It was a national, almost made-for-TV scene at the ACC Football Kickoff. The Westin in Uptown Charlotte turns into a makeshift broadcast studio for two days every July, complete with sets, staging areas and strict schedule that keeps all events tied to an always-ticking clock. That's not the way it's always been at the ACC Football Kickoff, but when launching a conference network and celebrating national championships is on the agenda, the event demands a sense of urgency that will resonate throughout the league's footprint and across the country.
But before creating that sense of urgency and a demand for ACC content that could translate to television sets and revenue dollars, the league had to get serious about football.
In the 2000s, ACC commissioner John Swofford began to plot the future of the league alongside conference leadership, both what the ACC wanted to look like and where it wanted to fit in the national landscape of college athletics. Clemson and Georgia Tech brought high-level success decades before, but at the time, the ACC's part of the national football discussion was as the resting place for Bobby Bowden's Florida State dynasty.
Swofford describes the state of the ACC at the time as a nine-member league that was "basketball-centric." There was not the consistency of success in football, nor the depth of nationally competitive football programs, for the ACC to be perceived as much else than a basketball league.
Looking into the future, Swofford identified a shift in the business model for college athletics. Television was becoming the primary avenue of revenue for a conference's members. Football, not basketball, was the best vehicle to secure lucrative media rights deals. If the ACC wanted to be competitive financially with the other major conferences, it needed to get better on the gridiron.
"It was going to be necessary for us to improve ourselves football-wise, if for no other reason the business aspects of it for our league," Swofford told CBS Sports. "That's when we started thinking really seriously about evaluating things. We felt like we've got to get larger, we've got to increase our footprint. We need more television sets, and we need to get better in football, collectively. We've got to do it in a way that doesn't damage the best basketball conference in the country. Here's where we need to head to, quite frankly, retain all of our members then as well as give ourselves the opportunity financially to do what we need to do."
The decision was first made internally. The ACC was going to pursue expansion for the preservation of its status as one of the country's elite leagues. Next was the hard part: getting the many competing interests aligned within the conference to vote in favor of adding new member schools.
Swofford has been commissioner of the ACC since 1997, and throughout multiple waves of expansion, television rights negotiations and the creation of the College Football Playoff, he's seen challenging times trying to get conference and university leadership on the same page. Through it all, those first expansion efforts in the 2000s remain an key pivot point in Swofford's career as a commissioner and the league's history as a power conference.
For all the good that has come from the expansion since, it's fascinating to remember how difficult it was internally within the conference to get everyone on board.