Amid ACC turmoil, commissioner Jim Phillips remains ‘optimistic,’ and vows to fight

This time a year ago, at the end of these very meetings and inside the very same room in which ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips found himself Wednesday, he tried to sell a message of unity amid rumblings of discontent. There could be no sugarcoating now, though. There could be no ignoring the reality.

The ACC entered its annual spring meetings earlier this week in a state of chaos, in the kindest description, and in a state of dysfunction in perhaps the harshest. There are the ongoing lawsuits, with Florida State and Clemson, over the league’s Grant of Rights agreement. There is the much-discussed revenue disparity, which is only growing, between the Big Ten and SEC.

This week there was the revelation of more discontent, with members of North Carolina’s Board of Trustees launching public complaints about athletics director Bubba Cunningham’s management of the department, and its finances. Phillips, then, could not necessarily sell a message of togetherness.

How could he?

Instead, he went with hope.

Hope that maybe there’s a chance, however small, that the league could salvage its tattered relationship with FSU and Clemson. Hope that the ACC might find its way and remain as strong as it is now, despite how long the odds might appear.

“You always stay optimistic,” Phillips said in front of a roomful of reporters, after the ACC’s spring meetings ended Wednesday morning. “I think you’ve been around me enough. You have to stay optimistic. And you work through these things.

“And again, I don’t know where it’s going to go. But I continue to remain optimistic.”

It was not Phillips but Michael Alford, the Florida State athletics director, who cracked the door open ever so slightly about the faint, distant possibility of some kind of reconciliation between FSU and the ACC. Alford met with reporters on Tuesday, and when asked how long it might be before Florida State left the conference he offered a counter-thought.

“If you go back to the (university) president, myself, we’ve never come out and said, ‘Hey, we want to leave the conference.’”

Florida State’s lawsuit, full of bitter language of accusations of ACC financial malfeasance, suggests otherwise. Perhaps Alford’s talk on Tuesday was a bit of careful political maneuvering. Perhaps it was something FSU’s lawyers advised him to say. Or maybe there’s a chance.

A tiny, fraction of a chance that the ACC could salvage its relationship with Florida State. If it could, then it could certainly do the same with Clemson. And if that happened, the league’s existential crisis, born out of a financial gap that continues to expand, could be mitigated.

Indeed, it sounds like the stuff of fantasy. The most likely scenario is also the most damaging to the conference: that the lawsuits work their way through the courts; that eventually FSU and Clemson find the way out they’ve been looking for; that perhaps some other schools — maybe North Carolina or Miami or Virginia — eventually walk through the exit, too.

In the meantime, though, Phillips struck a tone that sounded almost like defiance on Wednesday.

“I always am optimistic about a really good ending on difficult situations,” he said, “and I won’t ever change until somebody else tells me differently.

“Am I going to fight and protect the ACC? Absolutely, I have to do that. That’s my responsibility.”

Among the foremost questions during these meetings was what, exactly, Phillips can do given the turmoil. For one thing, he revealed Wednesday that the conference’s media rights deal with ESPN — one FSU has alleged expired in 2027 — does indeed run through 2036, as was originally reported.

Part of the narrative of Florida State’s lawsuit has been that the contract actually expired in 2027, and that ESPN would have to exercise an option to extend it by nine years. The lawsuit claimed that the ACC hadn’t guaranteed television revenue to its members beyond 2027, and argued that if the ESPN deal expired in three years then there should be no longer-term obligation to the Grant of Rights.

Phillips refuted that, though acknowledged that the ACC is “working internally with them on a piece of the contract.”

“I can’t go into the details on it but the partnership’s not going away,” he said, “or going to be affected in a negative light at all, or in a negative way at all.”

Asked if there was a chance for the ACC to rework some of the financial aspects of the deal, Phillips said, “I won’t discuss that publicly, because we haven’t got to the finish line yet on what we’re talking about.”

Barring an enormous and unforeseen change, the ACC will continue to lag behind the Big Ten and SEC in television revenue, which conferences split among their members. Conference distributions are a significant part of schools’ athletics department budgets, but hardly their only component.

In 2022, the ACC distributed an average full-share payout of almost $40 million to each of its 14 full members. The SEC, though, distributed an average of almost $50 million to its member schools, and the Big Ten an average of almost $60 million.

The monetary distance between those conferences is expected to increase, with the Big Ten and SEC near the beginning of new television contracts that expire — and could presumably be renegotiated at even higher rates — before the ACC’s contract runs out in 2036. Dissatisfaction with the ACC’s ESPN deal, and the widening financial gap, compelled FSU and Clemson to sue the conference.

Phillips during his opening comments acknowledged the obvious. In some ways, it had been an awkward few days here, with two schools in the midst of legal action against the league and representatives from three others attending ACC spring meetings for the first time. Cal, Stanford and SMU will officially become ACC members later this summer.

“I know you want to talk about Florida State and Clemson,” Phillips said. “It’s natural. I get it. I stand by every word that I’ve said before, in previous settings. It’s difficult, it’s disruptive, it’s harmful. But that’s the world we live in.

“And they have the ability to do the things that they’re doing.”

Phillips said “the legal folks” would continue to handle the ACC’s battles in court. In the meantime, there was plenty to address outside of it. Phillips and conference administrators and coaches spent a lot of time here this week discussing how to combat the league’s perception problem, which has only increased amid the lawsuits.

A year ago, Phillips tried to sell a message of togetherness. Now, on Wednesday, there was no avoiding reality. The conference’s unity had been shattered. Its future is in doubt. Phillips, though, said he hadn’t lost hope. He sounded ready for a fight that may just be beginning.