How Will Cal, Stanford Moving To The ACC Impact College Baseball?


Image credit: David Esquer (Photo by Zac BonDurant/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Reports for the last three weeks have persisted saying that the ACC was considering adding California, SMU and Stanford. Now, the ACC is set to enact such a plan.

Cal and Stanford were two of the four teams left standing following the dramatic moves by the Big Ten (adding Oregon, Southern California, UCLA and Washington) and the Big 12 (adding Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah). As they moved to explore their options in the wake of the departures, the ACC emerged as a possible home. After a few stops and starts—and the inclusion of SMU, currently a member of the American Athletic Conference that doesn’t play baseball, an agreement reportedly was reached Friday.

All 10 schools are slated to depart the Pac-12 effective July 1, 2024, meaning this is the last year of the conference as we know it. As of now, when the next academic year begins, only Oregon State and Washington State will remain in the conference.

The latest moves aren’t as dramatic as the previous departures but there’s still plenty of fallout. Here’s a Q&A to try to make sense of it all.

Does this make sense?

While Cal, SMU and Stanford aren’t natural fits in the ACC, the plan is mutually beneficial. The ACC is dealing with some very public, very loud complaints from cornerstone members like Florida State about how the conference is falling behind financially in comparison to the Big Ten and SEC. The addition of the three new schools—all at initially reduced rates of revenue distribution—will allow for more money to be distributed to schools that were already in the conference. That seems to be the best plan right now for increasing revenue for the conference. For Cal and Stanford, while they will now have a massive increase in travel, they will remain in a major conference. They seem to view (probably correctly) having a home in a league with teams like Clemson, Florida State, Miami, North Carolina, Notre Dame, etc., is better for their national championship aspirations than being in a league that more closely resembles the current makeup of the American or Mountain West.

It’s not the most straightforward move, but conference composition is well beyond tradition at this point. The ACC is just the latest league to stretch from coast to coast. The Big Ten goes from Piscataway, N.J., to Los Angeles. The Big 12 stretches from Salt Lake City to Orlando. Conference USA goes from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Albuquerque, N.M. Chalk this one up as just another strange marriage that we’ll have to get used to starting next fall.

Stanford baseball comes out of this looking pretty good, right?

Yes. This move isn’t without drawbacks for the Cardinal, but I think it’s the best possible outcome for them on the diamond. Stanford now moves into the second-best baseball conference and will fit right in. The Cardinal have been to the last three College World Series and being in a conference of the ACC’s stature makes it all the easier to continue to compete at that level.

While I’ve previously argued that Stanford could make it work if it ended up in a smaller conference because of its unique recruiting profile, now we won’t have to put that hypothesis to the test. Stanford will be in a league that’s full of major powers and national championship contenders. It won’t have to rethink its scheduling strategy to overcome a worse conference RPI or fight against any perception issues from playing outside a major conference. It also shouldn’t hurt Stanford much that it will now be playing on the West Coast less often. The majority of its roster is from California, but the Cardinal has long been a program that recruits nationally. Its fall roster includes players from 10 different states (plus Australia). It’s a strong brand and an elite degree and besides, if you’re a West Coast native who wants to play baseball in a major conference, you now either need to go cross country for school or get comfortable with playing a bunch of conference games in another time zone. This is admittedly the most dramatic of the options (the Big 12 is still mostly west of the Mississippi and the Big Ten at least has four schools on the West Coast, which are likely to annually play each other), but all of these teams have a lot of travel time in their future.

What about Cal?

Cal doesn’t have it quite as good as Stanford. It already isn’t a consistent NCAA Tournament team in the Pac-12 and now it’s going to be playing in a tougher conference. Unlike the Cardinal, the Golden Bears don’t recruit nationally—all but two of their players on last season’s roster were from California.

I still think this a win for Cal, however, and that’s all down to money. Its athletic department is not in a strong financial position. It has a lot of debt to pay off on its football stadium and it was little more than a decade ago that the school cut baseball before reversing course at the 11th hour. If Cal is making this move, it must think this is the best financial proposition. While the Golden Bears might have had a better chance at making the NCAA Tournament in a different league, this is probably better for long-term stability.

The ACC was already the second-best baseball conference. Does this move the needle at all?

Honestly, probably not. I’d argue this makes the ACC a better, deeper league, but at best it’s just offsetting the SEC’s strengthening through next year’s additions of Oklahoma and Texas. Maybe this provides some further separation from the Big 12 and Big Ten, but what is that worth? It’s hard to see the ACC getting more credit in the selection committee room just because it’s clearly the second-best conference, if that is how it plays out.

So, what is ACC baseball getting in this move?

Stanford is a two-time national champion and has been to Omaha 19 times. It’s won the Pac-12 three times in the last five years and routinely produces All-American talent. Cal hasn’t been quite as successful, but it has Omaha pedigree and has produced three first-round picks in the last five years. The ACC is a better baseball conference with those teams in it.

The most significant on-field ramification is that there will be some fun series to come out of it. Stanford playing Louisville or Virginia or Wake Forest should make for a fun series. Cal taking on Pitt, as it did this spring in non-conference action, may not move the needle as much, but there could be seasons when a Cal-Clemson or Cal-Louisville showdown is meaningful.

How does this impact the players?

As I wrote a couple weeks ago, the breakup of the Pac-12 does create real concern for players. We don’t yet know what the ACC will do with its scheduling model, but it probably won’t appreciably change. And that means that every year Cal and Stanford are looking at four or five cross-country trips, depending on whether they host the rivalry series or not. With a few exceptions, ACC schools are generally located close to major airports, and it seems likely that Cal and Stanford will have to charter flights more often going forward. But even a flight between San Francisco and Chicago is 3.5 hours. It’s five hours to Boston or Miami.

All that travel, missed class and altered sleep schedules will have some impact. There’s also the fact that now more games will be further away from home for most of the Cardinal and Golden Bears, which makes it harder for family and friends to see games. What that does for a player’s mental health will vary, but many will no doubt feel its effects.

What about Oregon State and Washington State? What do they do now?

Oregon State and Washington State have been very public in the last couple weeks about their desire to hold the four remaining Pac-12 schools together and reform the conference. They’ve also been pretty open about understanding that the ACC possibility had to resolve itself before that could truly take shape. Now, they have clarity about the future of Cal and Stanford.

Anything Oregon State and Washington State do now will likely put them in a conference that looks like the American or Mountain West. They may still call it the Pac-12 for financial reasons, but it’s not going to be the same.

For Washington State, this is particularly bad news. The Cougars, like Cal, have a tough financial situation already and they will see their revenue fall in a new conference. Oregon State will also have to deal with less revenue but is coming from a completely different place in baseball with its three national championship trophies and strong fan base.

I’ve argued that Oregon State can continue to play high-level baseball no matter what conference it ends up in—if it continues to make the investment needed to retain a premier coaching staff and recruit at a high level. Coastal Carolina, Dallas Baptist and East Carolina are examples of schools that are consistently achieving at high levels outside the power conference structure. While it’s true that between them, they only have one CWS appearance (Coastal, 2016), they also don’t have Oregon State’s history. The Beavers have already proven they can win and produce big leaguers. It should be easier for Oregon State to convince players that they can still do all of that regardless of their conference affiliation than it was a decade ago for a school like DBU.

The margin for error will be smaller—just ask any Big West school—but if Oregon State decides it wants to continue to be a baseball power, I believe it can still be that kind of program.

Other than Oregon State and Washington State finding a home, is this the end of the realignment/consolidation chaos?

For now, probably. Some ACC schools probably still aren’t thrilled with their situation (North Carolina made a public statement Thursday night opposing it), but SEC commissioner Greg Sankey has gone out of his way to make it clear the conference wants to onboard Oklahoma and Texas before looking at anything else. The Big Ten just went through an expansion process over the last 12 months and only seemed to add Oregon and Washington because of the perilous nature of the Pac-12. Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark has said it’s no longer looking at Connecticut and Gonzaga, previous expansion targets.

Unless Florida State or some other ACC school finds a way to get out of or challenge the grant of rights (which ties up its conference TV payout through 2036), this should be the end of the major changes in the immediate future.

This current format itself will probably only be temporary—conferences change far more often than we’d like to think—and potentially major changes are on the horizon. But this should carry college sports through this decade, at least.

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