Tuesday, June 18, 2024
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Inside the future of Florida State: AD Michael Alford offers perspective amid potential ACC exit

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Michael Alford might have the best seat in college athletics. From a field-level box that he personally reimagined at Dick Howser Stadium, Florida State’s athletic director might be sitting closer to the batter than either dugout-bound coach. Alford is able to watch this weekend’s NCAA baseball super regional surrounded by food, drink, boosters and praise. 

This is part of the third-year AD’s kingdom. As the baseball season winds down, the former Mississippi State outfielder is basking in more than sunlight. Mike Norvell has stopped by, a sign that football is back but also a reminder of the hurt that still lingers from being left out of the College Football Playoff following the 2023 season.

“It just wasn’t right,” Alford grumbles between pitches.

It wouldn’t be fair to label Alford as the primary force behind Florida State’s push to exit the ACC, but he is the leader of a powerful athletic brand making news almost daily at this point. And Alford, thankfully, has been available on the subject since the exit attempt became public during a live-streamed board of trustees meeting in February 2023. 

Since then, Florida State has arguably committed enough words, effort and documents to provide a legal walk-through for any school that wants to follow its path.

“I’d say there’s a lot of people interested in the formula, the blueprint,” Alford told CBS Sports. “[There have been] a lot of questions about how we got to this point. It’s really looking at the analytical side of where this business is going, making sure we are positioning ourselves for the future.”

That formula/blueprint is still in the development. FSU sued the ACC last December. Clemson followed with its own suit in March. The ACC has counter-sued. 

That’s not counting a suit by the Florida state attorney general aiming to make public ESPN’s media rights deal with the conference. There are now more court motions than Danny Hurley’s UConn offense. There are more attorneys involved than a season of “Law & Order.”

You need a daily scorecard to keep up. Here’s a good summary of the latest.

Both Florida State and Clemson believe they’re worth more than $41 million in media rights revenue they’re paid annually under the current ACC contract with ESPN that goes through 2036. Still, Alford maintains he has a good relationship with ACC commissioner Jim Phillips. 

The two schools may have to commit nine figures apiece to get out a grant of rights that has 12 years to run. In that initial board meeting, FSU concluded it would take $572 million to exit the league.

All of this is fallout from the latest round of conference realignment that has concentrated money and power in the hands of the SEC and Big Ten. Those 34 schools have become an exclusive club. It’s fair to say Florida State wouldn’t mind knowing the secret password to college athletics’ ultimate speakeasy.

“I think our athletic director is either a genius or an idiot, and I think he’s a genius,” said Stuart Geiger, an FSU fan and proprietor of  Sugar Fix, selling shave ice inside Dick Howser. “He’s making enough ruckus that somebody is going to give him something. You keep making a ruckus and somebody is going to pay attention to it. 

“He’s going to get something out of it, and it’s going to be more than what he had.”

That’s one perspective from a man on the street. Now it’s worth asking what’s next? 

FSU has until Aug. 15 to notify the ACC if it intends to compete elsewhere in 2025, while ESPN has a look-in to the ACC contract in February 2025. That pause in the contract would allow the cable giant to renegotiate or alter the deal. 

“The partnership is not going away or being affected in a negative way at all,” ACC commissioner Phillips told reporters last month. “It’s a look-in and we’re handling some of what that states.”

“We’re not looking next year,” Alford said, speaking in general terms. “We’re forecasting where FSU is going to be five, 10, 15 years from now and how do we make sure we’re doing our due diligence now to position ourselves. Where is college athletics going to be five,10 years from now and making sure this is a part of it.”

During the talk, Alford continually emphasized Florida State’s brand value everywhere from the West Coast to New York. That’s the reason Alford said he lobbied for Syracuse to be one of FSU’s permanent conference opponents.

“I wanted [FSU] in the New York market,” he said.  

It doesn’t end there. Alford said Florida State would be interested in playing in the new Players Era Festival basketball tournamentscheduled to debut Thanksgiving week in Las Vegas. 

CBS Sports asked business consultants Altimore Collins & Co. to take a deep dive into Florida State’s market desirability since 2013. FSU came out 13th overall in regular-season viewers. That’s ahead of such powerhouses as Tennessee, USC, Texas A&M, Oregon and Washington. Interestingly, Clemson is 12th on that list, highest among ACC schools.

The next-highest ranked program on that list not currently in the Big Ten or SEC is Oklahoma State (No. 23). 

FSU and Clemson resemble SEC programs in terms of interest and budgets. Using the realigned configuration for 2024, Florida State would have the ninth-largest athletic revenue in the SEC. Clemson would be No. 11. They are 1-2 in the category in the ACC. 

Venture capital has become part of the discussion. In February, the Tampa Times published an extensive look into FSU’s dogged path toward raising its value — and much-needed cash. “Project Osceola” details a possible nine-figure deal with private equity firms as well as other value-added ideas such as selling naming rights for Doak Campbell Stadium. 

Sportico dug down on the financials within a series of documents it had obtained. One private equity firm’s “initial purchase amount” was to be $75 million of whatever slice of FSU it received. 

Giant venture capital firms JPMorgan Chase, Sixth Street and Weatherford Capital have been linked to FSU. Founder of Weatherford Capital, Drew Weatherford is a former Florida State quarterback and FSU trustee. Through a spokesman, he declined to comment. 

“To use a baseball analysis, we want to run that groundball out,” Alford said of private equity. “We’re looking at what it could mean, what the financial risk is, what the long-term risk is, what’s the solution of it.”

Alford says he has drawn up “about 20” future athletic budgets based on what could happen, mainly because there is the yet-to-be realized impact of the House v. NCAA settlement.  

“I’ve got a budget and financial analysis going out to 2043,” Alford said. “We hired JP Morgan to come in and look at revenue streams, forecast futures. I love going out and getting the analysts to help.”

Several experts believe private equity is the future of college sports. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey downplayed its influence last week. 

“In my experience, those involved in private equity want to be paid back,” Sankey told reporters, “so I would caution people around the notion of short-term fixes.

“I understand why private equity is interested in college sports. If I was on the outside looking in at all the good that’s happening around college sports, I’d want to be a part of that action as well. I’d take that interest as a compliment.”

The difference being the SEC is more likely to afford the change that is coming to college sports given all the new expenses on the horizon. 

Included in that original FSU board meeting was a chart showing the athletic department was soon going to behind by $40 million per school annually in media rights compared to the SEC and Big Ten. 

“That’s significant,” Alford said. “It cold have a significant impact on your ability to compete on a national level.”

There is the corner-bar speculation of where FSU ultimately lands, if anywhere. The SEC is a cultural fit, but the conference already is in the state with Florida. The Big Ten is the largest conference at 18 members and has shown no shyness about going coast-to-coast. One of the few regions where it doesn’t have a footprint is the Southeast.

“We have a good relationship with our friends in Tallahassee,” Florida AD Scott Stricklin told reporters last week. “No school has a veto in this league. If you get three-fourths of the league to support expansion, we’re going to expand. Anybody who made our league better we would be in support of joining the SEC.” 

All of it adds up to Alford perhaps having that best seat in college athletics — at least as a spectator. Upon taking the job, he noticed two openings behind home plate were being used for storage. That quickly ended three years ago as the spaces were remodeled and a revenue stream was activated. 

As the next pitch sails in to the catcher, Alford is always willing to talk, just not too much with so much to be decided. Symbolically, there is added value to that primo seat being positioned at an angle to one side of home plate. 

“I’m off camera,” he said gleefully. 

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