An under-the-radar development came out of ACC meetings last week — the league openly discussed going to an unequal revenue-sharing model.
For a conference that has lagged behind in the college sports arms race for the last decade, it’s a sobering development that shows the league may have finally realized it is on borrowed time as a major player. Rumblings are that Florida State and Clemson are on board with the plan. If the league adopts such a model, it would give FSU a much-needed boost to close the revenue gap with SEC and Big 10 schools. The question mark hovering over it all, however, is why the league office and smaller schools would even agree to such a plan.
For FSU, it obviously makes plenty of sense. Athletics director Michael Alford has made it clear he would favor a model that distributes conference TV money primarily using TV ratings. This would make sense considering the recent viral tweet from FSU’s official account touting FSU as having the highest TV ratings in the ACC. In a recent interview, Alford stated that by internal estimates, FSU alone provides 10%-12% of the ACC’s entire TV contract value.
He may be underselling that point.
The ACC is the most top-heavy major conference for TV ratings, with Florida State and Clemson as the only reliable needle movers. Below is a chart of every game involving an ACC school that attracted over 3 million TV viewers in 2022.
ACC Games With TV Viewership Over 3 Million
|Match Up||Viewership in Millions||Conference Game?||Note|
|Match Up||Viewership in Millions||Conference Game?||Note|
|Clemson vs Tennessee||8.59||No||Orange Bowl|
|Florida State vs LSU||7.55||No||Sunday before Labor Day|
|Florida State vs Florida||6.71||No||Black Friday|
|Florida State vs Oklahoma||5.4||No||Cheez-It Bowl|
|Clemson vs NC State||4.98||Yes||Most watched ACC conference game|
|Clemson vs Georgia Tech||4.86||Yes||Labor Day Night|
|Clemson vs Syracuse||4.75||Yes|
|Pitt vs Tennessee||4.46||No|
|UNC vs Oregon||3.97||No||Holiday Bowl|
|UNC vs NC State||3.61||Yes||Black Friday|
|Wake Forest vs Missouri||3.54||No||Gasparilla Bowl|
|Clemson vs UNC||3.47||Yes||ACC Championship|
|UNC vs Notre Dame||3.46||No|
|Miami vs Texas A&M||3.4||No|
|Florida State vs Clemson||3.38||Yes|
|Clemson vs Notre Dame||3.22||No|
|Clemson vs Wake Forest||3.18||Yes|
|Pitt vs West Virginia||3.15||No||Thursday Night|
Florida State and Clemson were the only ACC teams to play in multiple games that drew over 4 million TV viewers. In fact, only one of the 18 games involving ACC teams that drew 3+ million viewers last year was a conference game that didn’t feature Clemson or FSU. One 2022 study looked at how potential conference realignment moves would impact conference TV ratings and it wasn’t pretty for the ACC. If Miami, FSU, and Clemson left the ACC, the conference would rank dead last amongst the power conferences and it would fall below even The American.
So why would the rest of the ACC essentially take a pay cut to keep FSU happy? Let’s take a look at the league’s west coast counterpart.
ACC schools that don’t have a chance of landing a spot in the SEC or Big 10, are watching their future playout with the PAC-12 leftovers. The PAC-12 sent out the corporate press release equivalent of a “this is fine” meme just in time for reports to surface that CBS, Turner, and FOX had backed out of TV negotiations. Amazon appears to only be interested in carrying the league’s top football game each week and ESPN reportedly lowballed the league by $200 million a year. Keep in mind, the league still has two programs that have made the playoffs in Washington and Oregon — teams that offer more than anything the ACC could offer without FSU and Clemson. The relative pay cut the rest of the ACC would take now is probably less than when the ACC will eventually have to renegotiate without its premier programs.
For the league itself, such a system could ultimately help ensure the league solidifies itself as the “third place” conference over the Big 12. There is the obvious white whale of Notre Dame joining in football. At this point, any talk of the Irish joining the ACC in football would have to start with them getting a larger-than-average share of the revenue.
The other potential option on the table would be looking out west. If the PAC-12 fully implodes, adding Washington, Oregon, Stanford, and Cal isn’t as insane as it sounds. The Big 10 likely won’t be expanding in the near future and for a litany of reasons those schools won’t join the Big 12. Those additions could be enough to get ESPN to the table & bump up revenue to a point that the current schools would put up with the occasional trips to the west coast. Washington and Oregon would likely benefit from an unequal revenue-sharing model. The academics at Cal, Stanford, Virginia, UNC and Duke would be plenty happy to be colleagues. It would be an unwieldy mess for the next decade until some schools inevitably leave, but it gives the conference a solid core from which it would be in the position to additionally poach the best-remaining schools from the Big 12 and American.
That all said, there is a school of thought amongst FSU fans that all of this is rendered moot due to Oklahoma and Texas showing a Grant of Rights (GOR) can be broken early, at a cost of $50 million to leave a year early. One podcast went so far as to say FSU will be playing in the SEC in 5 years (I’m personally on team Big Ten, but that is for another day). Alford has publicly stated he expects the ACC to be about $30 million a year behind the SEC and Big Ten once their new media deals go into full effect. While that is a substantial gap, FSU would still need to justify another $20 million a year in value to just write a check to get out of the ACC.
Another issue is that the smoothest move to an early exit would be ESPN getting behind FSU joining the SEC. This would not involve the horse trading that Texas & Oklahoma went through to move from the Big 12/FOX to the SEC/ESPN. Unfortunately for FSU, the timing for that couldn’t be much worse. Any move that gets FSU out of the ACC before the 2030s would likely have to come as the result of litigation against the conference. That route is ultimately expensive and not a guaranteed fix for FSU’s situation. An unequal revenue distribution model that puts FSU within $10 million of the SEC and a booster organization that actually activates FSU’s alumni base is a safer bet to keep FSU football competitive as the school waits out the GOR.
For over a decade the ACC has been attempting to dig itself out of the hole John Swofford and Raycom dug for them. Any hope of being among the absolute top tier conferences has faded. While not a perfect solution, an unequal revenue distribution model would allow the league to continue to thrive for the next decade and formulate a plan for its post-2036 membership.