ACC Expansion Thoughts: Kentucky Wildcats

Would the Kentucky Wildcats Ever Be Tempted to Leave the SEC for the ACC?

Let’s pretend for a minute that college football doesn’t completely drive the train when it comes to college athletics revenues. Maybe we pretend too, that a league founded on college basketball (like the Big East once was) could still exist in today’s landscape.

What if the ACC added the University of Kentucky?

And is it really that far-fetched a possibility, even in our reality rooted in gridiron dollars? I’m not one to suggest the ACC abandon football at all. I think the league has a strong tradition, but one that happens to be based on the relative strengths of just a few choice programs, rather than the collective sum of a prestigious collection of teams. But let’s also be fair — no team outside of maybe Florida State is going to be given enough media credit to play for a title right now. So, given that, and the fact that the league’s most valuable property year-over-year is basketball, why not make another move to strengthen that brand?

Why not add Kentucky?

The ACC made it clear when they added Syracuse and Pittsburgh that they wanted to emphasize basketball, while keeping the football league as a top-heavy entity with a ton of solid teams in the middle. They’ve already got three of the most successful basketball teams in NCAA history: SU, North Carolina and Duke. Imagine if they convinced the Wildcats to come on board, giving them a power top-four contingent of schools that could smother what any other league had to offer. With the rabid fan bases of those institutions, plus the rest of Tobacco Road, Maryland and Pittsburgh, you’re already looking at an extremely valuable property that far surpasses anything the Big East had ever dreamed of when they first assembled a Northeast-based collective of “power schools” over three decades ago.

According to Forbes in 2010, UNC was the most valuable team in college basketball, estimated at $29 million. Kentucky was second at $26.2M, Syracuse was eighth at $17M and Duke was 11th at $16.4M. No other conference would possess more than two teams in the top 11, and the ACC would have four. The contract for the theoretical ACC Network would go through the roof, and chances are it would rival the sums currently being paid out to the other big-money leagues. Rather than the $13-15 million per school currently discussed, this number would easily bump up to $18-20 million (if not more), suddenly putting the ACC on par with its rival leagues.

Of course, this is all conjecture at best. The SEC has no plans to allow the only historically successful basketball program they have run away, and Kentucky has no real plans to leave. Sure, they’ll face better competition in hoops, and would actually stand a chance at contending in football (at least more so than they do now), but as Missouri and Texas A&M have taught us lately, the SEC trumps everything; competitiveness, rivalries, geographic proximity. Chances are Kentucky’s opinions won’t change. But should they ever get restless, the ACC would be wise to pounce.

Slight Update, April 2: The Wall Street Journal provided its own college basketball program values today, which differ a bit from Forbes’ view about 18 months ago (linked above). Our four schools in question rank sixth (UNC at $109.8M), seventh (Duke at $105.9M), 13th (Syracuse at $82.7M) and 16th (Kentucky at $73.7M). Not sure I buy all that — and neither does Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician — however, that list also says that a revised ACC (see above) would have seven of the top 20. So there’s that.

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