What’s next for the Florida State, ACC lawsuits (plural)

What’s next for the Florida State, ACC lawsuits (plural)

The next step in the half-a-billion-dollar legal fight between Florida State and the ACC is scheduled for Tuesday in Tallahassee.

The two sides will meet in a Leon County Circuit Court room about FSU’s lawsuit against its conference — not to be confused with the conference’s lawsuit against FSU, or the lawsuits (plural) between the conference and Clemson.

That one paragraph shows how complex the back-and-forth, months-long, multi-jurisdictional litigation is. So let’s take a step back to look at how we got here and what’s next:

What’s happening Tuesday?

A Leon County judge, John C. Cooper, is set to hold his court’s first hearing since FSU sued the ACC in December. It centers on the ACC’s motion to dismiss the Seminoles’ case or pause it until after the conference’s suit is resolved in North Carolina (more on that in a minute).

What’s the Florida State lawsuit about?

FSU’s future in the ACC (or lack thereof). The Seminoles asked the Leon County court to decide if a pair of nine-figure contracts are enforceable. FSU says they aren’t. The ACC disagrees. If the court sides with FSU, the ’Noles could, theoretically, leave the ACC for free as soon as this year. If the court sides with the ACC, FSU estimates its exit would cost $572 million.

What’s the ACC lawsuit about?

Also FSU’s future in the ACC (or lack thereof). The conference asked a different court (Mecklenburg County, N.C., where the league is based) to weigh in on the same deals from the opposite perspective. The ACC says FSU knowingly and willingly signed the contracts. If the Seminoles want out, they must pay what the contracts say to pay. The ACC also argues FSU has already breached some of its agreements. One example: disclosing terms of the conference’s contract with ESPN.

What are the disputed deals?

The first is a fee to leave the conference. Florida State estimates it at $130 million, but Clemson pegs it at $140 million (we’ll come back to the Tigers). Regardless, FSU argues it’s “so exorbitant and disproportional” to what the ’Noles receive from the ACC that it unlawfully restrains trade. The ACC calls it a “form of alternate performance” schools can use instead of staying. The conference also said the payment “represents a fraction of the losses” a team’s withdrawal would cost the ACC.

The second is the grant of rights. It’s the deal where FSU gave (or granted) the TV rights for its home games to the ACC. The ACC sold those rights to ESPN and now redistributes the money back to FSU and the conference’s other members.

The league says FSU gave its rights to the conference through 2036. That means the ACC would keep the Seminoles’ $30-plus million in annual TV revenue even if FSU leaves before then.

Florida State says those rights only belong to the ACC as long as the ’Noles are actually in the ACC. The rights to FSU games, then, would accompany the ’Noles to a new conference. That new conference could then sell them to its TV partner and give money back to Florida State.

What’s this whole thing really about?

Money. The gap between the ACC payouts and the Big Ten/SEC payouts is expected to swell to more than $30 million per school per year. The Seminoles fear they can’t compete with the likes of Michigan and Florida if those schools have conference payouts twice as large as the ones in the ACC.

For the ACC, this looks like an existential crisis. Its status would plummet without FSU and/or Clemson, the conference’s top football brands. The Pac-12′s collapse proves there’s no guarantee of survival.

How does Clemson fit into this?

The Tigers filed a legal complaint against the ACC last month in their home court (Pickens County, S.C.). It echoes many of the same points FSU raised.

A day later, the ACC sued Clemson in Mecklenburg County, N.C. That means there are four separate complaints in three different states.

What about other schools?

Miami has been relatively quiet. North Carolina’s board of trustees chairperson recently told 247Sports the ACC is “really representing the bottom tier of the membership at the expense of the top tier.” The Tar Heels are in that top tier and regarded as perhaps the ACC’s most coveted brand in a future round of conference realignment. They’re the program to monitor.

What are some other key issues?

FSU and the ACC disagree on who sued whom first. We told you this was complex, so bear with us. The ACC filed its complaint against Florida State on Dec. 21. FSU submitted its suit against the league the next day. But the ’Noles have argued the conference broke its own rules by suing without a proper vote.

The league says its actions were fine because the members approved an updated complaint at a special Jan. 12 meeting. The party that files first generally (but not always) gets its preferred venue. Both sides could see strategic, literal home-court advantages based on how this dispute is decided. As one of FSU’s attorneys said during a recent North Carolina hearing: “Litigants do prefer to have suits in their homefield.”

Some related questions: How will FSU’s sovereign immunity claims as a state entity affect the venue? What about the ACC’s claim that it’s a non-resident because it’s based in North Carolina?

What’s the latest with the North Carolina case?

Its first hearing on March 22 seems like a mirror image of the upcoming one in Tallahassee. It lasted four hours and had about a dozen attorneys present.

In an opinion issued Thursday, the Mecklenburg County judge, Louis A. Bledsoe III, denied most of FSU’s arguments to dismiss the conference’s case. The key points:

• The ACC’s lawsuit against the Seminoles will proceed in Charlotte with the conference acting as a proper plaintiff.

• Bledsoe rejected FSU’s argument that the ACC did not follow its own protocols when it sued FSU in December.

• Bledsoe wrote that FSU can’t challenge some of its contracts with the conference because it has been accepting money from the ACC for years.

• Bledsoe dismissed the ACC’s claim that the Seminoles breached their fiduciary duties to the league.

Bledsoe has not yet ruled on whether the ACC’s contracts with ESPN will be sealed (which they want) or public (which FSU wants).

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