The root of the Florida State-ACC dispute: Money or success?

AMELIA ISLAND — For the leaders of two organizations suing each other in a nine-figure dispute that threatens to dismember a 71-year-old institution, ACC commissioner Jim Phillips and Florida State athletic director Michael Alford sound awfully aligned.

Both know football is king. Both still stress the value of softball and soccer and every other sport. Both contend ACC football has been overlooked.

Why, then, did Phillips say Wednesday that he’s “optimistic” his league can salvage its relationships with Clemson and FSU while Alford danced around the same question Tuesday?

The easiest explanation is that Phillips sees the ACC getting better while FSU fears better still won’t be good enough.

Phillips’ pitch to reporters at the end of three days of meetings at The Ritz-Carlton:

Sponsorship revenue is at an all-time high.

The new TV deal with The CW Network has boosted exposure for third-tier games.

The league will reach two new major markets (Dallas and San Francisco) by adding SMU, Stanford and Cal while increasing the ACC Network’s distribution (and revenue).

The ACC’s new payout system will financially reward its best teams (potentially benefitting FSU).

“We remain and deliver the third-highest gross revenue distribution among all conferences,” Phillips said. “That’s important.”

Just probably not important enough to keep the Seminoles and Clemson (and perhaps North Carolina) happy.

In the runup to FSU’s lawsuit against the ACC, the Seminoles estimated SEC/Big Ten schools will soon make $30 million more per year from their league than ACC schools. Since then, the College Football Playoff changed its payout structure to give a bigger share to the Big Ten/SEC. Add another $6 million or so to the hole.

“It certainly is better than (where) we started, and it’s more than we ever had relative to CFP dollars,” Phillips said. “But I, again, understand it causes an even greater gap.”

Which brings us back to the root of the FSU-ACC dispute.

Phillips said plenty of schools spend less and win more. He’s right. Financial juggernauts Texas and Texas A&M have combined to win one football national championship in the last 50 years.

“If we’re chasing money, then we’re chasing money,” Phillips said. “But I believe we’re also trying to chase success.”

FSU’s actions, however, suggest the Seminoles believe you can’t chase success without chasing money first. The future model of college sports and player compensation is uncertain, but good luck coming up with a system where richer programs won’t have an advantage over poorer ones.

To field teams that can compete nationally, Alford said, the Seminoles “have to look at all different types of revenue streams.”

Including revenue streams that come from leaving the conference.

To the credit of Alford and Phillips, there was no noticeable tension between FSU/Clemson and the conference they’re suing — and, in the case of the Seminoles’ court filings, slamming on their way toward the exit. Phillips admitted the litigation was “disruptive” and “harmful” but said it hasn’t changed how the league treats them or their players.

“(FSU and Clemson) have the ability to do the things that they’re doing,” Phillips said, “and we’ll let the legal folks handle it, because that’s the right thing to do.”

Until the litigation ends with a court ruling or (more likely) a settlement, Phillips said he’ll keep fighting for his conference while trying to salvage its relationship with FSU and Clemson.

“Again, I don’t know where it’s going to go,” Phillips said, “but I continue to remain optimistic.”

That makes one of us.

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