Friedlander: Could FSU, Clemson, UNC and others really leave the ACC?
Besides infidelity, nothing can destroy a relationship faster than a dispute over finances.
And the ACC has a big one brewing as it gathers at Amelia Island, Fla., this week for its annual spring meetings.
This is not to say that the league is in immediate danger of breaking up. The restrictive grant of media rights all 15 members signed in 2016 prevents that from happening.
But that hasn’t stopped a subset of ACC schools, led by prominent football brand names Florida State, Clemson and Miami, from casting a wandering eye while their lawyers search for a loophole that would allow them to sever the relationship.
According to a published report by Sports Illustrated’s Ross Dellenger, the group – which also includes North Carolina, NC State, Virginia and Virginia Tech – has been working together behind the scenes for the past few months combing the fine print in search of an out to the document that cedes their broadcast revenue to the conference for the next 13 years.
Even if they’re no longer members.
It’s a nuclear option put forth by the self-proclaimed “Magnificent 7” in response to the projected $30 million annual revenue gap the ACC faces in its losing battle to keep pace with the Big Ten and SEC. And it has brought the conference to a discernable crossroads.
Florida State athletic director Michael Alford, speaking to his school’s Board of Trustees in February, gave voice to the group’s motivation when said that “we can not compete nationally being $30 million behind every year.”
Adding to Alford’s frustration is the fact that former mid-major in-state rival UCF soon will be in a position to generate more revenue as a new member of the Big 12, which just agreed to a new television contract with Fox and ESPN, than his more established, higher-regarded Seminoles.
“Something has to change,” he said.
While it isn’t exactly clear what that change might entail, Dellenger points out that the options for Florida State and the other members of the Magnificent 7 are limited.
The next wave of conference realignment is about survival. Can the Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC make it?
How the War for the West – Pac-12 vs. Big 12 – may shape the college sports landscape https://t.co/ZYP90E7vcj
— Ross Dellenger (@RossDellenger) May 15, 2023
Leaving the ACC with the grant of rights still in place wouldn’t just cost teams a $120 million exit fee. It would also mean giving up the television rights to every home game through 2036, a loss that would far outweigh the financial gain of moving to the SEC or Big Ten.
Breaking away as a group and starting a new conference would be problematic as well given the complexities involved, including the of brokering a separate television contract and entry into the new 12-team College Football Playoff.
Another possibility would be bolstering the current payout by renegotiating the ACC’s current deal with ESPN. Or perhaps by finding a way to partner with Notre Dame to include its streaming rights in its upcoming talks with NBC.
None of those alternatives, however, is the ultimate solution Florida State, Clemson, Miami and the others seek. Their focus is set squarely on the goal of revenue distribution.
Monday’s revelation was little more than a smoke screen designed to gain leverage toward that end.
It’s no accident that news of their collective effort became public just as the ACC began discussions on a plan that would provide a bigger piece of the annual financial pie to the programs that generate the most cash.
Threatening mass defection might be a creative way of coercing conference members that don’t support the idea into rethinking their opposition to avoid being cast aside into mid-major obscurity.
It just isn’t likely to succeed. The Big 12 found that out when it floated a similar plan in an unsuccessful attempt to keep Texas and Oklahoma from leaving for the SEC.
Making sacrifices for the greater good is a noble pursuit. But not at the expense of self-preservation.
The last thing Wake Forest, Boston College, Georgia Tech and others at the bottom of the ACC’s financial food chain are going to do is hamstring themselves by giving up any of their badly needed revenue in an effort to keep their richer rivals happy.
Especially when the amount involved, estimated to be a bump of about $5 million per year per eligible team, would barely be enough to make a dent in the disparity between the ACC and other Power 5 leagues. It would be like putting a Band-aid on a severed limb.
And at what cost?
A 2-tiered system that separates the conference into haves and have-nots is a recipe for animosity that could ultimately tear apart the entity it was designed to save.
At yet, if Monday’s news of a potential breakaway group within the conference proved anything, it’s that Florida State’s Alford wasn’t making an idle threat when he said that something has to change. The ACC’s growing financial crisis has reached a point in which it can no longer be ignored.
The future of the league is at stake and the pressure is on Jim Phillips. It’s time for him to step up and show the kind of leadership he has yet to display during his tenure as commissioner by fostering the kind of dialogue that leads to substantive action.
Before it’s too late. If it’s not already.
As an unnamed ACC athletic director told Dellenger: “This will be the beginning of the end.”
But if there’s anything that can save a troubled relationship, even one this complicated, it’s communication.
While the differences between the Magnificent 7 and the rest of the ACC might be so irreconcilable that no amount of discussion at Amelia Island this week will lead to a result satisfactory to both, at least for now they’re still talking.