Stanford University is today, as it always has been, 20 miles or so from the Pacific coast and about 3,000 from the Atlantic. But the intercollegiate world, at least as refracted through Cardinal-colored glass, has become a lot smaller.
On September 1, after weeks of negotiation and politicking, Stanford accepted a hard-won invitation to join the Atlantic Coast Conference, effective fall 2024. Joining the Cardinal on this transcontinental trek will be its nearest and dearest archrival. The University of California-Berkeley is the alma mater of Roy “Wrong Way” Riegels, infamous for running most of the length of the field toward the incorrect end zone in the 1929 Rose Bowl.
Nearly a century later, the Bears and the Cardinal are headed much farther in the wrong direction but for all the right reasons. In early August, the Pacific-12 Conference imploded, with five schools announcing fall 2024 departures for conferences east of the Rockies, bringing the total number of defectors to eight. Stanford Athletics needed a home.
So much of the attraction of collegiate athletics relies on the emotion generated by rivalry and nostalgia. In more than a century of competition, the Pac-12 has been the home of powerhouses in football (USC), men’s basketball (UCLA), track and field (Oregon), and pretty much everything else (the Farm). Its collapse means that Stanford must consign its annual competitions up and down the West Coast to the history books. This is a gut punch to the Cardinal faithful.
“We wish we could [have found] a way to keep the Pac-12 solvent. When that didn’t happen, we feel fortunate to have landed in the ACC,” says athletics director Bernard Muir.
Moving to the ACC keeps the Cardinal in a Power Four conference, which provides the high level of competition that the university and its student-athletes seek to maintain. But the cost will be significant in dollars, time, and tradition. Travel costs will skyrocket, and the ACC’s newest schools, as a condition of membership, agreed to forgo tens of millions of dollars in conference television income over the next nine years. Meanwhile, in most sports, the Cardinal’s decades-long West Coast rivalries no longer will be renewed annually.
“We tried to do our part to keep the over-100-year tradition continuing,” Muir says. “We weren’t able to accomplish that. Now we are going on to the next chapter.”
The next chapter has been a national power in men’s basketball, men’s and women’s lacrosse, and field hockey. Stanford’s new home will feature 10 public and eight private institutions. Nine of them, including Stanford and Cal, are members of the Association of American Universities, the country’s leading research institutions. “If you look at the composition of the schools, intellectually, academically, and athletically, we’re a very good fit,” says Megan Olomu, ’23, a track athlete from Dallas and co-chair of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC).
The move of Stanford, Cal, and Southern Methodist University to the ACC is the latest paroxysm of realignment in intercollegiate athletics, all in the pursuit of television revenue, which the Pac-12 failed to generate in sufficient amounts to keep its members together. Chalk it up to bad decisions—a conference-owned Pac-12 Network that never flourished—and bad timing. Most of the aforementioned TV revenue comes from football, and the league’s teams fell into a competitive slump as the major networks chased ratings with increased fervor and funds. As the Pac-12 struggled to attract viewers, in 2022 Fox bankrolled the heist of the Los Angeles schools into the Big Ten beginning in 2024. Last summer, Colorado announced it would leave for the Big 12, and once the Pac-12 unveiled the offer of a television contract from Apple that relied on streaming and subscription revenue, five of the remaining nine schools bolted, leaving behind Stanford, Cal, Oregon State, and Washington State.
Four teams do not a conference make. In football, Muir says, a scheduling consultant explained that Stanford would have to start out playing the other three schools home-and-home every season, as in basketball. “As much as people love Big Game,” he says, “I don’t think they’re ready for two Big Games in one season.”
Independence, i.e., belonging to no conference at all, is also logistically untenable. Imagine attempting to schedule 36 sports when nearly every other school has to play a full slate of conference games. There’s a reason that Notre Dame, proudly an independent for more than a century, joined the ACC in all but football a decade ago, and that BYU, independent for 12 seasons, leapt at the invitation to join the Big 12 this year.
Another impetus for the move, according to the announcement by university leaders, is the desire of Stanford athletes to continue playing top-level competition. That necessitates time-zone travel. Neither of the western alternatives, the Mountain West and West Coast, is among the top collegiate conferences.
“People come here for high-level competition. I think that’s why everybody thinks Stanford is so great,” Olomu says. “It would have been a really big hit to the program if we had entered some smaller league with weaker competition.”
Adds SAAC co-chair Hunter Hollenbeck, ’24, a diver from Okemos, Mich., “We recognized how unique Stanford is and, frankly, how we’re willing to make sacrifices to keep that special nature that Stanford has had for so long.”
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There will be financial sacrifice as well. Stanford, Cal, and SMU became attractive to the ACC because of the structure of its TV contract with ESPN, which states that if the conference expands its membership, ESPN must provide a pro rata share annually for each new member—and there’s nothing in the contract that says the ACC must give that money to the new member. “Had that clause not been in there, we probably would be scrambling, trying to figure out what the next steps are for us,” Muir says.
To secure the deal, the three new members agreed to forgo some (Stanford and Cal) or all (SMU) of that new ACC television revenue for their first nine years in the league. Some of those funds will be apportioned among the existing members, with the remainder placed in a performance pool for ACC teams and doled out based upon competitive success.
“There’s more money for them to go get,” Muir says. “What is great is that we all have the opportunity to go get this, even the new schools. Let’s see who earns it.”
The good news is that Stanford will receive a full conference share of whatever the ACC earns from the College Football Playoff and the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. The better news is that the university has assured the athletics department, historically expected to be self-sufficient, that it will cover the financial shortfall over the next decade. The increased cost is expected to be $25 million next year, which will come from the president’s discretionary funds.
“I think the Board of Trustees understands what athletics brings to the overall fabric of the campus, so this commitment was well worth the effort to allow our student-athletes to continue to compete at a high level,” Muir says.
“It’s a really good sign for us to know we have that support,” Olomu says. “I really do think it should be a symbiotic relationship. We can help each other out, you know?”
Competing at the varsity level requires considerable sacrifices in time and energy before the first book is opened, and there remain only 10 weeks in a quarter, seven days in a week, and 24 hours in a day. Next fall, the two-hour flights for Pac-12 competition will become six-hour flights in the ACC.
“They’re going to have fly out now earlier in the week to make sure they have a practice day, a rest day to compensate for all the physical hassles from travel,” Olomu says. “They’re going to get back a lot later on those Sundays.”
Not all athletes will traverse the continent. Five of the six sports that compete in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation—artistic swimming, men’s gymnastics, men’s volleyball, and men’s and women’s water polo—will remain there (fencing will move to the ACC). Beach volleyball and men’s and women’s sailing will also remain west. And several sports already travel nationally.
“If you’re a golfer, you play in tournaments all over the country and then you go to your conference tournament,” Muir says. “If the conference tournament is in Atlanta, so be it. For 14 sports, there is a change. You’re playing an ACC schedule. We’re still trying to work through what that looks like, sport by sport.”
The Stanford field hockey team has an inkling. It has been a member of the America East Conference for seven seasons. “You were always doing homework between games, on planes,” says Emma Christus, ’19, a former field hockey starter. “It was, ‘Can I squeeze everything in?’ since we’re always on the road. The social implications of that—in season I was basically never around. I feel like we were MIA for the whole fall.”
The 2023 team made four trips to the Eastern time zone. It helped to make two of them before classes began on September 26 (raise a glass to the quarter system). Next year, the travel will bring a better payoff: The ACC is the most competitive field hockey conference in the NCAA, with five national titles between 2015 and 2022.
But travel will add stress to a group of student-athletes who put great demands on themselves to succeed competitively and academically. The Stanford athletics department already employs four sports psychologists and has access to the counseling resources at Stanford Medicine. More help is on the way. “I would expect that would expand and [we will] have other clinicians available to us through this transition,” Muir says.
Athletics department personnel spent the autumn discussing with the ACC office in Charlotte, N.C., how to make this marriage work. Can the fall sports front-load their travel into the weeks before classes begin at the end of September? (Hope so.) Is it possible to schedule two or three Stanford teams on the same ACC campuses simultaneously, to save airfare? (Probably not. The savings are not worth the cost in time of one team waiting on others to depart.) Does it make sense for the ACC to schedule big tournaments in Dallas, the home of SMU and a lot of sports facilities? (To be determined.)
“We have built into our budget projections more money for travel,” Muir says. “We’ll figure out how to deploy those resources—if they need an extra day, provide that extra day; whether there is greater use of charters; whether we are flying commercial—but let’s make sure the kids are comfortable, especially for these longer flights.”
So let us all learn the location of Clemson (easy: Exit I-85 in the northwest corner of South Carolina onto Highway 76 and follow the 12 miles of orange paw prints painted on the highway). Let us enjoy the delicacy of boiled peanuts at Doak Campbell Stadium at Florida State. Let us stroll down the Ohio River toward Louisville, Ky., where Cardinal is not a color but a bird.
The ACC has a history of geographic sleight of hand. Boston College is in Chestnut Hill, Mass., not Boston; the University of Miami is in Coral Gables, Fla., not Miami; and Wake Forest University is 107 miles from Wake Forest, N.C. So why not? Stanford and Cal will join the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Until September, the fact that Leland Stanford grew up near Albany, N.Y., didn’t seem that important. Turns out he was about halfway between Syracuse and Boston College.
The New Rivals
Ivan Maisel, ’81, is an author and sportswriter who has covered college athletics for more than four decades. Email him at email@example.com.