ACC rights grant front and center in conference realignment

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The Atlantic Coast Conference championship logo is displayed on a goal marker before an NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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The Atlantic Coast Conference Rights Grant Agreement, signed in 2013 and updated in 2016 when the ACC Network was formed, secured the league during nationwide conference change moves ten years ago.

Now that the conferences are changing again with the realignment — with Texas and Oklahoma moving to the SEC, and UCLA and Southern Cal to the Big Ten — this document that former ACC commissioner John Swofford inaugurated came under intense scrutiny.

On the one hand, it could be argued that the ACC would be in the dustbin of history without the granting of rights. On the other hand, it causes the league to fall even further behind the SEC and the Big Ten and edge closer to irrelevance. So what is granting of rights? Why is it important? Is it foolproof?

Here are some answers:

What does “grant of rights” mean?

The ACC Rights Grant Agreement states that member schools “irrevocably and exclusively grant to the conference for the duration of the term all rights necessary for the conference to perform the conference’s contractual obligations expressly set forth in the ESPN agreement”.

Simply put, all television revenue a school is to receive from the ACC’s contract with ESPN is the property of the conference until June 30, 2036, whether the school remains a member of the ACC or leaves for a another conference.

The ACC collects revenue, primarily from its media rights contract, and redistributes it evenly to its member schools. In the 2020-21 school year, the ACC raised nearly $580 million which was distributed among the 15 schools.

It should be noted that Notre Dame, a non-football member, does not receive the same payout as the other schools as it has its own football television contract with NBC which it does not share with the ACC. However, due to the pandemic, the Irish played ACC football in 2020 and therefore shared some of their NBC revenue with the league that season only.

So hypothetically, if Florida State leaves for the SEC, the ACC would get all media revenue generated from sporting events on its campus through the summer of 2036, even if it’s games from the SEC played in Tallahassee.

How much money would it cost a school to leave?

This is their annual distribution of league revenue multiplied by the number of years remaining on the rights-granting contract.

Simply put, if a school gets $40 million a year from the ACC and there are 10 years left in the contract, that’s $400 million.

But the distribution of income is increasing rapidly. In 2011, for example, ACC revenue was $167.2 million. A decade later, it is an absolute record approaching 580 million dollars.

How can a school cope?

Well, as the saying goes, everything is negotiable. But the words “irrevocably and exclusively” certainly seem difficult to parse.

But even as ACC media revenue grows, the Big Ten and SEC are poised to bring in $1 billion a year each and are poised to double ACC haul.

Thus, over time, a tipping point will be reached where a school can receive so much more money from the SEC or the Big Ten in the long run that it can absorb the loss of its ACC revenue for a few years.

With 14 years remaining on the current grant of rights, that day is not near.

So what’s the next step?

If a school – or schools – really wants to leave, a smart team of lawyers could challenge the grant of rights in court in an effort to invalidate it.

Let’s say Miami, Florida State and Clemson want to join the SEC. They could unite to sue the ACC. Unity is strength, isn’t it?

It’s a pretty ugly scenario. But this is not beyond the realm of possibility. These days, nothing is.

This story was originally published July 6, 2022 5:35 p.m.

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Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. It placed second for both rhythm writing and breaking news in the 2019 Associated Press Sports Editors National Competition. Previously, Steve worked for The State (Columbia, SC), Herald-Journal (Spartanburg, SC), The Sun Herald (Biloxi, Miss.), Charlotte Observer and Hickory (NC) Daily Record covering beats such as the Panthers of NFL Carolina and Orleans New Saints, University of South Carolina Athletics and SC General Assembly. It has won numerous awards from state-level press associations. Steve graduated from Illinois State University in 1989.


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