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Conference Realignment: Florida State and Clemson are stuck with the ACC

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A Q&A with myself on the factors conspiring to keep the Seminoles and Tigers from finding a new conference (for now).

Syndication: Tallahassee Democrat Alicia Devine/Tallahassee Democrat / USA TODAY NETWORK

When I read last week about the consternation at Florida State regarding the ACC, it made me wonder if David Boren was advising the Seminoles on conference realignment.

The former University of Oklahoma president had a habit at high-profile administrative events of shooting from the hip regarding the school’s dissatisfaction with the Big 12. Similarly, athletic director Michael Alford used a meeting of school trustees to lay out FSU’s frustrations and fears about getting left behind in the new world order of college athletics. And much like Boren, FSU’s A.D. seemed to catch college football media off-guard with some of his pronouncements about the Noles’ state of mind.

Boren knew how to get the ear of reporters. He played the posturing game better than most think. He still failed in the end to get OU to another conference or to reshape the Big 12. (Current university president Joe Harroz worked with athletic director Joe Castiglione to shepherd OU to the SEC, a move that Boren was said to oppose when he was in charge.)

FSU and ally Clemson can raise as big of a ruckus as they want right now, but their gambit with the ACC will probably suffer the same fate. Let’s walk through why.

What do Clemson and FSU want?

Sounds like more money.

Don’t we all?

True. The real issue is that SEC and Big Ten teams appear poised to leave their ACC counterparts in the dust financially when their new media deals kick in. Meanwhile, the ACC’s long-term contract with ESPN means its member schools don’t have any leverage to negotiate for more money at the moment. Even if the ACC’s deal with ESPN fell apart tomorrow, there’s no reason to believe the league could take its media rights to the open market and find a bidder willing to pay anything in the same stratosphere as what the two big dogs are getting.

So how do Clemson and FSU get more money?

There are two obvious answers here:

  1. Leave the ACC for another conference; or
  2. Force the ACC schools to agree to unequal revenue sharing to fatten the two malcontents’ payouts.

OK, so what’s wrong with the first option?

Multiple things. First, I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I’m assuming “another conference” means the B1G and/or SEC, right?


Why would those leagues would want to add CU and FSU at the moment?

We can start with the B1G. Let’s say the B1G schools looked past the academic profiles of CU and FSU, which don’t fit with the conference’s membership. The conference will have 16 teams once USC and UCLA join in 2024. That has long been viewed as the upper limit on members to maintain a functional league. Going beyond that threshold would certainly require Notre Dame’s involvement. The geography also starts getting rough when you consider the B1G just added two outliers in California.

Then there’s the matter of media partners. The ACC owns the media rights of its members through 2036. The ACC has an exclusive broadcasting contract with ESPN for that window. Therefore, getting out of the ACC grant of rights essentially means finding a way for the conference to break its deal with the worldwide leader. Rest assured that ESPN will make it exceedingly painful for any ACC schools to leave for the B1G, which won’t have any relationship with ESPN once its new media deal kicks in.

Fine, the B1G is out. Aren’t Clemson and Florida State more like SEC schools anyway?

They are, which is actually a problem.

The current members of the SEC don’t have any reason to invite that kind of competition into the league right now. FSU and CU don’t bring in new recruiting territory to the mix. Instead, they would simply become even stronger competitors for players from the SEC’s bread basket. Schools like Florida and South Carolina seem extraordinarily unlikely to back any moves that might benefit their in-state rivals, and it’s hard to see many other members getting onboard, either.

Hold up. Texas A&M would like a word.

True, the Aggies clearly objected to the SEC adding OU and Texas on similar grounds. A combo of Clemson and FSU probably falls short of a Sooners-Longhorns pairing from the standpoint of brand value.

Equally important, the Red River rivals began negotiating their entrance into the SEC with an exit point from the Big 12 in sight. Once they made it known they intended to leave the Big 12, the SEC had to grapple with the possibility that passing on OU and UT meant they might get scooped up by the B1G or the ACC instead. Clemson and FSU don’t pose that same kind of threat right now, especially with ESPN calling the shots.

So shake down the ACC for a larger share of the conference revenue?

Maybe the rest of the ACC would agree to unequal revenue distributions, but are we to believe that would keep CU and FSU tethered to the conference for longer than the minimum amount of time it takes for them to find an off ramp? There’s no feasible split that would allow them to keep pace with the B1G and SEC teams.

Why give them more money when they are going to leave the conference anyway?

Where is this all headed?

Great question. The vibe around the ACC now feels very much like the Big 12 for the last decade or so, with the eyes of the Seminoles and Tigers wandering while playing out the string. A few years down the line, the SEC may decide it needs the schools to notify its territory. Or the B1G might decide to turn a blind eye on academics. Or something could change that leads to a major shakeup of college football itself.

No need for CU and FSU to pack any bags for a while, though.