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Monday, May 20, 2024

With New Lawsuit, Florida AG Backs FSU in Fight to Exit the ACC

  • The lawsuit alleged that the ACC was ‘wrongfully withholding’ media contracts from the public.
  • The content of these contracts, which are essentially kept under lock and key, could decide whether FSU is on the hook for $500 million in exit fees.
Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports

Florida’s attorney general, Ashley Moody, has now officially entered the legal proceedings over the fate of the ACC.

On Thursday, Moody filed a lawsuit in Leon County, Fla., against the conference alleging that it has illegally kept contracts governing its media rights with ESPN secret from the AG’s office and the public. The lawsuit is a clear attempt to support FSU in its quest to depart the conference early.

Moody originally requested the contracts in January, shortly after FSU filed a December lawsuit with the intent of leaving the ACC without having to pay nine figures in exit fees. The FSU suit alleged the conference was negligent in leading schools through a period of change in college sports, and that the contracts that bound it together were unenforceable. At issue: the ACC’s bylaws, the media contract with ESPN, and the “grant of rights,” a document that allows the conference to sell schools’ media rights on their behalf. The conference has held that because of these contracts, FSU must pay more than $500 million in exit fees and other payments if it wants to leave the ACC before the media agreement expires in 2036. 

Clemson filed a lawsuit in March also arguing the ACC’s contracts are not legally enforceable. Both schools were hit with countersuits from the conference itself.

Moody’s complaint, reviewed by Front Office Sports, does not make a case that the ACC’s contracts are invalid, as FSU and Clemson’s lawsuits do. It simply argues that the contracts are subject to Florida public records laws. 

“The ACC is asking a state entity—Florida State University—to potentially pay and lose more than a half a billion dollars but is refusing to produce the documents related to that outrageous price tag,” Moody said in a statement. “We sent a public records request to the ACC in January, but they failed to fully comply. We are taking legal action against the ACC for wrongfully withholding these important public records.”

The complaint begins with a dramatic flourish: “Under secret media rights contracts located somewhere in the North Carolina headquarters of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), the fate of hundreds of millions of dollars of a Florida public university is written.” It says the ACC does not allow any personnel, including from member schools, to retain copies of the agreement. Any university personnel must travel to the ACC’s headquarters in Charlotte to read the agreement in person. (It even sneaks in a reference to FSU’s perceived snub from the 2023–24 College Football Playoff—a moment that FSU itself considered the last straw in whether to challenge the ACC in court.)

While ESPN is not a party to this particular lawsuit, it will likely have something to say. The network had previously filed a brief in the ACC’s countersuit against FSU arguing that the media-rights agreement should be filed under seal—and therefore kept from the public—because the contents of the contract amounted to trade secrets. The brief also suggested that FSU may have committed a felony by revealing certain details of the contract previously.

The lawsuit is the latest in a larger trend of state attorneys general involving themselves in college sports business through litigation. State AGs have led the charge in lawsuits against the NCAA’s transfer restrictions and its rules governing name, image, and likeness deals.

The ACC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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