Stanford announced on Sept. 1 that it would be joining the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) in 2024 alongside the University of California, Berkeley and Southern Methodist University. While there is promising financial upside to the long-term media revenues of the ACC, the move raises larger questions about the well-being of student-athletes and the future of Stanford athletics.
After spending over a century in the Pac-12, Stanford will start its next chapter and bring its tradition of academic and athletic excellence to a new set of competitors across the country. While establishing the appropriate accommodations for athletes may take some time and experimentation, student-athletes expressed confidence the Cardinal will have a bright future in the ACC.
The decision to join the ACC followed two consecutive seasons of substantial conference realignment. The domino effect began in 2021 when Texas and Oklahoma agreed to leave the Big 12 for the SEC, and continued with the downfall of the Pac-12 when USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington bolted for the Big Ten and Colorado, Utah, Arizona and Arizona State headed for the Big 12.
Conference shifts were largely based on media rights and revenues, specifically for football games. Many Pac-12 members said conference leadership failed, including the last-minute, unsatisfactory TV deals that were presented to the schools.
By early August, Stanford was one of four schools that remained in the Pac-12, causing them to scramble to find a new conference.
Megan Olomu, a senior women’s sprinter and co-president of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), found the Pac-12’s collapse to be a great loss for the NCAA and Stanford.
“This is a conference that has existed for 108 years with a rich culture of athletic dominance. We had hundreds of Olympic athletes bred in our conference, and it’s the only Power Five conference on the West Coast,” Olomu said. “Letting all of that history and success collapse at the expense of money and greed was pretty disheartening.”
Although Stanford was one of the last teams to switch conferences, Olomu said the University worked to maintain its core values and uphold the Pac-12.
“Hindsight is always 20/20, but Stanford wanted the continuity of the Pac-12. I think some schools may not have been as forthcoming about their true intentions about staying,” Olomu said. “We may have sacrificed some options by not moving earlier, but I am proud of how the school handled it.”
Hunter Hollenbeck, a senior men’s diver and SAAC co-president, acknowledged that Stanford was forced into finding a new conference.
“When we saw that the Pac-12 was no longer viable, we had to find a new home that would still fit the Stanford identity of being excellent at everything,” said Hollenbeck.
Sophomore baseball pitcher Kassius Thomas shared a similar sentiment. “It was definitely reactive, 100%. I was wondering why they didn’t join something closer. But the ACC does hold a different kind of weight to it that is above a conference like the Big 12. I like the choice,” Thomas said.
The move to the ACC holds a number of upsides, including an increased national presence, greater media revenues and a new level of competition.
The media revenues, however, are starting at a discounted rate. For the next seven years, both Stanford and Cal will receive just 30% of the ACC television payouts, roughly $8 million per year. After the seven-year mark, they will receive 70% in year 8, 75% in year 9 and then full shares starting in year 10. Despite the initial pay cut, the conference shift should be a lucrative deal a decade from now.
Camille Peisner, a junior women’s sprinter, predicts that Stanford’s ACC membership will improve recruiting, especially from East Coast high schools.
“Right now, Stanford recruits a lot of California students. If you grew up in LA, for example, you watch Stanford play UCLA and USC,” Peisner said. “So if we are playing Virginia, those kids in Virginia are going to grow up with [Stanford] as a household name. That will translate 10 years down the road once they are looking at playing collegiately.”
In addition to a recruiting advantage, some athletes said moving to an East Coast conference may enhance the Stanford fan base.
“One of the great things about the ACC is that a lot of our alumni reside on the Eastern Seaboard. There is potential for even more involvement and fan engagement with this move,” Olomu said.
The ACC also offers a different level of competition that athletes are leaning into.
“We’re embracing the opportunity to play in that conference … It was never about where we’re located. We’re going to be good either way,” Thomas said. “We’re going in with something to prove.”
Thomas, a new transfer from Duke, said he has a personal motivation to excel in the ACC: “It’s kind of funny because I left the ACC just to go back.”
“I had no idea this was going to happen. To me, it’s like a gift. You get to go back and dominate all of the competition that you just played,” Thomas said.
A member of the the men’s tennis team, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, agreed that there were new opportunities in the ACC. “The Pac-12 wasn’t the strongest tennis-wise, and I knew that changing conferences would give us a chance to play against strong teams from the East Coast that we wouldn’t necessarily play against normally.”
“I wanted to embrace this challenge and a lot of my teammates felt the same way regarding moving conferences and seeing how we stacked up against the rest of the country,” he said.
Olomu, who recently met with the ACC Commissioner, believes the move will reinvigorate Stanford athletics as a whole.
“They’re excited to have us, and we feel very welcomed. This will cause Stanford to pick up where we have been lacking,” Olomu said. “Personally, I found us lacking in our aggressiveness in the NIL approach, Alston and our media. We are working to be a very competitive school, and now in the ACC, which is a very competitive conference. It’s a compromise, but I think it’s a net plus going to the ACC. Having pride in your athletics program plays into a great university culture overall.”
While there is a great deal of enthusiasm behind Stanford’s move, the decision is coupled with worries about the potential negative impact for some student-athletes.
According to Hollenbeck, travel time is one of the biggest concerns for student-athletes right now. “How do we figure out academics?” Hollenbeck said. “Especially sports like softball and baseball, where you are out across the country for four to five days a week. You’re simply just not going to school.”
As a baseball player competing in series instead of individual games, Thomas expressed similar concerns.
“Honestly, I’m probably going to suffer a little bit in the classroom. I like to think I won’t because we travel anyway, but now you’ve got longer flights,” Thomas said. “It’s just a whole ordeal trying to get there as opposed to being more local.”
In the recent Cardinal House (C-House) meeting, a quarterly gathering that hosts coach-appointed representatives from each of the 36 teams, athletes discussed these considerations and brainstormed potential solutions.
“It raises a lot of questions: Is there validity for us to get priority enrollment, maybe even just for sections?” Hollenbeck said. “Some people can no longer take a lab from Wednesday to Friday. We’re also thinking about the ability to take classes remotely and more robust protocols. Right now you just have to ask really nicely and hope for the best.”
These potential changes are part of a longer conversation between student-athletes and the University in preparation for the move.
“We’re expecting certain pushback from professors with concerns around recording classes,” Olomu said. “There has been a very steadfast value at Stanford that student-athletes should not be treated any differently than the students. However, I am going to push back a bit: There are a lot of obstacles to finishing the degree that the student-athlete community faces. There are certain fundamental differences in terms of time commitments. Now we are having to spend several weekends traveling 5 to 6 hours each way and dealing with a 3-hour time difference.”
Hollenbeck said adaptations should not be limited to just the athletes, but should be extended to the entire student body.
“Within these changes, we want to ensure that it is not just something that comes as an athlete privilege, but comes as solutions for all of us and more capable learning,” Hollenbeck said. “A lot of people have time commitments that require traveling. I think there should be options for everyone.”
Mental health is another concern for the student-athletes. “Long hours, lack of sleep, being away from school, it adds stress on you, takes you away from your friends, and makes you feel more isolated,” Peisner said.
While the exact details remain unclear, athletics director Bernard Muir committed to prioritizing mental health resources for student-athletes.
SAAC leadership is also set to meet with the Faculty Senate this week to discuss concerns and best practices moving forward.
Athletes called on Stanford fans to play a supportive role amid conference realignment.
“If you notice that an athlete in your class has been missing a lot because they are gone five days of the week, send them your notes. Support is so much more than showing up,” Peisner said. “Though trust me, it means the most to us when we have fans in the stands.”
Kai Blankenship contributed reporting.