As Florida State president Richard McCullough began his remarks to his board of trustees during a virtual meeting on Wednesday, more than 2,000 people were tuned into the livestream on YouTube.
Among those were officials both in the ACC office and schools across the league. Shortly after McCullough told the board that Florida State would “very seriously” consider leaving the ACC unless there is a radical change to the conference’s revenue distribution model, the backlash from those inside the league followed.
While Florida State has made it clear it has been unhappy before, this was the first time McCullough said so publicly — the strongest sign yet that Florida State would consider leaving the league.
One ACC administrator thought it was an attempt to “strong arm” presidents to change their minds on revenue distribution. Another questioned whether trustee members even realized Florida State willingly signed the grant of rights in 2016, giving the ACC control over its media rights through the end of its television contract in 2036.
“Was this a leverage play?” one administrator asked. “It seems like there would’ve been a lot better ways of handling it.”
Based on interviews with administrators and league officials over the past several days, the league has seemingly taken an “us versus Florida State” mentality — with both public and private comments intimating as much. But the saga might be far from over as conference realignment continues in the Big Ten and Big 12. If the Big Ten decided to expand to 20 schools after adding Oregon and Washington on Friday, would it come looking at the ACC and Florida State? And how would that even work with the grant of rights question continuing to muddy the waters?
There is an Aug. 15 deadline for any conference member to give notice if it plans to leave the ACC in a year. With that date looming, there remain incredulous administrators wondering what the play is for Florida State.
“One could argue they’re just trying to create chaos and that they thought the only way to make it work would be to break the league up,” one source said. “Part of the theory here is they bang the drum real loud and eventually everybody else would panic.”
In some ways, what happened Wednesday in the board meeting was not surprising. Florida State athletic director Michael Alford has been vocal both publicly and in meetings with ADs, ACC administrators and officials that the school is not happy with both the speed and progress in addressing what is estimated to be a $30 million annual revenue gap with the SEC and Big Ten — a gap Florida State described as “insurmountable.”
In February, after feeling there was no urgency to address changing ACC revenue distribution to help close that gap, Alford sounded the first alarm, telling his board, “Something has to change because we cannot compete nationally being $30 million behind every year. It’s not one year. We’re talking about $30 million compounded year after year.”
Within three months, the ACC had a framework to address at least part of the gap: Success initiatives, which would reward teams that have on-field success in football and basketball with a larger portion of the revenue that comes with CFP and NCAA tournament appearances.
Beyond the success initiatives, Florida State has been pushing for another component to the revenue distribution: rewarding teams that generate higher television ratings and viewership with a larger share of the television money distribution. But that has gotten zero traction from ADs and presidents, frustrating Florida State further.
A number of administrators from other ACC schools questioned why Florida State felt it deserved a larger revenue share, considering its football program has not won an ACC championship or been in the College Football Playoff since 2014. Florida State has presented numbers that show they bring 15% of the value to the TV deal but get 7% of the revenue. Currently, each ACC school shares that equally.
“I would love all my colleagues in the ACC to love me in every way,” McCullough told ESPN before the board meeting. “But I have a fiduciary responsibility to Florida State, so I have to push and there are some schools that just don’t agree with my point of view.
League commissioner Jim Phillips declined comment but several athletic directors did not after Alford’s remarks Wednesday. After the board meeting, a group of ACC ADs discussed how to best address the remarks and decided North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham would speak first publicly on their behalf. Cunningham told a local radio station Thursday it did the ACC no good for Florida State to be “barking like that.”
In comments to ESPN on Friday, Miami athletic director Dan Radakovich echoed what Cunningham said. “Florida State is doing what Florida State feels like it needs to do,” Radakovich said. “Each of our schools have to make their own decisions. But on top of all of it, we need to continue to try to make the ACC as strong as we can make it. We’ve got our grant of rights, we have all those other pieces that are associated with keeping ourselves together. Right now, we feel really strongly that our best course of action is to keep the ACC together and try to make it as strong as it can be.”
As one ACC administrator noted, the ACC is already losing the PR battle, with the Big 12 — a league with fewer signature programs, a lower TV valuation and no standalone network — being viewed as growing and stable, while the ACC looks to be teetering. Florida State’s public criticism of the league’s financial picture only exacerbates that problem.
At ACC media days just last month, Phillips addressed the idea that the ACC would no longer be able to compete at such a revenue disadvantage.
“We’ve had multiple TV consultants,” Phillips said. “Third is a good position but we want to gain traction financially in order to close the gap with the SEC and Big Ten.
“I think one of the presidents said it best: ‘Are we chasing a dollar amount or are we chasing success?'” Phillips continued. “I think there’s a difference there. If you’re chasing a number it takes you down a different path. If you’re chasing success competitively, every institution has an idea of what they need. So again, I feel really strongly about this league and I think people are missing it when they’re not paying attention to the results of how well the conference has done.'”
League officials and ADs thought they’d found enough common ground after contentious spring meetings in May, when it became publicly known that Clemson, Florida State, Miami, North Carolina, NC State, Virginia and Virginia Tech had discussed the grant of rights and future of the ACC among themselves — which led to a clearing of the air among the entire league. On the heels of that meeting, ACC presidents agreed to change the revenue distribution model to include the success initiatives.
With that progress made, the league has continued to look at ways to address the revenue gap — something atop Phillips’ agenda on a daily basis. While the SEC and Big Ten will be far ahead from a revenue standpoint, the ACC remains No. 3 in revenue distribution, distributing an average of nearly $40 million per school in 2021-22.
Radakovich said the payouts from the league’s TV deal have exceeded initial projections. The problem is the SEC and Big Ten negotiated new deals in a far different climate that provided them with more money.
“It’s hypersensitive, now, given all the different changes that have continued to come within intercollegiate athletics,” Radakovich said. “Needing more resources is high on the list.”
Florida State is not alone in wanting those resources, of course. That is why what happened Wednesday remained perplexing for many within the league. Multiple sources questioned where Florida State would go if it decided to leave given the current situations in the SEC (not looking to expand) and the Big Ten (adding Oregon and Washington).
Panic is a concern, another league source told ESPN, noting “everyone’s head has to be on a swivel” right now, but that making hasty decisions could create far worse long-term outcomes.
Another school official did not think making loud statements would change any decision a president makes about unevenly distributing television revenue based on ratings. “Why would my president take money out of our pocket and give it to Florida State when it would only hurt us? We need to run an athletic department, too,” one source said.
If FSU is planning to leave anyway, an athletic director said, there’s little reason to give them more money now. Instead, ACC schools could simply wait for FSU to be the one to cut a sizable check on its way out the door.