Conference realignment: What’s next for Florida State Seminoles?

FSU isn’t happy in the ACC. But could the ’Noles join the Big Ten or SEC? If so, how?
FSU football is making noise in conference realignment. What are the Florida State Seminoles' options?
FSU football is making noise in conference realignment. What are the Florida State Seminoles' options? [ Times (2019) ]
Published Aug. 3

As if this round of conference realignment wasn’t wild enough, Florida State added to the chaos Wednesday by going public (again) with its unhappiness with the ACC and its finances. Now that the smoke has cleared, let’s break down the Seminoles’ uneasy present and unknown future:

What happened Wednesday?

At the end of a mundane board of trustees meeting, president Richard McCullough said FSU must consider leaving the ACC unless its conference payouts change drastically. Trustees echoed their support, with one — former quarterback Drew Weatherford — saying “it’s not a matter of if we leave, it’s a matter of how and when.” FSU officials have said things like this before, but the tone was stronger this time.

What is FSU’s issue with the ACC?

Money. FSU faces a $30 million gap between what it receives from the ACC and what teams like Florida and Ohio State will get from the SEC and Big Ten. The Seminoles believe that shortfall will keep them from competing for titles.

What is keeping FSU from leaving the ACC?

Also money. A $120 million exit fee is the easy part; the full cost could hit half a billion dollars and hinges on the ACC’s grant of rights.

How much longer will Florida State be competing in the ACC?
How much longer will Florida State be competing in the ACC? [ CHRIS URSO | Times (2017) ]

What is a grant of rights?

It’s a contract where schools grant (or give) a conference the media rights to their games. The ACC sold those rights to ESPN, then takes that money and doles it back to schools. The grant of rights runs into 2036, so unless FSU finds a way out, the ACC owns its TV rights until then.

Can the Seminoles get out of it?

They can try, but any escape plan is destined for court. Though we don’t know FSU’s potential legal arguments, we do know there’s only one undefeated entity in college football history: attorneys’ billable hours.

One option is for FSU to try to buy back its TV rights. Some back-of-the-envelope math — call it $30 million annually for 13 years — equals $390 million plus the exit fee. Is there a way to negotiate that figure down? Or could a private equity firm finance the Seminoles’ exit in exchange for a chunk of FSU athletics?

Where might the Seminoles go?

The Big Ten and SEC are the only options clearly better than staying put.

What are the arguments for FSU joining the SEC?

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey has stressed “reasonable geography among like-minded universities.” FSU fits the geographic footprint and offers a strong football history and passionate fanbase that match the SEC’s culture. The Seminoles would also add another brand name to a league full of them.

What are the arguments against FSU joining the SEC?

The conference already has a strong in-state presence with the Gators, so FSU wouldn’t add new recruiting areas or TV markets unlike, say, North Carolina. It’s worth wondering how much, if at all, Florida would object to FSU’s addition. Money is an issue, too. ESPN has the rights to FSU games in the ACC. Does the network want to pay even more to keep airing them at a time when its finances are being stretched? And how valuable is FSU after a recent stretch of mediocrity?

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What are the arguments for FSU in the Big Ten?

The conference would get a big brand in a new area, giving the Big Ten a presence in one of the four biggest states in population and recruiting.

Will Michigan and Florida State soon be Big Ten colleagues?
Will Michigan and Florida State soon be Big Ten colleagues? [ LYNNE SLADKY | AP (2016) ]

What are the arguments against FSU in the Big Ten?

The Seminoles are more than 700 miles from the nearest Big Ten school (Indiana). Geography doesn’t matter much, but it’s not irrelevant. Though FSU is a top-tier research institution, it’s not in the prestigious Association of American Universities — long considered an unofficial Big Ten prerequisite. The same concerns about FSU’s recent history and TV companies’ economics also apply.

What is the argument for FSU staying in the ACC?

Aside from geography, rivalries with Clemson/Miami, three decades of history and other things the powers-that-be don’t seem to care about? FSU probably has an easier path to making the expanded 12-team playoff by winning the ACC than withstanding the SEC/Big Ten grind.

How does the instability of the Pac-12 affect this?

It’s hard to say. The Big Ten is reportedly weighing Washington and Oregon as expansion candidates. Would it still have room for FSU if the Seminoles become free agents? We doubt more Big Ten expansion triggers more expansion in the SEC, but we can’t rule it out, either. We can also envision a scenario where the Pac-12 leftovers join or partner with the ACC in a deal that saves the likes of Oregon State while boosting the ACC’s bottom line. But we can’t see that making enough extra cash to satisfy FSU.

What’s next?

We don’t know. FSU wants out unless the ACC’s finances change, but it seems impossible for the finances to change enough to matter It’s also unclear how/when FSU will challenge the grant of rights and whether the Seminoles will have a home as they try to escape.

The only thing we feel confident saying: The situation is untenable, and FSU wants it resolved sooner rather than later. The deadline for FSU to leave in time for the 2024 season is Aug. 15.

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