Clemson files lawsuit against the ACC over the conference's early exit fee penalty

Clemson's lawsuit comes after Florida State filed a lawsuit against the ACC in December over the same subject

CLEMSON, SC - SEPTEMBER 23: Clemson Tigers running back Phil Mafah (7) during a college football game between the Florida State Seminoles and the Clemson Tigers on September 23, 2023, at Clemson Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C.  (Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Both Clemsona and Florida State are seeking to nullify the ACC's hefty exit fee if they leave the conference. (Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Clemson has joined Florida State in the legal fight against the ACC.

The school filed a lawsuit against the conference over the league’s media rights deal in South Carolina state court on Tuesday. Like Florida State, Clemson seeks to nullify the $140 million penalty the ACC says it would owe if the school left the conference.

In 2016, the ACC’s member schools signed an amended grant of rights deal with the league through the 2036 season when the conference launched its own television network with ESPN. The school said in its suit that the estimated $140 million penalty “has no relationship to, and is in fact plainly disproportionate to, the actual damages, if any, that would flow from Clemson’s leaving the ACC.”

The suit comes as the Big Ten and SEC have expanded in recent years and their member schools are set to make significantly more money than other conferences' schools through the leagues’ media rights deals. In short, both Clemson and Florida State are unhappy that the ACC’s revenues are set to be dwarfed by both the Big Ten and SEC’s.

“Conference realignment continues to occur with increasing frequency as various conferences and universities seek the affiliations and memberships that best enable them to compete with other universities, with the private sector, and with the private sector, and with other forms of sports and entertainment products,” the suit states. “The ACC’s actions interfere with Clemson’s free exercise of its rights and are fatally detrimental to Clemson’s efforts to ensure that its athletic programs can continue to compete at the highest level which is critically important to Clemson beyond athletics.”

You can read Clemson's lawsuit in full here. It said in a statement shortly after the lawsuit that it “has not given notice that it is exiting the ACC and remains a member of the conference.”

Florida State filed suit against the ACC in December of 2023 and called the conference’s exit fees “draconian.” The ACC has sued the FSU board of trustees, alleging that the school can’t challenge an agreement it signed in 2016.

The conference relayed the same sentiments in a statement Tuesday afternoon.

“The ACC remains confident that its agreements with all its members will be affirmed by the courts,” the ACC said in a statement. “Clemson, along with all ACC members, voluntarily signed and re-signed the 2013 and 2016 Grant of Rights, which is binding through 2036. In addition, Clemson agreed to the process and procedures for withdrawal. The conference’s legal counsel will vigorously enforce the agreement and bylaws in the best interests of the ACC’s current and incoming members.”

Like Clemson, Florida State sued in state court. The ACC is located in North Carolina and filed its lawsuit against FSU in North Carolina court. It contends that Florida State’s claim should be adjudicated in the state where the conference is located. It reasons that the conference will take the same location-based stand against Clemson.

As Florida State and Clemson try to get the penalties for leaving the ACC reduced, the question of where they would go still lingers. Given the revenue disparity between the Big Ten and SEC and everyone else, the two schools are clearly eyeing spots in one of those two conferences.

But is there room for them in either the Big Ten or SEC? South Carolina and Florida are already members of the SEC and they have little reason to help their in-state rivals, especially if it means their media revenue would decrease with the addition of more schools to the SEC. The conference is adding Texas and Oklahoma in a few months.

The Big Ten effectively becomes a national conference this summer with the addition of Oregon, Washington, UCLA and USC, though it doesn’t have a presence in the southeast. Would it want to expand to 20 teams and grow its geographic footprint even further?

We could get a better idea about the chances of Clemson’s lawsuit later this week. A hearing between Florida State and the ACC stemming from FSU’s motion to dismiss the ACC’s suit is set to be heard on March 22 in North Carolina.