While the stakes aren’t quite what they could be, the NC vs. NC football game at Kenan Stadium on Saturday is still a big deal. The wolf pack is pretty much trying to save what’s left of the season. The state, too, could spoil Tar Heels’ pursuit of the rare feat (that is, rare for these programs) of 10 regular season wins.
UNC, which has already secured a spot in next week’s ACC Championship game, is playing to improve its chances of qualifying for the Orange Bowl and bolster Drake May’s position to become a finalist for the Heisman Trophy that will be accompanied by next week’s ride. month to New York. The game has all the usual intangibles, the right to brag, and what that means to supporters of both schools.
NC State and UNC play for the 112th time. This is the only regular season game in which both sets of fans, whether they like it or not, want their teams to win the most. This is arguably the most important college football game in this state; household separator, annual yardstick for both programs, decent regular season finale.
For the people here in this state, this game matters. From Murphy to Manteo there will be interest. It means something. So the people of North Carolina should enjoy it while it lasts, because in today’s world of college athletics, state-Carolina rivalries—and other similar regional rivalries—are getting more and more dangerous. Tar Heels and Wolfpack have been playing each other for over 100 years, but who knows how long this streak can last.
The changing reality of college sports
Reasons for doubt that might have seemed ridiculous not so long ago now seem real: what if the conference to which both schools belong, the ACC, can’t hold its own at a time when football TV revenues drive everything? What if UNC, faced with the reality of a shrinking ACC, one day accepts an offer to join the Big Ten or the SEC? What if State and Carolina, with a difference of about 30 minutes, soon find themselves in different conferences?
For now, ACC seems safe. At least safer than the days last summer when it was reported that UCLA and USC were leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten. This news caused some panic. It underscored what Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick told a panel of reporters just a couple of months ago during the ACC’s annual spring meetings. Swarbrick then spoke in general terms about the consolidation of power in college athletics when he said:
“We are approaching a model of two solar systems. You have two suns with all the gravitational pull, the Big Ten and the SEC, and people will have to figure out how to align with one or the other.”
UCLA and USC have made their choice. Texas and Oklahoma, which are moving from the Big 12 to the SEC, have been successful this past summer. The ACC was the beneficiary – so it seemed at the time – of other similar moves during its two major expansion rounds over the past 20 years. These moves, especially the addition of Miami and Virginia Tech in an attempt to bolster football, and Syracuse in an attempt to bolster basketball, were supposed to bolster the ACC in the long run.
And now, instead, the conference continues to lag behind the Big Ten and the SEC in TV rights revenue, which pretty much defines everything. It’s not ACC’s fault, for sure. At one time it was the strongest league in the country. His basketball television contract in the 1990s and even early 2000s was the most valuable commodity in college athletics, even more so than SEC football. That’s why in the early 90’s the state of Florida was wanted.
But everything is changing. Around the mid-2000s, as football TV money moved into another stratosphere, ACC’s biggest football brands failed. Miami, since joining the conference, has never been close to what it was in the 1980s or 90s. Virginia Tech fell. The state of Florida, while in the midst of a strong season, is no longer the power it was for the better part of two decades. Combine this with the fact that the ACC has its fair share of relatively smaller schools with fewer fans, and the league’s financial position becomes clearer.
That the ACC has not been looted is a testament to the strength of the rights agreement that holds its members together. Schools can thank or curse former commissioner John Swofford for this. After Maryland moved into the Big 10 — and this week marks 10 years since Maryland left the ACC — Swofford, the ACC presidents and chancellors have decided to grant rights, making exit financially nearly impossible.
The agreement runs until 2036, like the league’s contract with ESPN, and so far the grant of rights has remained in place. But can he last another 14 years? And what would college athletics look like then? With the exception of an act of charity by ESPN, which is the main financial partner of the ACC, the league will continue to lag behind its two conference rivals. The gap is now in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and that’s before the Big Ten and new SEC TV deals go into effect in the coming years.
Rivalry on the ropes?
Which brings us back to Friday’s game between the states and the Carolinas. On the field, for better or worse, these programs have been largely equal since the inception of the ACC in 1953. has won the ACC for over 40 years.
However, outside the field, UNC is clearly elsewhere in the changing landscape. Carolina would have attractive options if the ACC were to fall apart, whether it was to hit the Big Ten or the SEC. Meanwhile, North Carolina’s biggest hope is probably that the ACC will find a way to stay intact. Last summer, the day the Big Ten news broke, University of North Carolina Chancellor Kevin Guskevich sent a message to Bubba Cunningham, the school’s athletic director, about the forces shaping college athletics.
According to UNC records published by The News & Observer, they went back and forth about having a plan and preparations. At one point, Guskevich asked Cunningham if he had spoken to Boo Corrigan, the North Carolina state athletic director.
“I’m curious where they are now,” Guskevich wrote.
“I’ve spoken to Boo a couple of times, but they don’t really have a position,” Cunningham replied. “They’d obviously prefer more money, but they’re not sure which league would take it.”
This is what college athletics has become in 2022. As important as what happens on the field, the name of the school’s brand—and how it can translate into television ratings and the eyes of ad buyers—is far more important. This reality of recent years has led to the cessation, or at least a long hiatus, of numerous rivalries. The games that mattered, some of them over 100 years old, disappeared as conferences fell apart and schools went their separate ways.
Oklahoma-Oklahoma State will soon join the club when the Sooners head to the SEC in 2025. Their football rivalry, known as the Bedlam, will not continue, the athletic directors of both schools have said. The reasoning is clear enough: “This is one of the consequences of the OU decision[to join the SEC],” Chad Weiberg told The Action Network in September. “This is disappointing to the people of Oklahoma.”
For now, North Carolina residents have the Carolina State in football. It’s not exactly Bedlam, but the history goes back over a century and many moments have been lived through. This is the only college football game in this state that carries some mystery. It doesn’t really matter at the national level, but it does matter here. It’s part of what makes college sports special in North Carolina, but there are no guarantees right now. Who knows if it will last.
Enjoy while it lasts.