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SEC, Big Ten and Big 12 join ACC in opposing release of ESPN contracts

The three power conferences have joined with the Atlantic Coast Conference in urging a Tallahassee court to protect the ACC’s TV deals with ESPN.

Their unity came through court filings Wednesday in response to a complaint by Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody last month. Moody accused the ACC of breaking Florida’s public records law by not providing a copy of the league’s TV contracts with ESPN. Those documents are potentially relevant in the ongoing dueling lawsuits between Florida State and the ACC as the Seminoles consider leaving the league.

The ACC, SEC, Big Ten and Big 12 argued in Leon County Circuit Court records that the documents must remain confidential to protect trade secrets.

Though some financial details have become public, the ACC said the ESPN contracts have other trade secrets, too — everything from how football broadcasts are selected to operational costs, sponsorship information, signage, future payouts and “conference composition provisions.”

“Kept confidential, they plainly confer the ACC a competitive advantage and benefit,” the filing said.

The ACC’s conference competitors agreed in an amicus brief. In addition to the financial terms, their TV contracts (with ESPN and others) include details like commercial spots, benefits to corporate sponsors and necessary accommodations for producing the broadcasts.

If TV networks knew a conference was willing to offer a specific package of games at a certain price to one broadcaster, they could use that knowledge to negotiate against the league.

“Requiring disclosure of those media agreements would make the Conferences’ confidential strategies available to their competitors and other potential contracting counterparties,” the Big Ten/Big 12/SEC brief said.

ESPN went even farther in its brief. The network said releasing its contracts would allow competitors to “gain a leg up on ESPN in the next round of negotiations with rightsholders.” Florida would be harmed, its filing said, because ESPN and other networks might balk at doing business with state schools if their contracts could become public.

The conferences said there’s no record of any of their previous TV contracts being disclosed publicly. The ACC keeps its deals at its North Carolina office under strict confidentiality protocols; only four conference employees have full access to them.

Moody has argued that the contract is a public record because it involves the “official business” of a state entity (FSU) or someone acting on behalf of that state entity (the ACC). Florida law also says that documents are public if they’re examined by state lawyers for a public reason, and FSU’s counsel has reviewed the contracts.

The ACC countered that FSU is not a party to the league’s contract with ESPN. Neither FSU nor Florida taxpayers pay the ACC, so there’s “no commingling of public and private monies.” The league also argued that Leon County has no jurisdiction over the conference, which is based in North Carolina and does little business in Florida.

The ESPN contracts are a key part of the ongoing dueling lawsuits between FSU and the ACC (and the similar but separate dueling lawsuits between the ACC and Clemson). As the cases proceed, a judge (or judges) will have to interpret those contracts and a related document, the grant of rights, to determine who owns the TV rights if the Seminoles and Tigers leave the ACC before 2036. If the TV rights belong to the schools, their only exit cost would be a $140 million fee. If the rights belong to the conference, FSU estimates the total price tag is at least $572 million and maybe as much as $700 million.

The ACC pushed back on the relevance of the ESPN contracts to the schools’ potential exit obligations.

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