Only in times of chaos in college sports does the wonky jargon grant of rights intersect with mainstream conversation. Perhaps no factor looms larger for the future of the entire enterprise of college athletics than the consequences that come with signing -- or the potential need to sign -- a grant of rights.
A grant of rights is a legal term that comes up in the college landscape almost exclusively during times of conference realignment. The definition of the term itself is a fitting duality -- both simple and complicated -- considering how differently the grants are being viewed amid the latest starburst of realignment in 2022.
By extending their grant of rights in 2016, ACC schools did what the legal phrase says: They granted the rights to all their home games to the ACC until the league's television contract with ESPN expires in 2036. After granting them, schools are finding complications in the legal quagmire of the exploration of getting them back.
There has already been an extreme amount of analysis by multiple schools' general counsels examining the legal strength of the document, though one source familiar with one of those studies said there "doesn't appear to be much wiggle room" for schools eager to depart.
In the ACC, the grant of rights looms largest because of the 14 seasons that remain on the contract. The per-team estimated payouts project to hundreds of millions less over that span than teams in the Big Ten and SEC. The ACC should be about $40 million per team in upcoming years. The Big Ten and SEC should be north of $70 million in the early years of their upcoming deals, as the Big Ten is difficult to predict until it gets signed in the coming weeks. How big that gap grows -- and there's always variance with league success -- will only amplify the angst in the ACC.
Any conversation about future ACC members, departing ACC members or unhappy ACC members all links back to the length and strength of that grant of rights.
For the ACC, the grant of rights serves as the ultimate paradox -- the glue holding the ACC together but also a wedge threatening to divide the league. The grant of rights serves to protect or suffocate, depending on whether your chair is at Syracuse or Clemson. It is the golden handcuffs that represent either long-term financial security or financial inequity.
The grant of rights was designed to bond the schools through equal revenue share for two decades and to end realignment speculation. But with the top brands Clemson, Florida State, North Carolina, Miami and Virginia all worried about the financial gap for the next 14 years, there are schools at the top feeling trapped. (Or those who've been at the top in the past and expect to return.)
The grant of rights is being hailed by ACC officials behind the scenes as an ironclad bond of commitment. But there's also a bottom-line reality that counters that: It would be naive to think that no school will challenge it within the next 14 years if the financials in the league don't change. While there's no known legal precedent in college sports for going to court to break a grant of rights, the only variable seemingly is time before someone in the ACC begins a risky game of financial roulette that comes after an exit fee that is projected to be nearly $120 million per school.
It's one math problem or another. Can you afford to stay in the ACC and fall behind? Or would the cost be more significant by trying to fight your way out?
It's not just the ACC's future that revolves around the grant of rights. The safest predictor of what happens next in realignment is that grants of rights will loom as a large factor in the deal. (Or, perhaps, allowing schools to not sign one could be a negotiating play).
Here's a peek at what's next in realignment and how grants of rights can factor in.