Nathan Hatch, then the president of Wake Forest University, calls the University of Maryland’s 2012 decision to depart from the Atlantic Coast Conference the “shot heard ‘round the world.”
The tectonic plates of conference realignment had been shifting for decades. Still, Maryland’s decision sent out different, more troublesome reverberations. “I just had this deep sinking feeling,” Hatch remembered, “this foreboding sense.”
Prior to 2012, an exit by any ACC member, let alone Maryland—one of seven founding institutions from 1953—was practically inconceivable. The University of South Carolina left in 1971, regretted it, and tried unsuccessfully to get back in.
The ACC had a level of camaraderie and mutual respect that came with the traditions and geographic rivalries forged through six decades of competition, and those principles meant something to the conference and its member institutions. At least school presidents thought so.
“That a school like Maryland would forgo all its historic allegiances, its fan base, everything, to chase the money—it was a huge turning point,” Hatch told The Assembly.
The fallout was immense, but so too were Maryland’s financial incentives. In leaving the ACC and realigning with the rival Big Ten, the Terrapins’ conference payout—the sum distributed to member institutions based on the revenue the conference generates from media rights deals with broadcasters—would grow by upwards of $10 million annually.
With the move, two core components of the collegiate athletics landscape had changed, practically overnight. Neither boded well for Wake Forest.
First: the big conferences. “They were not going to respect tradition,” Hatch said. “They were going for financial clout.”
Second: the member institutions. To say that Maryland was poached from the ACC wouldn’t be wholly accurate. The departure was about their bottom line and self-preservation.
“The question quickly became, ‘What would Florida State do? What would Clemson do?’” said Hatch, who retired in 2021. If the Terrapins were in it for themselves, that meant so was everyone else.
Maryland’s departure helped usher in a decade of big-dollar conference consolidation that leaves a question looming over Winston-Salem today: as the business of college sports continues to grow, can “Little Old Wake Forest” continue to compete?
Small Stadium, Small Market
Wake Forest is committed to the ACC. But seven other ACC members have explored the possibility of realignment within the past several months, though departing from the conference would come with significant challenges.
Further complicating matters is the conference’s recent expansion to include three new universities. The opposition of three current ACC schools indicates that the realignment saga is far from over.
Administrators and supporters at Wake Forest who spoke with The Assembly were bullish on the future of the ACC. They expect the conference to remain intact for the foreseeable future primarily because of the ACC’s “grant of rights”—the contract that binds the media rights for all ACC member institutions to the conference, and remains effective through 2036.
Others are less sure. “Realignment moves have been based on football-driven media revenue,” said Amy Perko, a former Wake Forest basketball player who now leads the Knight Commission, a college-sports reform group. “If that continues to be the primary driver, there will continue to be significant changes.”
Among the 69 schools in the Power Five, Wake Forest has the smallest undergraduate enrollment—5,500. Most Power Five schools have at least three times more students than Wake, and have far more alums who could financially support the athletics program and attend games. Wake’s football stadium seats 31,500, the smallest stadium in the Power Five. Clemson’s stadium holds 81,500.
The local television market is not in Wake’s favor either. “It’s one thing if you’re [the University of] Maryland in Washington, D.C. It’s another when you’re in Winston-Salem,” said Tom McMillen, a former Maryland basketball player and current CEO of LEAD1, the association representing 131 athletic directors at America’s premier athletic institutions.
Wake Forest lacks the national recognition ascribed to many of its peers within the ACC, and most every competitor in the other four major conferences. And yet the Demon Deacons are winning against schools well above their weight class.
Wake’s football team has been to postseason bowl games seven years in a row, the longest streak in school history. (That bowl streak is in jeopardy; with last week’s loss at Duke, the Wake football team has four wins and five losses.)
Administrators have capitalized on the on-field successes, particularly those of the football team, to power the evolution of the athletics department, including big investments into facilities.
But as the relentless conference consolidation continues, there’s reason for concern in Winston-Salem. “Pundits in college sports say [we’re heading towards a football] super-league—the premier schools and then the rest,” said Hatch. “The rest are still going to play, but the difference in income is going to be substantial. There are going to be losers.”
He added: “I’m concerned because Wake Forest has gained so much from the ACC. And not just in athletics.”
‘Everything Was a Bus Ride’
The Pac-12 is another of the Power Five, college athletics’s most elite and highest-earning conferences—or at least they were. The Pac-12’s media agreements will expire in July 2024, and the conference failed to land an extension, essentially flushing away a 108-year history.
The conference will break apart after this academic year. Ten of the twelve schools have realigned with wealthier conferences with bigger TV footprints and higher annual payouts to members.
Stanford University at first wasn’t invited to join another major conference—even though it has the most successful athletics department in the country. Stanford has won more NCAA team championships than any other school, and has won the Learfield Directors’ Cup for overall excellence 26 times in 29 years.
It might seem impossible that the most successful sports program in the country would get left behind. But conference consolidation is mostly about who has the most valuable football programs, and Stanford’s imprint in football, while solid, is less distinguished.
So when other Pac-12 schools bolted for other Power Five conferences in the Big Ten and Big 12, Stanford was left to wilt. So much for conference loyalty and historic rivalries. The ACC came to its rescue and offered it membership—along with Southern Methodist University and the University of California-Berkeley—over the objections of Clemson, Florida State, and North Carolina.
If Stanford’s conference affiliation could be endangered, so could Wake Forest’s. Wake hasn’t been as successful on the field as Stanford, but Wake has more than held its own, and it’s spent over $250 million improving its facilities.
Wake Forest says it wants to cultivate a “world class student-athlete experience,” a turn of phrase so emblematic the university italicizes it on every use. It wants athletes of every program to have facilities of the caliber most schools splurge on only for their revenue programs—football and men’s basketball.
Football players at Wake have new $38 million accommodations, upgraded this year to include a hydrotherapy room, a recovery room replete with sleeping pods, and a full-service barbershop.
But baseball players have a development center, refurbished in 2019 to the tune of $12 million, that features a pitching lab so advanced that 24 of 30 MLB teams sent staffers to visit in the offseason. And Wake Forest track athletes describe their facilities as “jaw-dropping,” “state-of-the-art,” and “stunning.”
The most prominent Wake athletes can earn $100,000 or more in endorsement deals, one of the benefits of the exposure that comes from playing in a premier conference like the ACC.
The university also pitches recruited athletes on the quality of a Wake Forest education. In the words of Ben Sutton, an alumnus and notable major donor whose name adorns a four-level, 87,000-square-foot sports performance center: “We’re not just a factory for sports.”
At Wake Forest, most of the 400-plus athletes excel academically. “It was really important for me to choose a place where I liked the school as much as I liked the team,” said Addison Berry, a member of the Demon Deacons track team. “I wanted to go somewhere where I could get a degree that was going to be valuable.”
With an acceptance rate hovering around 20 percent, “Work Forest” is a difficult school to get into and seldom a cakewalk for those who enroll. Athletes at Wake Forest are well-supported. A fleet of staffers—from subject-specific tutors, to academic-athletic counselors, to study coaches who promote time-management techniques—work to help them succeed. Most of the time, they do.
For the 2021-2022 academic year, nearly 70 percent of Wake Forest athletes had a grade point average of 3.0 or better. Their 96 percent graduation success rating, which measures the proportion of students-athletes who earn their degree within six years, was among the five best in the Power Five.
For most Wake Forest athletes en route to their degree, academic concessions are part of the game. Track athletes, for example, typically can’t register for classes that meet between 2 and 6 p.m. because they conflict with their designated training block.
Given the ACC’s recent expansion, there is concern that the size and scope of those concessions will grow more burdensome in the coming years. Because the move will expand the conference beyond the East Coast (all current members sit in the eastern time zone), critics have redubbed the ACC as ‘All Coast Conference.’
The expansion has drawn ire in some circles because the ACC has historically distinguished itself by touting its high academics. Adding travel time for hyper-busy athletes is inconsistent with that brand.
“When I played at Wake Forest between 1983 and ’87 everything was a bus ride for us,” Perko said. “While I understand the forces at play here that have caused the conferences to expand, the impact on the thousands of other athletes is too often overlooked.”
Compared to Olympic sport athletes and those who play sports like baseball, volleyball and soccer, football players have the least burden. They have the shortest season, competitions are usually on Saturdays, and they have no more than six or seven away games per season.
Aleeya Hutchins excelled on the Wake Forest track team from 2020 to 2022. She set several Wake records, won an ACC championship, and was an All-American in the indoor 800 meters. But she left the university without graduating and returned to Canada because of the constant pressure to succeed on the track and in the classroom.
“It just gets to be too much,” she said on a YouTube video posted last year. “So many athletes I talk to feel this way … I love my teammates. I love Wake Forest. I love this school. But it was too much for me.”
Building a New Brand
Sutton, the Wake grad who founded a prominent college sports media and marketing company, can point to the exact game when the script began to flip in Wake’s favor.
On Dec. 27, 2016, the Demon Deacon football team defeated the Temple Owls in the Military Bowl. Soliciting capital investments to support a mediocre or losing brand—as the Deacons were for much of the decade prior—had been a difficult endeavor. But with Wake Forest’s first bowl win since 2008, Sutton and company had a platform to build from.
A galvanized group of distinguished donors and high-ranking administrators, including then-President Hatch and then-Athletic Director Ron Wellman, mapped out what it would take to, in Sutton’s words, “effectuate massive positive change and sustain it.”
By almost every metric, the group has done just that. Contributions from sports donors have averaged around $30 million over the past several years, a figure McMillen calls “incredible,” adding that “I don’t think Maryland and a lot of the other Big-10 schools come even close [to that amount].”
During the last nine years, Wake Forest’s football team has outperformed the expectations of the country’s 200 most prominent football writers in all but one season. The Deacon’s seven-year bowl streak is the second-longest in the ACC behind Clemson.
In a world where athletic departments’ wherewithal hinges on Saturday’s football score, Wake Forest’s operation is among the most impressive in the ACC. Its athletic department has packaged those wins into a marketable and attractive entertainment vehicle.
Since 2019, Wake Forest has seen its national fan base grow by 115 percent, according to a survey that asked respondents which college team they identify with; that’s the biggest increase among the 69 institutions in the Power Five.
Still, Wake’s total fan base ranks only ninth out of 15 in the ACC. Wake’s TV audience for football often is small. Among the 69 schools in the Power Five, Wake has had fewer games viewed by at least 1 million people than all but eight schools since 2017, Sports Illustrated reports.
Selling Wake Forest
In his office near the seven-year-old McCreary Football Field House, Director of Athletics John Currie draws an imaginary line across his desk. On one side, Currie groups the realities beyond his control: Winston-Salem’s television market, Wake Forest’s alumni base, a small football stadium.
Practically everything across the line—the things he could influence—Currie’s played a key role in evolving and expanding. “There have been a lot of moments in time when people said, ‘Wake Forest’s got no chance,” Currie said. “And here we sit.”
Wake Forest’s annual athletic revenue hovers around $85 million. That figure has been steadily climbing over the years, “and oh by the way, we’re not done yet,” Sutton said.
By comparison, UNC, Duke, and North Carolina State have annual athletic revenues of more than $100 million each. Ohio State generates the most nationally, with $252 million for fiscal year 2021-22.
When asked what the Demon Deacons need to do over the course of the next decade to ensure there’s still a home for them amid what could be a very different looking landscape, Currie knocks a resolute knuckle over his desk—side number two.
“We need to keep selling Wake Forest. We need to keep winning and having record student attendance and graduating athletes who go on to great careers in medicine and teaching and law.” He added: “There’s a lot of universities in the Power Five that look alike, so the fact that we look a little bit different is an advantage for us.”
Concessions continue—from the athlete missing a class for a competition to the conference admitting West Coast members—because that’s the price to compete in the ever-escalating college-sports arms race. In light of the tumult spurred by conference realignment, the premium placed on cultivating a winning brand has never been higher.
At Wake Forest, where the economic incentives for athletic success tower above the magnolias and academic buildings alike, patterns of success have upped the ante for students, coaches, and administrators alike.
“It’s wonderful when we have Fulbright Scholars and Rhodes Scholars, when our people land major research grants and write important papers and books,” Sutton said. “But the reality is, the best way to reach 95 percent of people is through our athletic programs.”
He believes a successful athletics program draws talent to the university. “People are attracted to winning,” he said. “You don’t have to be a student-athlete to understand that.”
Will Zimmerman graduated from Wake Forest University in May 2023 with an interdisciplinary degree in film and journalism. He has produced award-winning documentary and docu-fiction films, and writes for publications in North Carolina and in his home state of New York.