Knives Out: Cutting Up The ACC Pie

Mar 8, 2023 at 5:46 pm
Knives Out: Cutting Up The ACC Pie
Stock photo of a pie via Adobe Stock; photo of Josh Heird via UofL/Facebook

For now, it is just noise. Florida State and Clemson publicly campaigning for a bigger piece of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s pie is most easily read as an indication neither school has enough leverage to pull it off in private.

Yes, the ACC’s most prominent football programs are lagging far behind their Big Ten and Southeastern Conference peers in terms of the loot they get from their league.

Yes, that gap is growing at a worrisome rate.

Yes, FSU and Clemson attract more eyeballs than do their conference colleagues, Louisville included.

But no, the ACC need not make any panic moves to mollify its aggrieved members. At least not yet.

Yet while an exit fee estimated at $120 million and a grant of rights that gives the ACC control of member schools’ broadcast revenues through 2036 have largely insulated the conference from realignment raids, a move toward merit-based distributions has been gaining traction within the league.

“I would like to see a revenue model that rewards performance in every sport,” Louisville athletic director Josh Heird said. “Now, they’re not going to be weighted the same, but I absolutely think if you have the best cross country team in the country that you should be rewarded in some form or fashion for that. If that’s the road we’re going to go down, let’s go down it wholeheartedly with every sport.”

Negotiations for a new distribution formula will surely be complex and could prove contentious. But though UofL’s recent success stories have been dominated by non-revenue sports, Heird says he sees the school at an advantage in a merit-based payment plan.

“I think, for Louisville, that’s a fair model,” he said. “I think we’ve shown and we’ve proven that when we’re successful, especially in the sports that get the highest viewership, that people especially in the state and even around the country tune in because we tend to be an exciting program and a team that plays an exciting brand of football or basketball or women’s basketball. I think you can even put baseball and volleyball in those categories.”

Whether any ACC distribution formula can appease Clemson and Florida State (and, to a lesser extent, Miami and North Carolina) remains unclear. With the SEC due to add Texas and Oklahoma next year and the Big Ten poaching UCLA and USC, conference realignment continues to exacerbate competitive imbalance on campus.

In 2020-21, the SEC’s average distribution to member schools was $54.6 million, more than 50% higher than the ACC’s average payout of $36.1. With the ACC’s media rights locked in through 2036, and the Big Ten and SEC due to negotiate new deals following their blue-blood additions, that gap may soon grow to $30-$40 million annually.

This explains the pointed remarks Florida State athletic director Michael Alford made in addressing the school’s board of trustees last month, and the echo expressed by his Clemson counterpart, Graham Neff.

“At the end of the day, for Florida State to compete nationally, something has to change moving forward,” Alford said. “If something’s not done, we cannot be $30 million behind every year compared to our peers.”

“Is it time revenue distribution within conferences, or at least the ACC, is done differently? Yeah," Neff told Charleston’s Post and Courier. “I’ve been very active in those conversations within the league and continue to expect to take a leadership role in our desire for that to be a changed circumstance. Urgently.”

U of L’s Heird, meanwhile, is receptive to change, but resistant to alarm. Despite the ACC’s revenue disparities, he says the league “can compete with anybody in the country.”

“Money buys a lot of things, but it doesn’t always buy wins and losses,” he said. “And as long as we have the revenue we need to take care of our programs, then I think the ACC is going to be fine.

“Go back to last year. Look at the national championships won across the board in every sport. Look at who played in the semifinals and finals of every sport. I have a sneaking suspicion the ACC is going to be near the top or at the top of that list.”

True enough. Including part-time member Notre Dame’s fencing title, the ACC won seven NCAA team championships in 2022, more than either the Big 10 or the SEC. If the sky is falling, it is taking its time.