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To some supporters, it’s “weighted distribution.” To the league, it’s an “alternative” revenue distribution model. To most dissenters, it is what it is on its face: “Unequal.”
Quibbles about names aside, this much is clear: When the ACC’s athletic directors, football coaches and basketball coaches convene in Florida next week for spring meetings, they’re not going to just glaze over the topic with commissioner Jim Phillips.
“That’ll be a big topic with a lot of prep work leading into it,” Clemson athletic director Graham Neff said. “I expect that we’ll take a lot of time on it.”
And that will happen with Neff as a key spokesman.
As the ACC faces the reality of realignment and growing financial gaps with other conferences, Neff, Clemson’s second-year athletic director, has emerged as one of the top proponents of a new model that would dramatically overhaul its revenue distribution structure.
The ACC currently distributes annual league-wide profits equally among its 14 member schools, with Notre Dame, a full-time member in every sport but football, getting a reduced share.
But even with record profits and record payouts — $36.1 million per school last fiscal year, a new high — the ACC is already lagging anywhere from $10 million to $20 million behind the SEC and the Big Ten on payouts thanks to those conferences’ freshly inked and advantageous TV contracts.
And that gap could reach $30 million to $40 million over the next few years, according to projections, raising big-picture questions about how, and if, ACC schools can compete on a national level in football and other prominent sports if they’re working at such a deficit.
Neff had been working on and pitching a new revenue distribution model behind the scenes for well over a year with conference colleagues including Miami AD Dan Radakovich, his Clemson predecessor and a close friend, before taking his concerns public earlier this year.
In a February media interview, Neff characterized a new revenue model as a “need” for Clemson and something that needs to change “urgently” within the conference, a notable tone shift that drew national headlines and fell in line with similar comments from Florida State’s athletic director.
It’s no coincidence that happened mere weeks after the ACC wrapped its winter meetings in Charlotte in early February without “anything approaching consensus” on a new revenue distribution plan, as ESPN put it. Any new plan would require a two-thirds majority vote.
Neff said the timing of his comments were “by design.”
“The intention was to give light to such an important topic within the ACC and just to not hide behind that,” Neff said. “Just to be very direct with it. Our commissioner’s rather direct with it, and at Clemson, we’re going to continue to be direct with it because of the priority on our campus, within the ACC and within our supporters and community.”
Pushing for change
Any revenue model shifts that reward schools for things such as College Football Playoff appearances, major bowl appearances and men’s and women’s NCAA Tournament appearances would naturally benefit Clemson.
The Tigers have been the ACC’s most consistent and successful football program in recent years under coach Dabo Swinney, with six straight CFP appearances with two national titles from 2015 to 2020 and outright conference championships in seven of the past eight seasons.
So it’s no surprise Clemson’s pushing the envelope on the plan. Same for Florida State, which returns a loaded roster from last year’s 10-3 season and should rank above Clemson in the majority of preseason media polls, and Miami and UNC, which have large national brands.
Neff acknowledges that any revenue distribution model shifts would favor the ACC’s top-tier football programs at first. But he’s also framed the plan as one that could incentivize currently “down” schools such as, say, Georgia Tech (his alma mater), to invest more money in football. And reward smaller schools such as Wake Forest for their football investment and tradition.
“The intention is not just to go public with any desire for change we want,” Neff said. “It’s just more of, ‘Hey, this is a really important topic. And we all know it inside the league, and our supporters know it at all 15 schools. So, yeah, let’s just be really direct and forward about the need to continue to position the league, grow the revenue and have revenue get distributed in order to support those that invest in whatever sport.’ ”
The ACC’s spring meetings on northeast Florida’s Amelia Island aren’t just for beach trips. Last year, league leaders used that outing to hammer out the framework of the new divisionless football scheduling model they adopted two months later.
So, has Neff’s public push gotten the ball rolling on revenue model discussions any further ahead of that looming annual summit?
“It continues to be a high topic of discussion within the league,” he said. “It was before that, certainly. We’ve continued to elevate the priority and Clemson’s desire to have some change within the league. We’re not the only one.”
It all folds into staying relevant amid a recent wave of college athletics realignment, which saw Oklahoma and Texas announce their move from the Big 12 to the SEC in 2021 and Southern Cal and UCLA announce their move from the Pac 12 to the Big Ten in 2022. (All four of those schools will formally transition to their new conferences next summer.)
The ACC’s been largely insulated from those sea changes at the most dire level — schools bolting for other conferences — since anyone attempting to do so would need to pay a massive exit fee (three years of annual revenue, per ESPN, which could surpass $120 million).
Schools would also have to deal with — or legally challenge — the ACC’s rock-solid “grant of rights,” which could potentially block a departing school from cashing in on TV revenue through the end of the ACC’s current media rights deal with ESPN and cost further millions.
That deal runs another 13 years through 2036 and, although considered a solid move at the time of its 2016 signing, now pales in comparison monetarily with other conferences’ contracts.
Thus the focus and public push from Neff and other prominent athletic directors — FSU’s Michael Alford and Miami’s Radakovich, to name a few — for the ACC to be proactive in best positioning itself for the future. Even if that means switching up a longtime revenue model.
“There’s a realization, again, amongst the whole membership, that the economics of the landscape continue to change,” Neff said. “We’ve got to make sure we do what we need to do to compete.”