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The New ESPN Contract and Certain Teams' Desire to Exit Stage Left

Florida State, still chasing other conferences.
Florida State, still chasing other conferences.

Earlier this week the ACC and ESPN announced an extension of their television deal that was already in place for the next eleven years. We'll now be in the hands of the Worldwide Leader through the 2026-2027 season; there are four-year olds who will eventually be playing ball under this contract. The windfall from this is $3.6 billion over fifteen years, compared to $1.86 billion over twelve. Count the fact that it will be split amongst an extra two schools (and that the ACC front office takes a share), and that works out to an increase of over four million per year per school.

Naturally, this immediately led to rumors of FSU jumping ship for the Big 12.

Now, Florida State has denied these rumors, ironically to the very reporter who started them in the first place. Said reporter, shockingly, still wants to believe. The logic behind the rumors is based on simple math and over-entitlement:

Schools like Duke, Boston College and Maryland all will receive $17 million a year now. That's a good chunk of money for anyone's athletic program, but particularly for one that either sends one of its major revenue sports to the postseason a year, or none.

Of those programs, only Duke had one of its two major revenue sports end up in the NCAA's postseason this past year: the men's basketball team.

Boston College and Maryland neither made it to the NCAA men's basketball tournament, nor did their football teams qualify for postseason bowls this school year. As things stand right now, it's rather difficult seeing all three of the ACC schools being able to send both their football and men's basketball programs to the NCAA postseason this coming year. It's possible, but tough to see this early in the preseason.

As for schools like FSU, the same $17 million will be awarded to them, too. In rather rarefied company, FSU is the only ACC school that has had each of its major revenue sports reach the NCAA's postseason in each of the last three seasons. While the football program hasn't reached a BCS bowl in a half-dozen years, still, the added expense of having to shuttle players, staff and administrators to bowls and postseason tournaments has been costly.

Last year, FSU budgeted $750,000 for its football bowl experience. This coming budget cycle, the school is proposing setting aside $1 million. The better the recruiting and the more football coach Jimbo Fisher and his staff begins to meet expectations, the more those expenses likely will rise.

Basically, Florida State wants more money for all the heavy lifting it did over the last three years. Now, they're not exactly offering to chip some back in for say, 2004 to 2008 when they failed to make the NCAA tournament in basketball, had twelve football wins vacated, and in their one bit of success, hurt the conference by upsetting a more prominent Virginia Tech team in the inaugural ACC Football Championship, but bygones. It's all "What have we done for you lately?" with Seminoles fans.

Meanwhile, the Big No-Longer 12 is also close to a new ESPN deal, one that is rumored to provide about $20 million per school per year, a decent chunk more than the ACC. And suddenly everyone's stopped being offended by the Longhorn Television Network and started seeing dollar signs in their eyes; why wouldn't the Seminoles want to jump ship to a conference that just drove four members into other conference's arms?

Let's think about what's changed in the two years since ESPN last inked a deal. Nationally, there was a tidal wave of realignment, and new agreements signed with every major conference but the Big East and the SEC, the latter who will soon renegotiate it. ESPN is involved in all of them, giving Fox Sports only second--tier rights to the Big 12 and CBS some rights to SEC football and Big 10 basketball. The ACC has been one of the more stable conferences, adding two schools in what was the least football-oriented expansion in their history.

On the football field, the last two years have brought an 0-3 record in BCS bowls, no team finishing in the Top 10, the worst defeat in BCS bowl history, a 6-11 bowl record, and two schools sanctioned by the NCAA. On the basketball side of things, despite being among the worst the ACC has been in as long as I can remember, the conference produced the fourth most-watched basketball game ever on ESPN and spurred the company to start its first college-team focused blog.

And that's before we get to the elephant in the room: a college football playoff. The details are still being hammered out, but we're most likely looking at four teams, either 1-4 by BCS ranking, or the top four conference champions. An under either scheme, how many ACC teams would have made the tournament in the 12-team era? One. Virginia Tech in 2007-08. A college football playoff isn't going to reduce the power of the conferences, but it's going to concentrate it in the hands of the ones that send teams to the biggest games, and that's not the ACC right now. The only way this conference gets a team in is with a school with at most one loss, most likely out-of-conference at that. FSU's best chances to do that are with the ACC; they're going to hop over to the Big 12 and set themselves against the money of Texas and Oklahoma every year? Good luck with that.

Listen, we've been a year away from the Seminoles' return to dominance for eleven years now. Maybe it'll happen in 2012, I don't know. But basketball is driving ESPN's interest at the moment. Hence the demanding of third-tier rights, which is more important in the hardwood where games spill across multiple nights and the inventory is that much greater. The ACC was good to get the money they could now, before the college football bubble bursts, and if it pales to what the Big 12 and SEC will be getting, well, the product needs to be better.

(A good comparison of the various conference contracts is available here, for interested parties. The Pac-12's seems built like an escalating NFL contract, which makes me wonder if they'll ever see the headline money figure.)