Texas and Oklahoma hinted last summer at the road down which college football is likely headed.
That’s when news broke that the longtime Big 12 rivals are bolting for the SEC by 2025 at the latest. Southern Cal and UCLA are now following them down that path.
The Pac-12 rivals tonight announced their moves to the Big Ten, further fueling the chatter that college football could be headed toward mega conferences sooner rather than later. With their most recent additions, the Big Ten and SEC are up to 16 football members apiece.
And they may not be done. Action Network’s Brett McMurphy, citing anonymous sources, reported the Big Ten could further expand and that the Big 12 is looking into potentially replenishing with some Pac-12 members.
Safe to say the latest news of conference realignment will have a ripple effect on the future of the sport. So what could it mean for Clemson and the ACC?
While the league’s demise may not be imminent, the latest news isn’t good for Power Five conferences outside of the Big Ten and SEC, two leagues that are head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to revenue opportunities for its members.
The SEC recently inked a 10-year television contract with ESPN for football and basketball broadcasts that will reportedly pay the league roughly $3 billion over the course of the deal beginning in 2024. That’s on top of the conference’s current media rights deal, putting the annual payout for each school north of $50 million.
It is college sports’ most lucrative media rights deal as of now, but that may not be the case for long.
The Big Ten is still in negotiations, but the league is reportedly eyeing a record-breaking contract that would exceed $1 billion annually once its current deal expires next year. Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News reported USC and UCLA could increase their TV revenue cut to north of $100 million each as members of the Big Ten.
Meanwhile, the ACC is in the midst of a long-term deal with ESPN that doesn’t expire until 2036. It also doesn’t pay nearly as well. The deal reportedly doles out roughly $240 million annually to the conference, which equates to about $17 million for each of its 14 football members (annual reported payouts for Pac-12 and Big 12 schools are roughly $21 million and $20 million, respectively).
There’s also the Grant-of-Rights agreement tied to the league’s contract, which has been instrumental in keeping other conferences from poaching ACC programs to this point. Under the agreement, member schools would have to pay an exit fee and surrender the entirety of their TV revenue to the conference if they bolt.
But, understandably, there are some who are intrigued by the hefty payday that could potentially come their way in another conference. The Clemson Insider has learned through a source that at least one member school is looking to see if there’s a way to get out of the Grant-of-Rights. If there does end up being a way for member schools to leave without too significant of a penalty, then the ACC would almost certainly need a more competitive media rights deal to keep itself afloat.
In that scenario, two things could trigger a rework of the ACC’s TV contract: Notre Dame joining the league for football or the poaching of other conferences (or both). Notre Dame is an ACC member in every sport other than hockey and football, where it competes as an independent and has its own media rights deal with NBC.
Without a new deal that gets the ACC more on par with what the Big Ten and SEC are paying, it’s going to be hard for the league to attract new members. And if there’s a Grant-of-Rights workaround somewhere, it’s going to be equally as difficult for the league to keep members from leaving.
Clemson could be one of them.
Dabo Swinney’s program has become one of the sport’s elite by morphing into the ACC’s gold standard with its run of league dominance over the last decade, strengthening its brand immensely in the process. In other words, Clemson is a highly attractive option for potential poachers.
What isn’t clear at this point is the level of desire Clemson has to either stay where it’s at or explore other options, but the Grant of Rights is the lynchpin. If there’s a workaround, another conference could make an offer that’s too good to pass up. If not, Clemson, like the rest of the ACC, is stuck.