At ACC spring meetings, reminders abound that more is never enough in college sports

Few places in America can rival the opulence of the Amelia Island Ritz-Carlton, where it is not an accident that visitors are greeted by a cadre of luxury cars parked throughout the resort’s large circular driveway. Everything about this place screams “fancy,” right down to the little bowls of Orange Blossom Himalayan Salt Scrub in the bathrooms.

“Indulge yourself with a complimentary hand massage,” says an inviting sign near the bowl and, sure, don’t mind if I do. A little jar of the stuff, available exclusively in the spa, will only set you back $38; two for $70. Not a bad deal, really, at a hotel where the smallest cup of coffee runs $6.

This is a resort of posh and privilege, a place where the haves come to relax and let loose a little. How unbefitting, then, that this week the Ritz is a place of stress and consternation, one where ACC administrators and athletic directors, among others, will spend an inordinate amount of time talking about money, and more specifically how they lack enough of it.

One might think it difficult that such an argument could be made in such a place; that it’d be impossible to scream poor (or, OK, maybe just scream “we’re not as rich”) inside a hotel where the cheapest rooms on Monday night were going for more than $1,100. But this is major college athletics. The shamelessness and lust for cash knows no bounds.

The ACC began coming here, to the Amelia Island Ritz, in 1996 for its annual spring meetings. Over time, it has become an accepted and expected part of doing business, if not one that offers a telling juxtaposition between the excess of major college sports and the supposed mission of higher education. The conference is hardly an outlier; every major league (and even mid-major ones) spend their good share of money on extravagant conference meeting locales.

What makes it feel a little different this year, here, are the circumstances surrounding the ACC, and college sports at large. The entire enterprise is not one that could be described as a happy family. College athletics, long an exercise in dysfunction and one void of competent and forward-thinking leadership, seems more in disarray than ever, what with the widespread angst surrounding NIL and the transfer portal. And the ACC, especially, feels like it’s on the brink.

The brink of what, exactly, remains to be seen.

This much, though, has become clear enough: Even in one of the wealthiest conferences in the country, some schools are not content with the record amount of revenue the ACC continues to generate. Its revenue amounted to nearly $580 million in 2021, and the league likely surpassed the $600 million mark in 2022 (those figures will be released soon). The problem, well-documented by now, is that the Big Ten and SEC continue to make more and more (and more) money — so much that their members could soon receive tens of millions more than their peers in the ACC.

And thus the reasoning behind the urgency here at the Ritz, and the consternation. In the weeks and months leading to these meetings, leaders at Clemson and Florida State have talked tough about the ACC’s revenue “crisis,” and all but demanded an unequal cut of the league’s pie (FSU, it should be noted, hasn’t played for an ACC football championship since 2014). Other league members, including North Carolina and Miami, could make their own arguments as to why they, too, deserve more.

The question amid all of the griping and grumbling is where it all ends. There is not an ACC football or men’s basketball coach who isn’t already a millionaire, several times over. There is not an ACC athletic director without a yearly salary well into the six figures, if not seven. There is not an ACC school that can’t afford — despite what they might claim — to provide their athletes with the best of the best. And yet the discussion here, on Monday and throughout the week, will be dominated by what conference lacks, relative to its two wealthiest peers.

It will be about how to make more. More and more and more.

The conference has doubled its revenue throughout the past decade. Its administrators and coaches are wealthier than a lot of them could’ve ever contemplated in their younger years. And yet some of the social media chatter on Monday afternoon, after a report that seven ACC schools were exploring the iron-cladedness of the league’s Grant of Rights, reflected the growing perception that the conference is more or less a dead man walking.

It’s difficult to argue, given the trends in college athletics that have existed for, well, forever. This has always been a business built upon one-upping. Building bigger and new facilities. Paying coaches more. Out-spending and out-maneuvering rivals. At some point along the way, it became not enough to generate so much money that schools now have a difficult time spending it all. This is the place the ACC now resides, a place of discontent and growing distrust despite record revenue.

The league’s setting this week offers reminders of the realities of a never-ending chase. The parking lot at the Ritz is proof that somebody else will always have a nicer car. In the surrounding marinas are reminders that somebody else will always have a bigger boat. And in the conversations here behind closed doors, there’s another truth: contentment can be difficult to come by, even in a place that offers palm trees, oceanfront views and complimentary Himalayan salt hand massages.