ACC Additions of Cal, Stanford, SMU Bring Only Positives for Swimming
Within the wider world of college athletics, Friday’s additions of Cal, Stanford and SMU to the no-longer-appropriately-named Atlantic Coast Conference brought about a shaky new status quo to college athletics. This period of conference realignment saw the demolition of the Pac-12 as Oregon and Washington departed for the Big Ten and four schools made the move to the Big 12 prior to this latest announcement, but the future of the ACC remains in question. Specifically, many insiders believe Clemson, Florida State and North Carolina would jump from the ACC to the SEC or Big Ten, both conferences still with greater revenue streams than the ACC, when possible after all three schools voted against expansion.
Those perspectives are extremely valid and flatly concerning to any with a stake in any ACC institution in danger of being left behind in the future, just as Cal and Stanford were nearly left behind as the Pac-12 dissolved in the last month. But when simply considering the swimming implications in the near-term, the development is good news, both on the college front and internationally for the continued progress of Team USA.
The logistical drawbacks of Stanford and Cal joining an east-coast-based league are obvious: travel will become a nightmare for these teams, with athletes embarking on near-weekly cross-country trips in some sports. No big deal in football, the sport which drives all decision-making in college athletics, not when football plays only 12 regular season games per year. But in men’s and women’s basketball, where each school plays every conference rival at least once and sometimes twice? Ouch. Baseball, soccer and volleyball are among the other sports in which league-based competition throughout the season is central.
Not so much in swimming, where dual meet results are largely forgotten once championship season arrives. Success in the sport is based on results at the conference and national championship meets, not dual meet record. Teams want to win their meets, particularly rivalry meets, but there is no universal rule that teams must swim all or even most of their conference rivals. For instance, the defending-national-champion University of Virginia women have only two ACC competitions prior to the conference meet.
That Cal and Stanford’s swim teams won’t have to load up on cross-country flights to race the schools’ newly-introduced conference competition. Stanford’s ACC-entry announcement said, “In joining the ACC, Stanford expects 22 of its 36 sports will see either no scheduling changes or minimal scheduling impacts.” Two of those 22 squads are surely the women’s and men’s swimming and diving teams.
The swim teams might choose to travel a little extra; a Cal-Virginia dual meet in Berkeley, Calif., in October 2021 was one of the highlights of that fall season, and now such a meet would provide a bit extra juice with the schools in the same league. But Cal and Stanford’s most important dual meets, the ones between the two schools, will remain league meets, and in swimming the Golden Bears and the Cardinal can continue scheduling USC, Arizona, Arizona State and Utah with no issue if they so choose.
Through the dual meet season, it’s a wash. Bring in the conference championships, and you can argue that Cal and Stanford benefit from joining a conference with much more depth than their old home in the Pac-12. This meet is probably a longer February road trip than the traditional quick flight north to Pac-12s in Federal Way, Wash., but no big deal for a trip that effectively takes up the entire week already.
The big boon, however, is that both schools have a home, a source of revenue for their programs that lags behind many other high-major institutions but provides key support for Olympic sports programs that fill American teams at the Summer Games. After the Pac-12 was reduced to four schools, concerns emerged regarding whether the pair of Bay Area schools could remain key cogs in the U.S. Olympic movement, but securing a financial future by joining into the ACC’s long-term media rights deal with ESPN (even at a reduced rate) is huge for both athletic departments.
Trade a lone longer trip each February in order to swim in a more competitive conference and not have to worry about the program’s financial future? A big win for Cal and Stanford — and American swimming as a whole.