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Clemson AD Graham Neff: Unequal distribution of ACC revenue a 'need'

CLEMSON — As the Big Ten and Southeastern conferences deepen their pockets by adding schools with brand value, unequal distribution of ACC revenues has been floated as a way to keep bigger brand-name schools such as Clemson satisfied with their financial position in the conference.

When asked if unequal distribution was a “want” or a “need,” Clemson athletic director Graham Neff chose the stronger of the two words.

“In all candor, I put it as a need,” Neff said in an interview with The Post and Courier. “We certainly recognize the investment that we’ve continued to make as an institution, in our community, in athletics, namely in football, which certainly drives a lot of value that is important from a television and revenue-generation standpoint.

“Is it time revenue distribution within conferences, or at least the ACC, is done differently? Yeah, I’ve been very active in those conversations within the league and continue to expect to take a leadership role in our desire for that to be a changed circumstance. Urgently.”

The widening revenue gap between conferences has become a concern for ADs, including Florida State's Michael Alford, who during a Feb. 24 board of trustees meeting said "something has to change moving forward” for FSU to remain competitive nationally. One trustee, according to the Tampa Bay Times, asked if it was "feasible" to exit the ACC given the penalty for breaking the conference's grant of rights could be hundreds of millions of dollars.

Neff has repeatedly said he’s “looking out for Clemson,” but it’s difficult to grow the ACC’s money pie to match those of the SEC and Big Ten because the conference is locked into a television contract with ESPN through 2036. The Tigers can’t easily jump to the SEC or Big Ten and nibble at their pie, either, because ACC schools are bound by a rigid grant of rights agreement that surrenders media revenues to the conference.

Clemson has scrutinized the grant of rights to better understand what the financial penalties might be, if there came a time to consider an ACC exit. Regardless of whether it's feasible to depart, what Neff can do as Clemson's AD is advocate for unequal distribution of conference revenues, which could offer the Tigers more slices of the pie that’s currently available.

Of course, the prospect of fewer dollars for less successful ACC schools might be a hard sell. But in a landscape where stability is a cherished resource, keeping bigger brands like Clemson, FSU, and Miami (Fla.) in the fold could be beneficial for all. Neff also argues that uneven distribution incentivizes athletic departments to invest more and earn their cut.

Clemson, thanks to its run of six straight college football playoffs from 2015-20 and two national championships, draws more TV eyeballs than its ACC counterparts, which drives revenue.

“All options are on the table,” ACC commissioner Jim Phillips said in July. “When you look at revenue, you look at closing the gap, you look at generating more, you look at distribution. It all is part of a similar conversation.”

The SEC announced in February it distributed nearly $700 million to its 14 member schools in 2022, excluding bowl revenues, which is an average of about $50 million per institution, substantially ahead of the ACC’s $36.1 million average payout from 2021. The ACC is expected to release its 2022 distribution numbers in late spring.

In August, the newly expanded Big Ten received seven-year contracts totaling $7 billion from Fox, NBC, and CBS, which could allow the conference to eventually distribute about $100 million apiece to its member schools.

Despite the ACC’s lagging numbers, Neff is resolute in believing Clemson won’t fall behind.

The athletic department continues to spend like that's true, as the board of trustees has given the go-ahead on a new wellness facility and upgrades to Jervey Athletic Center at an estimated cost of $50 million. Clemson just broke ground on a $37 million project to upgrade its rowing facility and add practice and operations centers for women’s lacrosse and gymnastics.

Not to mention, the athletic department is now asking supporters to donate both to its fundraising arm, IPTAY, while also resourcing the collectives striking name, image, and likeness (NIL) deals with Clemson athletes.

Neff said he doesn’t expect Clemson’s investments to be “muted” or “hastened.” On the topic of ACC revenue, he remains in conversation with his counterparts about growing the pie and getting the Tigers a bigger slice.

He isn't setting a deadline for when it needs to happen, but Neff certainly wants to see it come to fruition sooner rather than later.

“I think nearer-term, from a budgeting cycle, etc., expect it to not be an imminent change, but that it come with a timeline that comes with a nearer-term plan ability,” Neff said. “No specific date. But it’s a very active conversation.

"The commissioner has been very forward in leading that and encouraging the ADs to look at it and, obviously, how we report up through our presidents group. It’s very top of mind for all those groups in the ACC.”

Follow Jon Blau on Twitter @Jon_Blau. Plus, receive the latest updates on Clemson athletics, straight to your inbox, by subscribing to The Tiger Take.

Jon Blau has covered Clemson athletics for The Post and Courier since 2021. A native of South Jersey, he grew up on Rocky marathons and hoagies. To get the latest Clemson sports news, straight to your inbox, subscribe to his newsletter, The Tiger Take.

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