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Florida State files lawsuit against Atlantic Coast Conference

University seeks to challenge ACC grant of rights in court
Atlantic Coast Conference logo on football chain marker in 2019
Posted at 11:08 AM, Dec 22, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-22 13:31:00-05

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida State sued the Atlantic Coast Conference on Friday, challenging a contract that binds the school to the league for the next 12 years and creating a potential path to leave without paying more than $500 million in penalties.

"I believe this board has been left no choice but to challenge the legitimacy of the ACC grant of rights and its severe withdrawal penalties," Florida State Board of Trustees chairman Peter Collins said during a trustees meeting.

The lawsuit was filed soon after in Leon County Circuit Court, claiming the ACC has mismanaged its media rights and is imposing "draconian" exit fees.

ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips and Virginia President Jim Ryan, chairman of the conference's board of directors, said Florida State's actions are "in direct conflict with their longstanding obligations and is a clear violation of their legal commitments to the other members of the conference."

Florida State Seminoles head coach Mike Norvell and players celebrate beating Louisville Cardinals for ACC championship, Dec. 2, 2023
Florida State head coach Mike Norvell lifts the trophy after his team's win against Louisville in the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship game, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, in Charlotte, N.C.

"All ACC members, including Florida State, willingly and knowingly re-signed the current Grant of Rights in 2016, which is wholly enforceable and binding through 2036," their statement said. "Each university has benefited from this agreement, receiving millions of dollars in revenue and neither Florida State nor any other institution, has ever challenged its legitimacy."

Florida State outside counsel David Ashburn said a lawsuit was ready to be filed that claims the ACC's grant of rights violates antitrust law and has unenforceable withdrawal penalties. Ashburn said it would cost a school $572 million to withdraw from the conference. The lawsuit also accuses the ACC of breach of contract and violation of public policy.

Florida State Seminoles football helmet in 2023
Florida State helmets are viewed on the sideline during the second half of a game against Syracuse, Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023, in Tallahassee, Fla.

Florida State is looking for a way out of the conference it has been a member of since 1992 because it believes the ACC is locked into an undervalued and unusually lengthy media rights deal with ESPN that runs through 2036. The school leaders also say the league refuses to change its revenue distribution model to match FSU's value.

"It is a simple math problem," Florida State athletic director Michael Alford said. "A very clear math problem."

Florida State leaders have been pushing for unequal revenue distribution for more than a year. The ACC has agreed to create a bonus system that would direct more revenue to schools that have postseason success in football and basketball, but that has not solved the frustration at Florida State.

Florida State University athletic director Michael Alford on sideline vs. Syracuse game, Oct. 14, 2023
Florida State athletic director Michael Alford watches from the sideline during the first half against Syracuse, Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023, in Tallahassee, Fla.

"It's time for us to try to do something about it," Florida State President Richard McCullough said.

McCullough said the trustees' approval of the legal challenge was not a direct reaction to Florida State recently being left out of the College Football Playoff, despite having an undefeated record.

"This is not a reaction, but something we've done a lot of due diligence on," he said.