Why ACC women’s gymnastics, returning after 40 years, is important for the Triangle

Five televisions at a random Texas restaurant showed one of North Carolina gymnastics’ January meets. Not basketball or the NFL. Women’s collegiate gymnastics.

Tar Heel junior Taylor Schulze claimed credit on behalf of her friend and restaurant employee who made the decision to show the competition.

A few weeks later, fans filled Reynolds Coliseum with cheers as the N.C. State gymnastics team held a trophy after earning the league’s first-ever Atlantic Coast regular season title.

Both situations come 40 years after the first, and previously only, season of ACC gymnastics. The conference hosted one championship meet in 1984.

Now, the sport is back in the league and receiving national recognition.

“By adding gymnastics, we now sponsor 28 total sports and we sponsor 15 women’s sports. We sponsor more women’s sports than any other Power Five conference, which I think is something that we’re really, really proud of,” said Jessica Rippey, ACC senior associate commissioner for championships and senior woman administrator.

Sport sponsorship process

The ACC started the process for sponsorship in 2021 after Clemson announced its decision to begin a program, meeting the conference’s minimum team threshold. Rippey called the decision a “triggering event.”

Conference bylaws state the ACC will host a championship when four members field a varsity team and certify participation. Women’s gymnastics became the latest addition.

All four teams — with the addition of the Tigers — can compete under the ACC’s umbrella, instead of seeking affiliate membership elsewhere. N.C. State, Carolina and Pitt competed in the East Atlantic Gymnastics League

(EAGL) through 2023.

It’s unclear when the ACC adopted the four-team requirement, Rippey said, but other leagues share similar rules for sponsorship.

The Big 12 requires four member teams in order for conference sponsorship. Older versions of the Big Ten and Big Sky conference handbooks require six teams. Fifty percent of Mountain West schools must field a team for the league to host a conference championship.

Neither the SEC nor Pac-12 bylaws include verbiage for adding sports. They only listed conference-sponsored activities.

Rippey said a lot goes into sponsoring a sport, mostly conversations with member schools and making logistical decisions. For example, they must decide on schedule structure and how to position the league to compete nationally.

With just four teams competing this winter, that meant sandwiching league meets in the middle of the schedule.

Each program started the season with meets against non-conference opponents and will end the regular schedule with non-conference matchups.

Other bylaws they considered included championship venue, venue size, equipment and student-athlete support.

“We’re a membership-driven organization,” Rippey said, acknowledging the collaborative effort. “What I mean by that is our members — the different universities that make up the ACC — are the ones that put forward policies, procedures, and adopt bylaws.”

Why conference sponsorship matters

The impact of sponsoring a sport on the high major level comes down to several factors: school pride, accessibility, exposure and opportunity.

Members from N.C. State, UNC and Clemson programs all said competing under the ACC umbrella makes the teams feel connected to the other teams.

Wolfpack graduate student Emily Shepard said it’s the reason she came back for a fifth year. It means more “slapping the ACC logo on a [leotard].” Fifth-year Chloe Negrete concurred with the significance.

N.C. State coach Kim Landrus shared similar thoughts. Landrus, in her seventh season with the Pack, said the team appreciated its time in the EAGL and the great people. It’s special to compete in the ACC alongside the other student-athletes on campus.

First-year Clemson head coach Amy Smith came from Utah State, though her resume includes stops with the Tar Heels, Florida and UCLA. The Aggies, now in the Mountain West, competed in the now-defunct Mountain Rim Gymnastics Conference until this year.

“We had conferences, but we weren’t connected to the school, so it was always a little bit different,” Smith told the News & Observer. “Now, to have this and to be able to compete for what everybody else is competing for at your university, it’s a big deal.”

She has the distinct privilege of building a program from scratch, in addition to leading the sport into this new phase. Smith calls it a “one-in-a-lifetime opportunity” and reminds her squad every day.

“We talk about that all the time — they wanted us, they chose to have us here — and how much that means to me, the team and my staff,” Smith said.

Finally, the addition creates more accessibility and exposure for the programs and the fans, Tar Heels head coach Danna Durante said.

The Heels have long been the program’s biggest marketers, passing out flyers, making engaging social media content and asking local businesses to feature their schedules.

Now, it’s seeing the fan base grow due to ACC brand recognition and the ability to watch meets on the ACC Network. The Pitt meet was the first nationally-televised gymnastics event at Carmichael Arena.

“We’ve heard from people around campus, they’re like, ‘Oh, I went to my first gymnastics meet. I didn’t really know what was going on, but it was so fun,’’ Schulze added. “That’s so exciting to hear, even though they’re not super involved with the sport.”

Making history and a name for the ACC

It’s hard to predict how things will go in an inaugural-ish season. The ACC has plenty to cheer for.

N.C. State and Clemson both made appearances in the top 25 rankings in the first season of the modern era. At the time of publication, the Wolfpack ranked No. 21, holding a national qualifying score of 196.520. The Tigers landed at No. 27 with an NQS of 196.290.

Both are currently in position to be one of the top 36 teams to compete in the postseason.

All four schedules include meets against some of the all-time best programs in the nation, including Florida, Kentucky and reigning national champion Oklahoma.

That’s on top of the history the three former EAGL members already have. N.C. State, Pitt and Carolina all have NCAA regional appearances in the last decade on their resumes.

The Pack made an NCAA semifinal appearance in 1998 and won the lone ACC Championship in 1984.

Tar Heel Courtney Bumpers won the individual floor exercise national title in 2004 and 2005.

The league hopes to see its programs continue their storied success in this new phase of the sport. Conference realignment means the ACC adds No. 3 Cal and No. 24 Stanford next year, too.

“It’s such a special thing to be able to see the growth, the excitement and the high quality competition that’s taking place within our league, especially as we’re kind of just entering into the space from a conference level,” Rippey said. “It’s not that they haven’t had a name for themselves, but to be able to make a name for the ACC right within the world of gymnastics is a pretty exciting thing.”

All four teams will continue their regular season schedules before competing in the ACC Tournament on March 23 in Greensboro. It’ll be a momentous occasion.

“Yes, it is fierce competition,” said UNC’s Julia Knower, “but it’s awesome to know that together we’re making history.”