Sources: Florida State expected to soon start process of leaving ACC

Florida State is expected to soon start the process of its long-discussed divorce from the ACC, multiple sources told Yahoo Sports.

The Seminoles’ conference affiliation is at the center of a scheduled meeting Friday of the FSU Board of Trustees, and the result of the meeting could produce a formal legal filing in what many describe as the first step to achieving an exit from the ACC’s binding grant-of-rights agreement.

The FSU Board of Trustees announced its meeting Thursday to comply with a state open-meetings law requiring members to give the public a 24-hour notice before gathering. Multiple sources with knowledge of FSU’s potential plans spoke to Yahoo Sports for this story under condition of anonymity.

Details around the specific legal step that FSU leaders plan to take is unclear, but legal experts say that the school could seek what’s called a “declaratory judgment action” in an effort to get a judge to rule that the school is not bound to its contract with the ACC.

The legal step’s aim is the grant of rights, a legal document between the ACC, its members and TV partner ESPN binding the parties to one another through the 2035-36 academic year. Any filing would, presumably, be made in a local court friendly to the school’s interests.

The maneuver comes less than a month after FSU became the first undefeated major conference champion to be left out of the College Football Playoff, a decision that rocked those in Tallahassee and accelerated the school’s planned exit strategy.

This week’s potential legal move is not expected to serve as a notice of departure to the ACC. Any departure from the ACC would be more than a year away. However, such a legal foray could set the stage for more ACC programs to follow suit, challenging the league and its grant of rights.

The conference’s grant of rights is at the center of the discussions. The grant of rights is a somewhat common measure that conferences use to legally bind their member schools into a long-term commitment as a way to secure media rights deals. The ACC agreed to its current deal with ESPN in 2016.

While the 20-year agreement was thought then to be a positive, the deal’s length has caused upheaval within the ACC as other power conferences, namely the Big Ten and SEC, have signed new, more lucrative media rights contracts. Over the next decade, SEC and Big Ten schools are projected to earn considerably more in revenue distribution — as much as double — as those in the ACC, figures that have rankled ACC members, none more than Florida State.

ORLANDO, FL - DECEMBER 29: a flag with he Florida State Seminoles logo is displayed during the Cheez-It Bowl between the Oklahoma Sooners and the Florida State Seminoles on Thursday, December 29, 2022 at Camping World Stadium, Orlando, Fla. (Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The Seminoles’ conference affiliation is at the center of a scheduled meeting of the FSU Board of Trustees. (Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

For a year now, FSU officials have publicly lobbed threats of their eventual departure from the conference, with the school’s president, Richard McCullough, saying in August that FSU needs to “very seriously” consider a move.

In the same meeting, former FSU quarterback Drew Weatherford, a member of the Board of Trustees, said, “It's not a matter of if we leave, in my opinion. It's a matter of who and when we leave.”

The talk is, perhaps, turning into action.

FSU’s CFP snub isn’t the only factor that expedited the school’s charted course toward an ACC exit.

In the latest realignment wave, the ACC gained Cal, Stanford and SMU despite aggressive pushback within the conference. FSU, North Carolina and Clemson voted against the additions. The league added that trio of programs, while its power conference-mates made additions of Oregon and Washington (Big Ten) and Utah, Colorado, Arizona and Arizona State (Big 12). The SEC will add Oklahoma and Texas next year as well.

The ACC’s expansion campaign further divided a league of private and public programs that hold vastly disparate missions and resources. The league, in part, pushed through the expansion as a way to preserve the conference long-term, considering the potential departures of a handful of programs.

In the spring, officials from seven ACC schools met multiple times to examine a way to potentially exit the conference, even studying dissolving the league entirely. Those discussions mostly died after they emerged publicly in May. However, FSU’s desire — and others as well — to break free of the league has been a constant for many months.

FSU lawyers, as well as those from Clemson, have spent the past several months exploring ways to realistically break free of the grant of rights. While many consider the grant of rights unbreakable, some believe the schools will nonetheless try to find an exit path.

In signing a grant of rights, schools acquiesce the rights to televise their home games to the league and partner ESPN. Florida State’s home competitions are owned not by the school but by the league over the next 13 years — if FSU doesn’t find a way out of it.

There is precedent for a settlement. This year, the Big 12 and its TV partners agreed to a settlement for Oklahoma and Texas to leave its grant of rights a year early for what was announced as a $50 million penalty for each school.

The ACC grant of rights includes similar language to that document. However, FSU would be leaving with as many as 10 years remaining on the contract. If the ACC and ESPN did agree to any kind of settlement, breaking the grant of rights would come at a considerable cost, with estimates at as much as $500 million.

That would be in addition to the $120 million owed to the league in a separate exit fee. It is no secret within college athletics that Florida State, as well as other ACC programs, have deeply explored obtaining future funding through private equity means. As far as exiting the ACC, schools must notify the conference of their departure at least a year before a move. For example, FSU is guaranteed to compete in the ACC next academic year and would have to notify the conference by Aug. 15, 2024, if the school wanted to leave in time to compete elsewhere in the 2025 football season.

There is, too, this question: Where would Florida State and any other departing ACC school land?

The SEC and Big Ten, their most attractive options, have signaled their hesitance to add additional members, but such statements have been made before. Big Ten school leaders publicly pushed back on another round of expansion before adding Oregon and Washington.

The changing environment in college athletics makes for an unpredictable landscape moving forward, creating possible avenues for exiting ACC programs. A new governance structure is likely on the way, for instance. NCAA president Charlie Baker proposed the creation of a new FBS subdivision geared around providing athletes with direct school compensation.