Uncertainty hangs over ACC meetings as leaders try to see beyond courtroom drama

AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. — Anyone who has spent even five minutes around Jim Phillips understands that the ACC commissioner is a glass-half-full kind of guy. That’s an important characteristic now, perhaps more than ever before.

Two of the conference’s flagship schools have taken the ACC to court to challenge the legitimacy of its grant of rights, the signed document that ostensibly binds conference members to one another through 2036. The litigation remains ongoing in three different states, which Phillips called “difficult,” “disruptive” and “harmful” while acknowledging that he’s letting the lawyers handle it.

In the meantime, the ACC spring meetings were close to business as usual. Athletic directors and coaches from Clemson and Florida State attended all of the league’s meetings and social events, as they normally would.

“It hasn’t changed one iota about how we’ve interacted with them, how we’ve treated them, certainly how we’ve treated the student-athletes — and it shouldn’t,” Phillips said. “It just shouldn’t. Because I think you have to be professional enough to understand these things happen, and it warrants classy, professional, respectful treatment in return.”

Florida State athletic director Michael Alford on Tuesday credited Phillips and other conference officials for their professionalism, and he said that they didn’t discuss the matter because of the ongoing legal proceedings. Clemson athletic director Graham Neff did not speak with reporters this week.

The action both schools have taken is widely perceived by those inside and outside the ACC as the first step of an exit plan. There would be no need to try to figure out whether your rights were owned by the ACC until 2036 if you planned on remaining in the ACC through 2036.

So, even if things weren’t awkward in-person this week, they were still generally uncomfortable. It’s hard to imagine the two schools happily remaining in the ACC if the legal challenges fail, regardless of how expensive it might be to extricate themselves from the conference. But Phillips believes those relationships could indeed be salvageable.



The ACC vs. Florida State and Clemson: Untangling a realignment clash in court

“You always stay optimistic,” Phillips said. “You have to stay optimistic as you work through these things. I don’t know where it’s going to go, but I continue to remain optimistic. … I always am optimistic about a really good ending in difficult situations, and I won’t ever change until somebody else tells me differently. Am I going to fight and protect the ACC? Absolutely. I have to do that. That’s my responsibility. So, a convergence is here, and we’ll see where it goes.”

Alford said he, too, is waiting and watching it play out, “but at the end of the day, we’ve got to do what’s best for Florida State and look at the changing environment of collegiate athletics and make sure we’re there to be successful.” He believes that’s what Clemson is doing as well.

“You’re looking at two institutions that want success and that see the changing environment and collegiate sports and want (their) programs to compete at the very top level,” Alford said. “Understanding that to compete at that top level, we need to have our options available. I’m speaking, really, for Florida State — we need to have our options available. But I assume that Clemson is also looking at (what’s) going on in the collegiate landscape and that they want their programs to compete at an elite national level.”

There appears to be unrest on a third campus as well. During a special meeting of the UNC Board of Trustees on Monday, the board approved an internal university audit of the North Carolina athletics department, and one trustee accused athletic director Bubba Cunningham of mismanaging one of the university’s most valuable assets. During the meeting, multiple trustees expressed concerns about the athletic department facing major deficits in the years to come with no plans to address or mitigate it. UNC has been identified by industry experts as the most valuable school in the nation (outside of Notre Dame) that is not already in the Big Ten or SEC. But the university’s leadership has not been anywhere near as aggressive as Florida State or Clemson to date.

Florida State officials have said the Seminoles could fall behind their peers in the Big Ten and the SEC by as much as $40 million annually by the end of the decade. Most of that gap is attributable to individual conferences’ media rights deals, but the ACC is also about to receive a smaller portion of College Football Payoff revenue than the Big Ten and SEC in the postseason’s new contract.

Sources briefed on the model have told The Athletic that the new revenue breakdown will be roughly 29 percent annually for both the Big Ten and SEC (more than $21 million per school), 17 percent for the ACC (around $13 million each), 15 percent for the Big 12 ($12 million each) and 9 percent for the Group of 5 conferences collectively (around $1.8 million per school). The remainder goes to independents, including more than $12 million for Notre Dame, and the Football Championship Subdivision. There is an additional performance bonus available only to independents for making the CFP field. Notre Dame would receive an additional $6 million for making the Playoff.

Phillips said he fought hard for the ACC during CFP negotiations but felt by the end that he had to agree to the revenue distribution model, which is based on leagues’ recent history and past CFP participation.

“You don’t love it, but it certainly was better than where we started and it’s more than we’ve ever had relative to CFP dollars,” Phillips said. “I again understand it causes even a greater gap.”

In response, the ACC is getting creative. The conference set up a way to put more money in the pockets of its highest-performing football programs with the creation of a success initiative program, which uses a portion of the revenue brought in by adding Stanford, Cal and SMU without paying them full shares of the league’s media rights revenue. Athletic departments will be rewarded financially for hitting benchmarks, such as winning the conference title or reaching the CFP.

“We have continued to try to close the gap,” Phillips said. “If we’re chasing money, then we’re chasing money. But I believe we’re also trying to chase success.”

Will that make a real difference, or will the league’s biggest brands figure out a way out to chase the more plentiful money in the Big Ten and SEC?

(Photo: David Yeazell / USA Today)

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