TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida State athletic director Michael Alford picks up a thick white binder in his office, one that he keeps with him at all times for reference. He calls it a “living, breathing document,” one that has pages and pages of financial models, valuations and projections for his athletic department all the way through 2043.
When he says both Florida State and the ACC are facing an insurmountable revenue gap with the SEC and Big Ten, he can point to the spreadsheets. His concerns have been aired both privately and publicly. Florida State has been the most vocal school in the ACC about this revenue gap and also what that gap could mean for FSU’s long-term future in the league.
Florida State’s vocal approach has been strategic — and has coincided with what is expected to be its best football season in nearly a decade. Ten years removed from its last national championship, No. 8 Florida State knows there is no turning back — both from its very public demands for more money and the on-field stakes for the team and the conference when it plays No. 5 LSU on Sunday night in Orlando (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC).
This, of course, presents an interesting contrast. The ACC needs Florida State to be good to change its own football narrative and help close the revenue gap with the SEC and Big Ten. But a championship-contending Florida State could have the leverage to leave the ACC when another seismic shift in conference realignment arrives.
“We haven’t been shy about letting everyone know that we are looking at all of our options,” Alford said during a recent interview with ESPN. You know that Malcolm Gladwell book, ‘The Tipping Point?’ What are our tipping points over the next 10 years, next 15 years? What contracts come to play that are going to impact us? We’re not making a decision for next month, next year. We’re looking five, 10, 20 years down the road, to make sure that we make the best decisions for Florida State.”
To say football success is critical is an understatement. Now in Year 4, coach Mike Norvell has worked to turn around a program that was in decline when he arrived. After starting 3-10 in his first 13 games, Norvell faced questions about the direction Florida State was headed, but he never wavered in his belief that he and his staff would get the Seminoles back on track.
Rebuilding the foundation of the program through hard work, discipline and culture was just the first step. Norvell has also used the transfer portal to fill holes across the roster, and those transfer additions — from defensive end Jermaine Johnson to safety Jammie Robinson to running back Trey Benson and defensive end Jared Verse — have played a huge role in getting Florida State to its current preseason top-10 ranking.
Beating eventual SEC West champion LSU to start last season helped get Florida State to its first 10-win season since 2016. But their meeting this time around comes with far loftier expectations for both programs, considering how much their respective fortunes have changed over the span of one year — from serious question marks to serious playoff contenders.
Florida State goes into the matchup having won six straight to close 2022. More importantly, the Seminoles return the bulk of their offensive and defensive production, including quarterback Jordan Travis — a Heisman contender — leading rusher Trey Benson, top receiver Johnny Wilson and projected first-round pick Jared Verse at defensive end. In all, Florida State returns 77 players from last season, but Norvell once again used the transfer portal to add several players who will start against the Tigers, including receiver Keon Coleman (Michigan State), defensive tackle Braden Fiske (Western Michigan) and cornerback Fentrell Cypress II (Virginia).
“I believed in where we were going even when nobody else maybe did,” Norvell told ESPN. “I had a group of players that believed in where we were going, maybe when nobody else did. So now that we’re at this point, there’s still that belief. I think you see a program that’s on the ascent.”
Norvell has benefitted from both a shift in priorities over the past two years and better financial standing. University president Richard McCullough was hired in August 2021, and he then hired Alford four months later to run the athletic department.
Alford had spent the previous 15 months working as CEO and president of Seminole Boosters — the primary fundraising arm of the Florida State athletic department. When he arrived in Tallahassee in 2020, Florida State was at a crossroads not only for the football program but for the entire department.
The football program was struggling to win games and sell tickets and was on its third head coach since 2017. Then COVID-19 hit and an athletic department that was already cash-strapped was forced to make cuts — 20% to its operating budget, including a nearly $1 million salary reduction for Norvell over 2020 and 2021. A project to build a standalone football facility had stalled and Florida State was stuck paying an $18 million buyout to coach Willie Taggart, fired before the 2019 season ended. More investment was needed in football.
Alford worked on fundraising through Seminole Boosters to start making football investment a priority again. During his time with the Boosters, 2,000 members were added, and he raised $15 million to go toward the football facility, which is expected to be completed in 2025.
“If you look at programs like Clemson, we were lagging behind some of the top programs and so we made all those investments in football and with the idea that we have to win,” McCullough told ESPN.
Alford and his staff have raised nearly $221 million over the past three years. A large portion has gone directly into football — including a bigger assistant coach salary pool, more staff positions, renovations to the locker room and weight room and giving Norvell a hefty pay raise. Norvell is now scheduled to make $8.05 million per year — more than double what he made during the pandemic.
Alford has plans to renovate Doak Campbell Stadium to make it more of a revenue driver and he is still finalizing details with a private equity firm that has been consulting with Alford since he became AD on a wide variety of topics, including stadium pricing, suites, hospitality, concessions and merchandising.
That firm is co-founded by Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys. Alford worked with the Cowboys from 2008 to 2012 as senior director of corporate partnerships and sales and was part of the team that helped sell AT&T Stadium, which opened in 2009.
“If you get someone who wants to work hard, and is smart, usually good things follow, and I think that is the definition of Michael,” said Jerry Jones Jr., who worked closely with Alford in Dallas. “When you think about the persistent work ethic, the salesmanship, but also the smarts to get something accomplished.”
With investment and fundraising efforts in football ramped up, Alford and McCullough also began working on where Florida State fits in the national picture. Major conference realignment had already begun, with Texas and Oklahoma announcing in July 2021 they would join the SEC — leaving schools like Florida State to evaluate its future.
Florida State has spent about $750,000 hiring media, revenue and financial consultants and a group of lawyers to help the in-house legal counsel take a look at the current ACC grant of rights — which gives the league control over broadcast rights and television dollars through 2036.
The Seminoles are not alone in parsing over the document — Clemson, North Carolina, Miami, Virginia, Virginia Tech and NC State discussed moving forward from the grant of rights with FSU — but they have been the most vocal about the long-term health of the ACC considering a looming $30 million annual revenue gap with the Big Ten and SEC.
That is a change in approach from previous athletic directors, who preferred to say little publicly and were not nearly as aggressive in positioning Florida State for long-term success.
“I let my stance be known and I let expectations be known,” Alford said. “It’s really not being shy. It’s just saying we have an issue. As a conference, we have an issue and we need to address it. I need to address it on behalf of Florida State. We need to continue to push the envelope and push the envelope with a sense of urgency.”
When the Seminoles joined the league and began playing football in 1992, they were at the height of their success under coach Bobby Bowden. Their success (national titles in 1993 and 1999, along with nine straight ACC championships) gave the basketball-first ACC much needed credibility on the football field. But the Seminoles also questioned whether the ACC would ever make football a priority.
To that end, speculation engulfed the program in 2012 during a wave of conference realignment that saw the Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC make changes to their membership. Florida State was rumored to be looking at the Big 12. Comments made in May 2012 are eerily similar to those made over the past several months. Then-coach Jimbo Fisher said during ACC spring meetings, “TV revenue is big. That’s what’s changed the landscape of college athletics, in particular college football.”
In the months that followed, then-ACC commissioner John Swofford flew to Tallahassee and met individually with the university president and board members about signing a grant of rights agreement, as a way to keep the league together for the long term. The ACC had lost Maryland to the Big Ten and could not afford to lose Florida State, too.
Believing it was in the university’s best interest to sign, then-president Eric Barron did so in 2013, but a portion of the fan base was unhappy with the decision.
Three years later, that grant of rights was extended even further with the addition of the ACC Network to the ESPN television deal and would go through 2036. Florida State willingly signed both times, a point multiple ACC insiders make when discussing the angst the Seminoles have publicly shared about closing the looming revenue gap.
They also point out what has happened to Florida State since 2016 — a dip in the football program that they believe has done nothing to help enhance the value of ACC football. Between 2017 to 2021, Florida State only had one winning season.
“They just haven’t been very good,” one insider said. “That hasn’t helped us any.”
Alford likes to counter that argument with numbers. Despite being down, Florida State averaged 3.09 million viewers from 2014 to 2021, leading all ACC schools. Last year, two of Florida State’s regular-season games had more than 3 million viewers, and its bowl game against Oklahoma was the second-most viewed ACC postseason game behind the Orange Bowl between Clemson and Tennessee.
To that end, Alford wants a change to the revenue sharing model when it comes to television distribution. Currently, that money is divided up evenly among all league schools. Alford believes it should be weighted on brand, marketability and ratings. It is an argument he has not won yet, but he will keep making it in the hopes that there will be change.
That of course, leads to questions about what the next play is for Florida State. There does not appear to be another landing spot at the moment in either the Big Ten and SEC, as both conferences have made clear. There also is the matter of challenging the grant of rights in court and a $120 million exit fee. On Friday, the ACC added Stanford, Cal and SMU, a move that will provide more money to existing members. But Florida State was one of three schools to vote against the additions, believing it did not address the long-term revenue issues.
“It’s not that we’re unhappy in the ACC,” Alford said. “If that narrative’s out there, it’s not correct. It’s a great conference. It represents greatness in athletics. But when you look at the resources that are needed to continue to provide those winning edge resources for our coaches and student-athletes, that’s where the points need to be looked at, and that’s what we’re doing.”
The ACC knows it needs the Seminoles onboard for its own long-term prospects. This football season happens to come at a crucial time for both the league and Florida State.
Though the ACC is second behind the SEC in total College Football Playoff appearances, the league has not had a CFP contender since Clemson made it in 2020. Florida State has not made the CFP since 2014. Having both those schools ranked in the preseason top 10 is a huge starting point for a league fighting a narrative that football does not measure up.
“We have to get off to a really good start,” ACC commissioner Jim Phillips said during ACC media days in Charlotte. “It doesn’t negate having a really good season, if you don’t, but if you stumble once or twice it’s really difficult to overcome that. Florida State and Clemson getting a lot of opportunities, I think we have a bunch of others that can also get off to a good start and show that the league is a really, really good football league.”
Florida State begins that quest Sunday night, knowing full well its moves over the past year will mean more scrutiny — but an even bigger opportunity not only for this season, but down the line.
“Yes, there’s going to be a lot of eyes,” Norvell said. “You’re on a grand stage. When you come to a program that’s in the national spotlight, you come to a program like Florida State, it’s only going to be magnified. That’s what these guys have chosen to do. I like embracing it. Nothing’s guaranteed but if you’re willing to work, it makes the journey so much more enjoyable and rewarding because of all the experiences.”