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Clemson joins Florida State, becomes second school to sue ACC as it seeks to exit conference

Clemson sued the Atlantic Coast Conference in a South Carolina court on Tuesday, joining Florida State in challenging the league’s right to charge schools hundreds of millions of dollars to leave.

The complaint filed in Pickens County says the ACC’s “exorbitant $140 million” exit penalty and the grant of rights used to bind schools to a conference through their media rights should be struck down.

“Each of these erroneous assertions separately hinders Clemson’s ability to meaningfully explore its options regarding conference membership, to negotiate alternative revenue-sharing proposals among ACC members and to obtain full value for its future media rights,” the school said in the lawsuit.

Clemson said it has not given notice that it is exiting the ACC and remains a member of the conference.

“The ACC remains confident that its agreements with all its members will be affirmed by the courts,” ACC Commissioner and Virginia President Jim Ryan, chairman of the conference board, said in a statement. “Clemson, along with all ACC members, voluntarily signed and re-signed the 2013 and 2016 Grant of Rights, which is binding through 2036. In addition, Clemson agreed to the process and procedures for withdrawal. The Conference’s legal counsel will vigorously enforce the agreement and bylaws in the best interests of the ACC’s current and incoming members.”

In December, Florida State’s board of trustees sued the ACC in Florida, making similar claims. The ACC pre-emptively filed a lawsuit against Florida State in North Carolina, where the conference offices are located, saying the school’s actions were a breach of contract.

Florida State claims exiting the ACC before the grant of rights and current media rights deal with ESPN runs out in 2036 would cost $572 million. The first hearing in the North Carolina case is scheduled for Friday.

Clemson is a charter member of the ACC, dating back to its founding in 1953. The school emerged over the last decade as a national college football powerhouse, winning national championships in 2016 and 2018.

Clemson and Florida State are the only ACC schools to reach the four-team College Football Playoff since its inception in 2014.

Nine Bowl Subdivision conferences, including the ACC, agreed last week on a new six-year deal to continue participating in the CFP through the 2031 football season. That includes a revenue-sharing deal that gives the Big Ten and Southeastern conferences almost double the annual distribution to the ACC and Big 12.

With the ACC falling behind the Big Ten and SEC in revenue distribution, mostly tied to media rights deals, some ACC members have grown anxious, worried that schools in those two leagues could soon be bringing in $40 million to $50 million more annually and gain competitive advantages.

In the lawsuit, Clemson maintains the ACC’s interpretation of the grant of rights agreement signed by all 17 members that runs concurrent to the contract with ESPN is wrong. While the conference says the grant of rights allows it to own the media rights to Clemson’s home games after the school leaves the conference, Clemson disagrees.

“By espousing an inaccurate interpretation of the grant of rights agreements and allowing that interpretation to proliferate throughout the media, the ACC has cast a harmful cloud of doubt on Clemson’s ability to engage in meaningful discussions with other conferences and media providers regarding potential future collaborations and/or to negotiate alternative revenue-sharing proposals among ACC members,” Clemson said in the lawsuit.

Florida State has been the most vocal critic of the ACC’s equal revenue distribution model, but Clemson has also been pushing for the conference to direct more money to its top brands, including North Carolina, Miami, Virginia Tech, Virginia and North Carolina State.

The ACC agreed to create a bonus pool to reward schools for postseason success in football and basketball. The conference also expanded last year, adding Stanford, California and SMU, The new schools join in August, and have agreed to drastically reduced annual conference revenue distributions, with the additional money ESPN must pay for new members going into the performance bonus fund.

Clemson and Florida State both voted against expansion, along with Miami and North Carolina, but the conference got the two-thirds majority it needed to add the Northern California schools that were desperate to find a new power conference after the demise of the Pac-12 and Dallas-based SMU.

The rest of the ACC consists of Boston College, Syracuse, Wake Forest, Louisville, Duke, Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech, plus Notre Dame for all sports but football and hockey.