2023 may end up going down as the year that finally breaks the ACC.
Florida State athletics director Michael Alford publicly blasted the conference at several opportunities this year which culminated in news of the “Magnificent Seven” breaking prior to the conference’s spring meeting in Amelia Island. The league then undertook a controversial western expansion adding Cal, Stanford, and SMU by the thinnest of margins.
Now news is coming out of South Carolina that Clemson may be announcing its departure from the league later this month.
It has long been speculated Clemson has similar feelings as Florida State regarding the ACC’s current financial gap compared to the SEC and Big Ten — but there hadn’t been the kinds of public rumblings from Clemson that FSU administrators have been so freely airing.
That changed last week with two bombshell reports. Gene Sapakoff of the Post & Courier first reported that Clemson administrators were in talks with both the SEC and Big Ten while Larry Williams of Tigers Illustrated stated he expects Clemson to announce their departure from the ACC in October.
Per the Post & Courier article, Clemson is taking a “strength in numbers” approach, which would hint at Clemson working with Florida State and possibly North Carolina on a conference exit strategy. Florida State Board of Trustee member Drew Weatherford said it best earlier this summer by emphasizing that FSU leaving the ACC was a matter of “when” and not “if.” While North Carolina has frequently been mentioned as a target for the Big Ten and SEC it was hard to imagine the school that was the bedrock of the conference leaving until a few months ago. That changed with the ACC’s additions of SMU, Cal, and Stanford. Florida State, Clemson, and North Carolina all voted against the expansion but North Carolina went a step further to issue a very public rebuke of the expansion.
There is too much smoke for there not to be fire behind the scenes. Credible reports of the Four Corners schools speaking with the Big 12 started almost a year before the PAC-12 exodus. Florida State and Clemson realize that staying in the ACC until 2036 will be a death by a thousand cuts while their rivals get an extra $30 million a year in television revenue.
Sapakoff mentions Clemson’s preferred destination would be the SEC rather than the Big Ten. There has been some pushback in SEC circles thanks to Greg Sankey’s remarks regarding the league being happy at 16 members at the SEC’s Media Days. As the Big Ten proved with their gutting of the PAC-12, leagues are going to deny anything regarding expansion until the moment invites are extended. In addition, there is a tired adage that Florida State or Clemson wouldn’t be on the SEC’s radar for expansion due to Florida and South Carolina already being league members.
While Florida State doesn’t add any new markets to the SEC’s footprint the thought process behind expansion is changing. With ESPN shifting towards a direct-to-consumer model, actual eyeballs watching the product will be the key metric going forward.
Florida State has consistently been one of the most watched teams in the country even during the Noles worst stretch in decades. Since 2012, just 17 regular season ACC conference games have attracted over 5 million TV viewers and Florida State has played in 12 of them.
FSU has drawn over five million TV viewers even when playing against NC State and Boston College. What would Florida State’s TV numbers look like playing an SEC schedule considering the last three times Florida State has played an SEC school over six million people watched?
Clemson has brought in more than their share of TV viewers as well and that chart doesn’t include big games they’ve played against Georgia, Auburn, Texas A&M, and South Carolina.
How exactly Clemson, FSU, or UNC plan on dealing with the ACC exit fee or Grant of Rights is still unclear. The new public details of Texas and Oklahoma’s divorce from the Big 12 may provide a road map. The move to the SEC will cost Texas and Oklahoma roughly half of what was believed with most of the money coming from distributions withheld by the Big 12 rather than any upfront payments by the schools. ESPN will also provide transitional payments directly to Texas and Oklahoma next year as the schools won’t receive funds from the SEC’s primary revenue-sharing pool. Per Kansas State athletics director Gene Taylor there was significant pushback from other schools to fully enforce the bylaws and Grant of Rights but the Big 12’s lawyers advised the conference that the Big 12’s bylaws were “not as rock-solid as everybody thought and we could be tied up on lawsuits forever.” That advice prompted the other schools to vote for the agreement that allowed Texas and Oklahoma to leave the Big 12 a year early.
It should be noted the Big 12’s cost/benefit analysis to pursue things in court with only one year to go on their current GOR agreement is a far cry from the ACC enforcing an additional thirteen years.
However, Clemson, Florida State, and North Carolina have to feel emboldened by the relatively low cost it took for Oklahoma and Texas to break free of the Big 12.
Whatever the plan is, it is clear that Florida State and Clemson’s fates are growing increasingly intertwined. Either they stand together to successfully negotiate an early exit from the ACC or they fall from football relevancy stuck in an increasingly 2nd tier conference.