The ACC’s grant of rights keeps being brought up in conference realignment discussions. Here’s why
The ACC’s grant of rights agreement has become a major talking point when it comes to the future of college football
Over the last few days, ever since reports indicated that the Pac-12 and the ACC are considering a partnership of sorts — in the wake of USC and UCLA leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten — the ACC’s grant of rights has been a regular point of discussion when talking about conference realignment.
Whenever the ACC is brought up, either as a Power Five conference or when discussing individual member institutions — mostly Clemson, North Carolina, Virginia, Miami and Florida State — the conference’s grant of rights inevitably enters the conversation.
Usually, the grant of rights is mentioned when discussing why any partnership with the ACC would be ineffectual. Or when the idea is floated of ACC schools being poached by either the Big Ten or SEC.
What is a grant of rights?
In simplest terms, a grant of rights dictates who owns a thing, such as intellectual property rights, or an image. In the case of college football and the ACC, that means revenue from television broadcasts.
Back in 2016, the ACC and ESPN agreed to a 20-year media rights deal through 2035-36, a deal that brought about the birth of the ACC Network — owned and operated by ESPN — which launched in 2019.
At the same time, the ACC extended its grant of rights deal nine additional years, taking that through 2035-36.
That deal, per Steve Wiseman of The News and Observer, based out of Raleigh, North Carolina, “irrevocably and exclusively grants to the conference during the term all rights necessary for the conference to perform the contractual obligations of the conference expressly set forth in the ESPN agreement.”
In layman's terms, as explained by Wiseman, “any TV revenue a school is due from the ACC’s contract with ESPN is conference property through June 30, 2036, regardless of whether the school remains an ACC member or leaves for another conference.”
What happens if an ACC school attempts to leave for another conference?
Explained further by Wiseman, the ACC’s grant of rights means that were a school to leave the conference for another, “the ACC would get any media revenue generated from athletic events on its campus through summer 2036.”
Which in essence would mean, as ESPN’s Andrea Adelson explained it, “Any departing school would ... forfeit its media rights and the ability to have home games and some non-conference games air on TV. In all sports. Through 2036.”
Throw in exit fees — according to Adelson, those currently stand at $120 million — and that is a lot of money to lose, considering the ACC paid out $36.1 million to each of its 15 schools (that includes Notre Dame) for the 2020-21 fiscal year, per The Athletic. Millions generated primarily by television. And that number is expected to continue to rise.
Many have suggested that schools could go to court to challenge the ACC’s grant of rights — and the exit fee — but per Adelson, according to an ESPN source, the conference “believes it has what it needs to keep things together with its grant of rights.”
Underscoring that point Adelson wrote, “Words used to describe the (grant of rights) to me in the last week include ‘rigid,’ ‘really good legal document’ and the possibility of going to court to get out of it ‘a legal battle of all time.’
“That doesn’t mean it won’t go unchallenged. At some point, someone will do it. But it will move slowly through the courts, requiring time and money without having any real idea about whether the case is winnable. There is a reason nobody has gone to court yet.”
Will the Big Ten and SEC still come knocking in the future?
None of this is to say that the ACC or its member institutions aren’t nervous due to recent conference realignment.
Adelson reported that “there are schools itching to leave to save themselves,” plus the ACC is clearly behind the Big Ten and the SEC financially.
But for the moment, the grant of rights means the ACC is all but locked into its current iteration and if it were to attempt to expand the grant of rights would open, creating an avenue for brands like North Carolina, Clemson, Virginia, Florida State and Miami to find a new home.
That is a major reason for the proposed “loose agreement” with the Pac-12, where the ACC Network would broadcast Pac-12 events.
Per Sports Illustrated, “The new partnership with the Pac-12 may not reopen the contract, but it will change the bottom line.”
Only time will tell if that increase in revenue — if it even happens — and the grant of rights will be enough to keep the ACC intact.