ACC’s Jim Phillips talks three years as commissioner and ongoing issues with FSU, NIL and media revenue

Jim Phillips steps into the meeting room just off his main office in the ACC’s new uptown Charlotte headquarters on a recent afternoon, nestling into the chair at the head of the table that runs the length of the space. Phillips, always well-dressed, dons a familiar uniform, including a striped tie twisted into a clean Windsor knot.

 

“It’s run the whole gamut,” Phillips said of his tenure as ACC commissioner just days out from his three-year anniversary with the league. “But at the heart of it I think the world of these soon-to-be 18 schools, the student athletes that we’re trying to support, the leadership in the conference as it relates to our presidents, our athletic directors and coaches.”

 

The ACC has undergone massive changes during Phillips’ 36 months on the job. It moved from its historic home in Greensboro, N.C., to a more corporate-inclined location in Charlotte. The league is set to add Cal, SMU and Stanford to the fold this fall. Then, of course, there’s the recent uproars and lawsuits from Florida State and the general instability of college athletics as a whole that loom large.

 

Phillips sat down with Sports Business Journal for a wide-ranging interview on his first three years in the commissioner’s chair and the challenges facing the league.

 

Pitt Athletic Director Heather Lyke supports what she has seen so far in Phillips’ performance.

 

“He had a deck of cards that he was dealt, and I think he’s done a pretty darn good job with that deck and made it better in many ways, [being] progressive and forward thinking,” she said.

 

It’s no secret college sports are facing an existential crisis. Phillips, who previously was Northwestern’s AD, jokes he’s spent far more time in Washington, D.C., than he imagined when he took the job in early 2021. Name, image and likeness hearings and lobbying efforts have filled the calendars of administrators across the country. For Phillips, that included a recent trip to D.C. with his Power Five commissioner contemporaries Greg Sankey (SEC), Tony Petitti (Big Ten), Brett Yormark (Big 12) and George Kliavkoff (Pac-12).

 

That time included a meeting between the commissioners and NCAA President Charlie Baker, whose proposal to create a new subdivision within the NCAA model that would allow institutions to pay athletes more directly sent shock waves throughout the enterprise and was created largely under the cover of night.

 

“Charlie’s initial statement back in early December was a conversation starter,” Phillips said. “There’s not everything that we agree on that he stated, and he wasn’t looking for that to be the beginning and the end of the conversation and this is what we were going to do. I think he was just trying to get us to start thinking collectively on what we believe to be maybe the best path for our four particular conferences, as well as college athletics.”

 

That there is ongoing dialogue between the commissioners at the top of the sport — although Kliavkoff’s days at the Pac-12 have felt numbered for months — is also a seeming step in the right direction. The power conferences have had their spats in recent years, trading traditional weaponry for the threat of poaching programs from one another.

 

The realignment carousel has, for the moment, slowed, allowing those in charge to pick up the pieces. Still, there are divides to manage. The Big Ten and SEC continue to wield their massive television contracts over the rest of their compatriots. A recently announced strategic partnership between the two leagues, too, has plenty in the space concerned about a continued fracturing in major college football. (Sources who spoke with SBJ about the agreement cautioned that division is not the initial design of this task force-like agreement.)

 

“There aren’t magical answers to our historic realities,” Sankey said last week on the “Paul Finebaum Show.” “[But] now we’re being challenged in different ways — challenged within our own campus settings, challenged in courts, challenged in state legislatures or challenged in Congress.”

 

In a world in which the SEC and Big Ten seem generally intent on taking control of college football and, at this rate, are on pace for possible domination, the ACC occupies a unique space among the soon-to-be Power Four leagues.

 

The financial realities of competing in high-major college football are growing by the year. The SEC and Big Ten are in the midst of media rights deals that will pay each north of $700 million annually, the Big Ten reaching to the $1 billion range. The ACC, meanwhile, remains in a deal it signed with ESPN for its rights in 2016 worth reportedly $240 million annually. The ACC’s agreement also includes a unilateral option for ESPN in 2027, which must be exercised by February 2025, that would extend the deal until 2036 — details that were, naturally, made public in Florida State’s lawsuit against the league.

 

Phillips and the conference office have made efforts to quell some of the noise regarding these major financial differences — most notably through new revenue distribution streams. The final details of the ACC’s Success Initiative are nearing completion (Phillips said the league’s board has approved the plan and final details are being ironed out), which will ultimately give those universities whose teams perform best on the field an opportunity to cash in on a fund that’s reportedly in the $55 million range.

 

 

On paper, the change in revenue distribution is a dynamic and creative shift from the long-standing tradition of equal revenue shares among schools within a conference. In practice, it’s also a chance to help bridge the gap for some of the ACC’s more prominent programs, including FSU and Clemson.

 

“I don’t think there’s another conference that’s going to be distributing money based on performance on an unequal basis,” Phillips said. “That, to me, is a reflection of how the ACC has tried to address some of the things that have been important to us and try to address the part of the revenue piece we’re trying to figure out.”

 

Added Miami AD Dan Radakovich (who previously was at Clemson): “What it does is when you have those special years, whether it’s in basketball or football, there’s a little bit of help, because those special years are normally expensive as it relates to retaining quality personnel, other types of expenses that are there whenever you go to a College Football Playoff or make a deep run into the Final Four. … So the ability to get some additional dollars to help mitigate that from the league, I think, is very important.”

 

Redistributing revenue and thinking in a more forward way hasn’t necessarily quelled the most public of detractors. That aforementioned ongoing litigation between the ACC and Florida State has added a complicated layer to the potential futures of both entities. FSU, which has also reportedly explored private equity investments, argues that the ACC hasn’t acted in good faith to afford league members a bigger cut of the media rights pie and the growing financial divide puts it at a major disadvantage. Those in the conference office, of course, vehemently disagree with the sentiment.

 

Phillips almost sighs when asked the inevitable question about the FSU lawsuit that feels far from a resolution. Rather than add fuel to the fire, he defers to the statement he released at the initial filing of FSU’s lawsuit. That statement read in part:

 

“Florida State’s decision to file action against the conference is in direct conflict with their longstanding obligations and is a clear violation of their legal commitments to the other members of the conference. All ACC members, including Florida State, willingly and knowingly re-signed the current Grant of Rights in 2016, which is wholly enforceable and binding through 2036.

 

Each university has benefited from this agreement, receiving millions of dollars in revenue, and neither Florida State nor any other institution has ever challenged its legitimacy.”

 

Beyond the financials, Phillips, to his credit, has worked to stay out front as best he can. Moving from Greensboro to Charlotte represented a symbolic modernization of the league, a growing up of sorts.

 

Adding Cal, SMU and Stanford, too, was as much about helping to maintain what remains of status quo in college sports these days, should certain league members find ways to wiggle out of the ACC’s supposedly air-tight grant of rights signed by all institutions.

 

That said, there’s no pleasing everyone in the commissioner’s chair. Adding the three new members that will make the “Atlantic Coast Conference” span as far west as the Bay Area brought its share of detractors within the league (North Carolina, Clemson and Florida State — three schools frequently listed as possible defectors in media speculation — all dissented) and creates a host of logistical challenges.

 

“The league continues to grow in a positive direction,” Radakovich said. “We need to continue to look and see with our television partner how we can create additional revenues to make sure that we stay relevant and stay on the upper end of competition when you look at the other leagues that are out there. Those are important tasks and I know Jim is working on those every day.”

 

Perhaps Phillips, for all he’s been dealt over the past three years, deserves some sympathy. He inherited a league within a national enterprise that was exploding from changes long before he took over from John Swofford.

 

But there’s still a twinkle in his eye when asked why he thinks college athletics, despite all its messy complications, are worth fighting for.

 

“Even though the major challenges and the incredible issues that come forward [are] sometimes hard to believe,” Phillips said.

 

“If you recalibrate and remember it’s about supporting young people at an important time, I think it helps drive you through some of these difficult moments.”

 

College sports exist in as volatile a climate as ever. And while skeptics surrounding the enterprise grow increasingly vociferous, don’t count Phillips among them.

 

The ACC is trudging forward under his guidance — and now with a coast-to-coast footprint.

 

 

Gideon Canice

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