Clemson Football Helmet Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Clemson University sued the ACC Tuesday in the latest legal battle involving TV rights and conference realignments in college sports. reported the 28-page complaint, filed in Pickens County, South Carolina, challenges the university’s obligations to honor the conference’s media deal with ESPN. Clemson and other conference members signed a Grant of Rights agreement in 2013, granting ESPN TV rights for all conference games through 2036.

The college sports world has seen dramatic change since 2013, however, with conference realignments creating far more lucrative TV deals for schools in other conferences, especially the SEC and Big Ten.

Clemson is reportedly exploring options to join another conference but is legally bound to the ACC by that deal. Florida State’s Board of Trustees announced in December the school would be challenging that Grant of Rights agreement in a bid to leave the conference.

FSU proceeded to file a lawsuit against the ACC. The conference responded by requesting that the lawsuit be dismissed or stayed. That motion will be heard on April 9.

Clemson’s lawsuit claims the ACC’s Grant of Rights “hinders Clemson’s ability to meaningfully explore its options regarding conference membership,” the lawsuit states.

“Without clarity as to its legal rights and obligations, Clemson cannot protect and advance its interests, or the interests of its student-athletes, in current and ongoing negotiations within the Conference, with the Conference’s existing media partner ESPN, and in collegiate athletics more generally.”

Florida State claimed in its lawsuit that ESPN is not guaranteed to pay ACC schools any revenue past 2027 and that the remaining years of the Grant of Rights through 2036 are only an option.

ESPN responded by joining the ACC in suing Florida State in February, referencing a potential felony for disclosing trade secrets.

“Whether FSU and its lawyers have committed a felony by knowingly disclosing ESPN’s trade secrets is a question for another day, but, relevant here, there is no question that trade secrets are carefully guarded throughout the United States, including in Florida,” ESPN argued in its suit.

So this legal battle essentially pits the ACC and ESPN against Clemson and Florida State, even though the respective lawsuits will be heard in different venues.

Given the changing economic realities in college sports, the 2013 Grant of Rights deal has not aged well. ACC member schools received an average distribution of $39.4 million for fiscal year 2022, fourth among the Power Five Conferences. The Big Ten led the way with roughly $58.8 million in distributions to its qualifying member schools that year. SEC schools received around $50 million. However, the gap between the ACC and those two conferences will widen even more in the future, under the newly expanded College Football Playoff format.

These legal clashes featuring schools challenging TV contracts, revenue sharing, and other issues in the face of conference realignments have made headlines in the past year. The Pac-12’s stunning collapse last year resulted in legal skirmishes over who should control the conference’s assets, primarily TV revenue. The Pac-12’s member schools announced a settlement to the dispute in December.


About Arthur Weinstein

Arthur spends his free time traveling around the U.S. to sporting events, state and national parks, and in search of great restaurants off the beaten path.