building a $25 million indoor facility as part of its new practice complex. Duke put the latest touches on its three-year remodeling of its stadium. Boston College is pumping $200 million into its athletic facilities, including a new weight room for football and an athletics field house.
“Everything is momentum,” BC coach Steve Addazio said.
Additionally, the ACC in recent months added a new corporate sponsor (Mellow Mushroom) and renewed a sponsorship deal with another longtime partner (Food Lion), though terms were not disclosed. Among individual schools, Louisville extended its apparel deal with Adidas for another decade in a deal worth $160 million.
Swofford also said the league has opened discussions with some of its affiliated bowls on renewing their agreements even though the current contracts don’t expire until after the 2019 season. He says the progress on the upcoming ACC Network is “right where we would want to be.
“It all fits together,” he said. “The reality is, the quality of our football has been a tremendous help, tangibly and intangibly.”
AP Sports Writers Jimmy Golen in Boston and Gary B. Graves in Louisville, Kentucky, contributed to this report.