The divorce between Florida State and the ACC is inevitable but, as we’ve seen so far, will be far from amicable.
Florida State’s initial filing in December made the stakes perfectly clear. The university views leaving the ACC, by any means necessary, as a must for the survival of Seminole football and the ability of its athletics to compete at the highest level. The Seminoles are missing out on millions of dollars annually because of the ACC’s mismanagement of its television rights, money that is essential for FSU to compete in the ever-growing arms race of college athletics.
This week, in an amended complaint, Florida State unleashed over a decade’s worth of pent-up anger at the mismanagement of the conference’s business affairs. The latest filing details the original media deal the ACC negotiated with ESPN and Raycom in 2011 that started the mess the conference finds itself in today.
It directly accused then-ACC Commissioner John Swofford of “self-dealing” by keeping Raycom (and by extension Swofford’s son Chad Swofford, a Raycom Sports executive since 2007) in business, resulting in $82 million in lost television rights revenue, as previously chronicled by Tomahawk Nation:
What about the ACC? The league signed a horrendously backwards looking deal in 2011 with ESPN that has been the source of the conference’s woes to this day. While the ACC managed to get comparable money to the SEC & Big Ten for its main TV rights, the league signed away all of its third tier rights to ESPN as part of the deal for essentially nothing. ESPN then sub-licensed those to Raycom Sports for $50 million a year that it did not have to share with the conference. This was done at the behest of then-ACC Commissioner John Swofford, who wanted to keep Raycom as an ACC TV partner above all else in TV negotiations. Swofford maintained it was due to Raycom’s long standing relationship as a media partner with the ACC. However, Swofford’s son was a Raycom executive and maintaining the rights to the ACC was a necessary lifeline after Raycom had lost the rights to the SEC the year prior. Whether it was an egregious example of nepotism or terrible lack of foresight to see where college media rights were going the deal has been an albatross around the neck of the league ever since.
Maryland specifically cited the ACC’s lack of future TV revenue in its decision to bolt for the Big Ten a year later. Attempts to renegotiate the deal with ESPN have come with giving up increasingly more for increasingly less. The original ACC Grant of Rights was created in 2013 after the Notre Dame deal as a way to get ESPN to increase media payouts & in 2016 the GOR was extended to 2036 to get ESPN on board with creating the ACC Network.
Another central focus is the mismanagement in the lead-up to the creation of the ACC Network. It effectively accuses Swofford of lying to ACC membership about an ultimatum that ESPN supposedly presented to the conference in 2016. Swofford and ACC officials told the schools that in order for ESPN to create the ACC Network, the schools would need to extend the Grant of Rights through 2036. However, there is no documentation of any such demand from ESPN, nor did the ACC receive any additional financial gain from ESPN for the Grant of Rights extension.
In addition, the complaint stated ACC schools spent between $110 million and $120 million preparing for the ACC Network’s launch. Tomahawk Nation previously cited the costs associated with the network’s launch as one of the driving factors behind FSU’s skyrocketing yearly athletic debt under former athletic director Stan Wilcox.
Randy Spetman’s replacement was former Duke Deputy Athletic Director Stan Wilcox . In Tomahawk Nation’s article about Wilcox’s hire, it was asked
“How much does he know about multi-media rights, digital rights, third-tier rights, and the economics thereof. The question was asked because one source doesn’t believe people born before 1970 have a great grasp of those things. He wants to know how much Wilcox knows about those issues, and if he has someone helping him with that aspect of the job.”
The answer to those questions still have consequences for FSU to this day. Wilcox was a staunch supporter of FSU’s membership in the ACC and later the ACC Network. Wilcox projected the ACC Network could bring in $15 million a year for Florida State athletics. Thanks to those projections, Thrasher didn’t object to extending the ACC Grant of Rights through 2036 as a prerequisite for ESPN launching the ACC Network. Unfortunately the investments mandated by ESPN would propel Florida State athletics into yearly deficits of almost $4 million before Wilcox resigned to take a position with the NCAA in 2018. While the ACC Network has brought in new revenue, the upfront costs and the length of the contract have made the gains ultimately not worthwhile. In addition, as cord cutting continues the subscriber fees from the conference networks will largely dry up by 2036.
Read the full complaint below
On the same day as FSU’s filing, Sportico released a report regarding FSU’s search for private equity partners. Dubbed “Project Osceola”, emails received via a FOIA request show that Florida State and JP Morgan have been courting private equity partners since 2022. The partnership will likely be used to help finance whatever settlement agreement FSU reaches with the ACC.
All of this comes on the heels of the ACC’s own amended filing in the lawsuit the conference filed in North Carolina against Florida State. The tone of the filing makes it clear the ACC will do everything it legally can to keep Florida State under lock and key until 2036. The ACC has over 500 million reasons to drag this process out as long as possible. However, the end game goes far beyond a large payday for the other ACC schools.
Florida State is the preeminent television attraction in the ACC. The university has played in 12 of 17 ACC regular season conference games that have drawn 5+ million television viewers since 2012. FSU has managed to bring schools like Boston College, Virginia Tech, and NC State over the 5 million viewership threshold.
Meanwhile, despite Clemson becoming a national powerhouse with multiple national championships during that time, they have been unable to draw over 5 million viewers without another major draw. The only times the Tigers have managed that feat against an ACC opponent other than FSU were against Notre Dame in 2020 and the Lamar Jackson Louisville teams.
Expanding to games with 4 million or more TV viewers, Florida State accounted for over 27% of the ACC’s regular season games that drew over 4 million television viewers since 2012. FSU’s annual rivalry games with Clemson and Miami were by far the most common matchups to draw over 4 million viewers.
FSU’s amended complaint also highlights that Chad Swofford was an administrator at Boston College when the Eagles were extended an invite by the ACC in 2005. Along with Miami and Virginia Tech, Boston College was one of three Big East schools the ACC added in the mid-2000s. Miami and Virginia Tech are typically the ACC’s most-watched teams after Florida State and Clemson. Boston College has added comparatively little media value to the ACC, playing in only four games drawing over 4 million TV viewers in 11 years.
All but one of Florida State’s games in 2023 drew over 1 million television viewers as the Seminoles were in the thick of the national championship hunt. Only the Southern Miss game missed out due to airing on ACC Network, which isn’t rated by Nielsen. No other ACC program had more than six games draw over 1 million television viewers.
The ACC edged out the Big 12 for fourth place among the Power 5 in average TV viewership last season, thanks largely to Florida State being in the national championship chase all season.
There is another factor that won’t be replicated next season. ESPN lost the rights to the Big Ten but didn’t gain the rights to air SEC games on broadcast television until 2024. This caused a one-year anomaly that saw other ACC schools besides Florida State be featured regularly on ABC. Games like Louisville vs. Miami or 5-4 Clemson vs. 5-4 Georgia Tech aren’t going to be featured on broadcast television next year. Those games will end up on cable and will bump even less appealing games down to the ACC Network or streaming, causing even lower television viewership.
Florida State’s latest complaint took direct aim at the ACC’s western expansion. The additions of Cal, SMU, and Stanford will only devalue the ACC’s television value. The ACC’s 2023 average viewership drops from 2 million viewers a game to 1.6 million viewers per game when adding the three new schools per Sports Media Watch. All three new schools played in games that attracted audiences of fewer than 100,000 viewers, including SMU vs. Charlotte on September 30th, which drew a paltry 18,000 viewers.
Using 2023 viewership to project forward, an ACC without Florida State would finish well behind the other Power Conferences in television ratings, with an average television viewership almost 400,000 less than the Big 12 and less than 40% of the SEC’s viewership.
The bombshell revelation in FSU’s initial filing that the ACC is at ESPN’s mercy to extend the conference’s current television deal past 2027 turned what was already a bad deal into a nightmare. Due to the outsized television value that Florida State provides to the conference, an early exit by the Seminoles would be a significant blow for the ACC’s hopes that ESPN extends the contract out to 2036. That realization will cause every other school in the conference that can find a new home to abandon the ACC just as the Pac-12 schools did in the wake of USC and UCLA leaving for the Big Ten.
News leaked just prior to the ACC’s annual meeting last year that FSU, Clemson, Miami, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Virginia, and Virginia Tech were exploring options to challenge the Grant of Rights. While those reports ultimately went nowhere, the other schools in the ACC are taking notice of the drama unfolding and their actions are telling.
Last summer, when Florida State began to publicly voice its frustrations with the ACC, University of North Carolina Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham quipped
“And quite frankly, I don’t think it’s good for our league for them to be out there barking like that. I’d rather see them be a good member of the league and support the league and if they have to make a decision, then so be it. Pay for the exit fee, wait for your grant of rights that you’ve given and then in 2036 when those rights return to you, do whatever you want.”
Fast forward five months, and a different tune is coming out of Tobacco Road. UNC Board of Trustees chair John Preyer spoke with Inside Carolina about UNC athletics’ future
Preyer said, “but the reality is that athletics nationally has changed dramatically since the ACC was put together at Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro. And as a result, it is incumbent upon the leadership of the university and the chancellor as well as our board to do what is in the best interest of Carolina. The Board of Governors just recently made clear that the economic considerations should be paramount in that. I think that we all need to just realize that it’s a new day in college athletics than what was created with the ACC.”
This comes on the heels of North Carolina and North Carolina State battling over a proposal that would effectively tie NC State to UNC for any future conference move.
North Carolina or NC State won’t be able to leave the ACC without approval from the UNC System president and its board of governors under a proposal to be considered by the board next week.
The policy change would allow either the president or the board of governors to stop a conference change. It comes at a time when Florida State is challenging the conference in court and the biggest brands in college athletics are concentrating in two major conferences — the SEC and the Big Ten.
An initial draft of the policy change was first considered in October. It would have given the president “the opportunity to weigh in.”
Along with being one of the schools rumored to be looking at leaving the ACC last year, NC State was one of four holdouts on the ACC’s western expansion. While NC State is not a media heavyweight, they probably felt secure in the idea that if UNC left the ACC, they would be brought along.
Past conference realignment moves, such as Texas governor Ann Richards getting Baylor invited to the Big 12 and Virginia governor Mark Werner telling the University of Virginia to block any ACC expansion in the mid-2000s until Virginia Tech was invited, involved larger schools dragging along smaller schools due to in-state politics. While we’ve seen schools like USC and UCLA as well Arizona and Arizona State hold together due to various powers and bindings, overall, that hasn’t been the case for recent moves — Washington, Oregon, Texas, and Oklahoma all left in-state schools they had been conferencemates with for generations in the cold to chase more TV revenue.
NC State’s flip in favor of the ACC’s western expansion was seen by many pundits as a tacit admission that the Wolfpack weren’t a desired expansion target by the Big Ten or SEC. For NC State to try and force this on UNC is an indication Tobacco Road leadership views the ACC’s future as tenuous.
All of this leads to a situation that will only get uglier before any settlement comes. Florida State needs to leave the conference to survive as a top-tier brand in college athletics. However, the ACC isn’t setting the price for Florida State to leave. They’re also setting the price for Clemson, UNC, and potentially Miami or Virginia to leave as well.
When the ACC finally comes to Tallahassee with a settlement offer, the parties involved will be signing the death certificate for the conference.