After USC and UCLA announced their intention to join the Big Ten this summer, ACC administrators had informal conversations regarding the possible additions of members of the Big 12 and Pac-12 or a potential merger of the three leagues, according to several sources.
The Raleigh News & Observer was first to report the discussions.
Multiple other ACC sources told ESPN that expansion remains a discussion, but as one administrator noted, "nothing is imminent."
Citing text messages obtained via a Freedom of Information request, The News & Observer reported Friday that North Carolina chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and athletic director Bubba Cunningham had discussed a potential "partnership" with the two Power 5 leagues who'd recently lost members in realignment, including references to a conversation Cunningham had with former Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney.
Cunningham told ESPN on Friday that those texts represented a "historical account of what we were talking about on June 30" in the immediate aftermath of the USC and UCLA news, but they did not necessarily reflect the current thinking.
A source said discussions -- both within and outside the league -- have been informal, sounding out whether realignment might be a viable path forward.
"The crucial part of this is patience and planning," one administrator said, referring to a portion of the text messages described by the News & Observer. "It's important [conversations] with an AD and a president, but I don't know that it's gotten anywhere."
Both the Big 12 and Pac 12 have media rights deals expiring in the next two years. The ACC's package with ESPN runs through 2036, and with that deal, each of the 14 existing members -- along with Notre Dame in all sports except football -- signed over its media rights to the league through the terms of that TV contract, meaning no teams could leave the ACC for another league without losing access to television broadcasts of their games until 2036. This, numerous administrators have said, remains the binding force that affords the ACC more time to weigh its options.
Still, a large -- and growing -- revenue gap exists between the ACC (which generated a record $578 million in the 2020-21 fiscal year) and the SEC and Big Ten, the latter of which recently agreed to a new television package that will generate more than $1 billion annually.
ACC commissioner Jim Phillips has said "all options are on the table" as the league looks for ways to close that revenue gap. The league recently partnered with FishBait Solutions to identify potential revenue streams that could help boost the league's finances, but expansion remains a consideration.
While multiple league sources said no team outside of Notre Dame offers a clear and substantial revenue boost via expansion, there could be other factors to consider, with the ACC hoping to head off any potential moves by the Big 12 or Pac-12 that could jeopardize its place as the clear No. 3 conference.
"We need to think about what outcomes we want?" Cunningham texted his chancellor, according to the News & Observer. "What are our priorities? Do we want to maintain all teams in the ACC? Is this a new league? Do we want to have the same number of [sponsored sports] at each school? Should we play a national schedule or regional schedule?"
According to the News & Observer, Guskiewicz was open to the idea of a national brand for the league if it were to merge with the Big 12 and Pac-12.
"We could have a super conference both athletically and academically," Guskiewicz texted, according to the News & Observer. "Probably would need to be called the Atlantic-Pacific Athletic Conference (APAC). Maybe that's crazy, but if it would get us a better TV deal, it may be worth considering."
The ACC would love to renegotiate its existing TV deal, which has been far outpaced by recent contracts signed by both the SEC and Big Ten, and a large-scale expansion could be one way to push television partners to the negotiating table. But Phillips has consistently said he's eager to work with ESPN to secure the future success of the ACC, and multiple athletic directors said all plans would be contingent on support from TV partners.
"Anything that you can do to enhance our current relationship with ESPN is certainly something we're working very hard on right now," Cunningham said.
Expansion is hardly the only option on the table. One administrator said the league is currently discussing "dozens" of options, while another said, "we're always having conversations as to what's best for us as a league."
Phillips has largely tried to avoid a scenario in which college football evolves into so-called superconferences, using his time during the ACC's kickoff event in July to promote the value of education and a diverse athletics landscape, which could be diminished in a world in which two or three superconferences dominate the industry.
Phillips had hoped to establish something of a detente in 2021 with a "handshake agreement" to form a working relationship between the Pac-12, ACC and Big Ten, but when the Big Ten added USC and UCLA, the so-called "alliance" ended. In the aftermath, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said he believed his league would continue to explore expansion, while the Big 12 and Pac-12 have publicly bickered about potential siphoning of each other's most valuable schools.
Phillips noted that the ACC is in a power position for three reasons: its revenue is expected to far outpace that of the Pac-12 or Big 12 once USC, UCLA, Texas and Oklahoma (which are slated to move to the SEC in 2025) move to their new conferences; it operates its own network in partnership with ESPN; and the grant of rights binds its members together for the foreseeable future.