Here's why UConn left the AAC, and what's next for everybody
It’s funny. A few days ago, I actually started sketching out a longer post about conference realignment, because I had a hunch we’d be seeing it before the mid 2020s, and that a lot of the conventional wisdom around the process is now outdated.
And then UConn goes and sets off some conference realignment, per multiple reports, and their motivations show all that stuff we talked about five years ago is now a bit outdated.
Let’s talk about why this happened, what the AAC does from here, and how it impacts everything else.
Why is UConn leaving the American Athletic?
On the surface, I can understand why this might be a confusing decision. Schools typically don’t just up and leave good FBS football leagues for a conference that doesn’t sponsor football. But there are three factors going on here that make UConn a special case, and make this decision (in my opinion) the right move.
1) Under the best of circumstances, the American is a mishmash of schools that have almost nothing in common beyond a desire to take D1 athletics seriously. There’s little geographic, institutional, academic or historic bonds between most of the schools. Nowhere was that dichotomy more apparent than with UConn. Not only was it a geographic and institutional outlier, it couldn’t even agree on what sport was the most important.
UConn is a basketball school. They have the highest profile women’s basketball program in the country. They’ve won multiple national titles in mens’s basketball. The interest in these programs outstrips that of football.
What UConn fans really cared about was maintain the passionate, regional rivalries they developed over the last several decades. When games with Georgetown, Syracuse, Providence and others were replaced with South Florida, Tulsa and Tulane, schools that sometimes didn’t even care about basketball, fans disengaged en masse. UConn had to make student tickets completely free. Their football team was averaging about 10,000 actual fans a game. That’s a crisis.
2) That’s a big problem under good circumstances, but these are not good circumstances. UConn’s athletic budget is an abject disaster. Like, nearly $40 million in the hole for 2018 kind of disaster. Widespread fan disengagement was certainly part of the problem, along a difficult financial situation for the school (and the state) generally. Running that big of a hole, even with dubious athletic department accounting practices, means you can’t invest in your programs, which can further put your teams in a death spiral. If your fans hate your schedule, and you don’t have the money (or geography, history, etc) to improve, your prospects for financial improvement look slim.
3) Also, that new shiny AAC deal sucked for UConn. Unlike the rest of the teams in the league, UConn has actual demand for some of their Tier 3 rights, and putting stuff like women’s basketball behind an ESPN+ paywall (instead of linear TV like SNY) was a big problem. I wrote about this dynamic back in March. That UConn officials would go on the record complaining about it, which almost never happens, probably should have been a bigger red flag.
So add all that up, and this move makes a ton of sense. UConn gets to go back to a regional league that their fans will care about, which should help sell tickets and improve program recruiting. The AAC gets to shed a malcontent program that also had one of the worst football teams in FBS, so they’ll almost certainly improve no matter who replaces them. Everybody wins. Especially the lawyers.
So what does the AAC do now?
As best as I can gather, they have three options.
1) They could do nothing, and maintain an 11-team league in football (with Navy) and basketball (with Wichita State). They won’t have to blow up the entire ESPN TV deal, although CBS reported that should the league stay at 11:
So maybe instead of making about $7 million a year, you make $6.75 or whatever. Maybe that’s worth it.
An 11-team basketball conference isn’t so bad, especially if you decide to play 20 conference games, but 11 for football is tricky. You’d need to ditch divisions if you still want to hold that lucrative championship game. Recently, the league kicked the tires on going without divisions, but nobody seemed to be interested. I’m not sure that changes even without UConn, but it’s still technically an option.
2) They could invite affiliate members in football and basketball. One report from Yahoo suggested this is the most likely outcome. This is probably the best solution to ensure the best possible athletic programs in the league, but there aren’t a ton of obvious choices. Yahoo floated VCU as a possible basketball-only invite, and that would make quite a bit of sense on paper. The Rams have been a successful program over the last decade, they fit the AAC “footprint” to the extent that one exists, and they don’t have a football team to worry about. Dayton and St.Louis could potentially fit that model too, but VCU seems fair and away the most sensible choice. One CBS report indicated the AAC is not expected to add a basketball affiliate member.
For football, things get trickier. Army and Air Force have been suggested by a few connected reporters. The appeal makes sense, but it would also be complicated. Would Army and Air Force want to risk potentially playing Navy twice? Army’s last foray in a conference (Conference USA) was a disaster. Would they risk it again? Would Air Force need to find a new place for their basketball and other programs, if the MWC kicked them out wholesale? Gun to my head, I’d think Air Force would probably be the most likely candidate, but it’s a tough sell!
Picking a football-only program that currently has FBS conference affiliation would be a challenge, since their other sports would need a home. Liberty is run by Jerry Falwell Jr, so nobody wants to touch them. UMass is UConn but bad at other sports. New Mexico State is in New Mexico. BYU? We’ll get back to them. I’d be very, very skeptical.
If you can find the right fit, this option could work. But that may prove to be difficult.
3) They could add a new full member. You don’t have to mess around with more affiliate schools if you add one for all sports, and for the sake of trying to maintain continuity and stability, that may be preferable. That takes Army off the table (they’re not leaving the Patriot League), and probably BYU (you want to get rid of Sunday play to accommodate a school that’s 1,000 miles away from anybody else?).
I feel like I’ve seen almost every other school in FBS floated for this opening. Some make sense, most do not.
Back when it looked like the Big 12 was going to raid the AAC, the four schools I heard about the most as possible candidates were, in some order, Southern Miss, North Texas, Old Dominion and UAB. All have a few positives. None of them have been consistent, and all have question marks about financial support. I think any of these schools would be a defensible pick, but they’d need a long leash to invest and get up to speed before anybody expected them to compete in the top half of the league in a major sport.
One school that I haven’t seen mentioned a lot, but probably should be in my humble opinion, is Buffalo. The Bulls can claim consistently strong men’s basketball, a Northeast presence to replace UConn, and improving football. Their athletic budget is larger than most teams in Conference USA, and they’re an AAU institution, which would give the AAC some needed academic heft. Their football team would likely struggle, but that’s true for almost anybody they could add.
After there, I think the options get dicey.
The other Conference USA programs (Florida International, Florida Atlantic, Marshall, Western Kentucky, etc) may have some positive things going for them, but have significant financial and fan support questions. The western schools, like Boise State or San Diego State have tried this whole operation with the AAC before, and their geography would make things logistically messy for TV and scheduling. Georgia State may have a lot of potential, but they’re nowhere close to ready athletically. Appalachian State basketball is terrible. James Madison is the biggest budgeted FCS team and sits in the footprint. If they’d ever want to move up, now would be the time, but that’d be a big jump.
Maybe, if they ask very nicely, the Big Ten will let them have Rutgers.
I’m personally not super convinced the AAC picks one of these schools either. Any of them would be better than UConn for football, but all of them would be some level of a fixer-upper.
Wait, so why not BYU?
BYU sure seems like it would tick a lot of boxes, right? And I’ve already seem some smart, connected reporters suggest the AAC take a whack at it. But I don’t think it makes any sense for BYU, and honestly, not so much for the AAC either.
BYU hasn’t signed on the dotted line for their new TV deal, but it’s a very safe bet that the value of their deal would exceed the ~$7 million a year the AAC gets right now, so the Cougars would be taking a pay cut.
Plus, while BYU likes to brag about being a “national brand”, the vast majority of BYU graduates and Latter-Day Saints live west of Texas. All of BYU’s historical rivals (Utah, Utah State, Hawaii, Boise State, etc.) are in the West. BYU’s recruiting footprint is almost exclusively in the West. Moving to the AAC means giving all of that up…and trying to replace that by recruiting in Florida and playing more football games in front of both Mormons in Greenville, North Carolina is going to be a tough sell.
Finally, deep down, part of the point of BYU football is to serve as a missionary tool for the church, which means it needs to be on TV in front of as many people as possible, all across the country. Going to the AAC means giving up that schedule flexibility (and the ability to do stuff like host USC and Washington), giving up that ESPN time, AND putting more of their content behind a paywall.
It also means that if the AAC takes them for all sports, they’ll have to change schedules for BYU’s no-Sunday rules. That’s not a big deal for football. But for basketball, baseball, and other sports? Much bigger issue.
I think it’s a bad fit. The WCC isn’t an ideal landing spot for BYU in a lot of ways, and there’d be some real benefit for the Cougars in parking basketball and baseball in the AAC, but not enough for this hypothetical marriage to make sense for everybody. I do not believe it will happen.
So what are the unanswered questions?
1) What happens with UConn’s exit fee? UConn would like to play in the Big East for the 2020-2021 season. They reportedly would owe the AAC a cool $10 million to bail on the league, although exit fees are often thrown to the lawyers for negotiation. Per CBS, I’m not sure we should expect those talks to go smoothly.
Drawn out legal fights over conference realignment can lead to some wild stuff getting leaked, and a whole lot of hurt feelings. Turning away $7 million for a less-lucrative basketball contract makes it even more important for UConn to figure out their exit fee situation, ideally with as little acrimony as possible.
2) What happens to UConn football? It’s very, very telling that UConn would make this decision without knowing exactly what they’re doing with their football program. The school reportedly won’t drop the program or go to FCS (which I think is a mistake), and there is little interest from the MAC or Conference USA in adding them.
That just leaves one option. Life as an FBS independent.
This option creates so many questions, especially if UConn hopes to be independent by 2020. Who is going to play them? Who is going to broadcast their games? Where will they go in the postseason, if they can ever find a way to win six games again? What on earth are they trying to accomplish at that level? Making the Cure Bowl? Losing as little money as possible?
How UConn tries to sell the long-term vision and goals as an FBS independent will be very interesting. I can see a world where they can keep their costs down by playing mostly regional opponents, but it’s hard to see one where they’re getting a lot more fans to football games than they do right now.
3) What happens with the AAC TV deal? There’s already a lot we don’t know about this contract, and losing a member makes it even more complicated. It’s been reported that the whole thing isn’t going up in smoke, but can the league replace UConn with a mid-level Conference USA team and expect ESPN to pay them the same money? What happens if another team leaves before the end of the deal? Can it be revisited?
Getting that “billion dollar” deal was very important to conference leadership, and it was a critically important for a lot of schools. But boy, a lot can change in a decade.
What does this mean for conference realignment?
The conventional wisdom was that we were probably going to see peace until the end of the major conference TV deals, which happens in the mid 2020s. At the top end of FBS, that’s probably still true. But this may not be the last realignment move in 2019.
After all, if Air Force (or another MWC team) jumps, the MWC will need a new program (UTEP? Rice? New Mexico State?). Conference USA could need to replace a team (Liberty? An FCS squad?). And while nobody else has exactly the same situation as UConn, with a flagship sport suffering under realignment, a combination of tough travel pressures, budget concerns, and on the field struggling could cause a number of teams to rethink the status quo.
I’ll have more on the general state of conference membership this week. But for now, this move shows that all that talk about Football Always Being Everything, or the Power of Markets, isn’t always true.
UConn is never going to be in a major conference now. Their football program probably won’t ever accomplish anything meaningful at the FBS level ever again. To some, that’d be the death knell of an athletic program.
But could UConn win another NCAA men’s title as a member of the Big East? Of course. And if they did that, would anybody care that their football team went 2-10 and lost to New Hampshire or whatever? Absolutely not.
And maybe that’s perfectly okay.
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