Interview with AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco

We discuss regional scheduling, the AAC TV deal post-UConn, basketball schedules and more

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With that out of the way, I’d like to share a phone conversation I had with the commissioner of the American Athletic Conference, Mike Aresco, on Friday afternoon. We chatted about the AAC’s thinking about localized scheduling, basketball schedules, their TV deal, and a few other topics that may be of interest to Extra Points readers.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. This interview was also conducted well before civic unrest rocked the country, which is why I didn’t ask about it.

Matt Brown: I know you're a pretty plugged in guy with the media. And obviously, there's been a ton of stories written right now about the financial impact of COVID-19 and how athletic departments, conferences and everybody else is trying to react. I'm curious, from your perspective, do you think there's anything about the direction of college athletics or the ways that these institutions are responding that you think fans or media have missed?

Mike Aresco: That’s a good question. One focus that we've had for the last two plus months has been the health and safety of our student athletes and coaches and everyone else. That's been the real issue that we focused on. But the financial implications are significant. Those implications are there, and they’re going to have to be dealt with.

If anything, and I think Dennis Dodd talked a little about it {Editor’s note: he did, right here}, could there be some cataclysmic restructuring of college sports. Could there be some conference realignment as a result of this, could there be schools that you know, drop sports and go down to a different level? Yes.

The public probably doesn't necessarily focus on that so much. That’s more, ‘okay, when are we going to get started? Are we going to play? We're going to play football? Are we gonna play basketball? Are we gonna play Olympic sports in the fall?’

And that's that's the focus right now. But there will be significant change to college athletics to how conferences might look going down the road.

Now, our conference is healthy and we know we didn't feel that the last few months was the time to do the politicking that I usually do around the P6.

We will get through this pandemic and we'll go back to…I wouldn't say business as usual, but we will all go back to what we were doing with a renewed sense of determination. But right now, the focus is just to get through everything and make sure we do everything possible to get through it safely.

So I think it's easy to overlook how some of the tectonic plates, as they say, might be changing in college sports as a result of this. People are certainly going to do things differently. I think you're going to see Olympic sports be handled differently. I think there's gonna be a lot more regional competition. I don't know that.

At this point, I don't know that you're going to see, you know, a major realignment of the big conferences, but you're gonna see some changes as result of this.

Matt Brown: That’s the sort of thing I actually wanted to ask you about. I\ saw the recent story in Sports Business Journal that mentioned how at a very preliminary level, some institutions within the American were discussing a schedule where Olympic sports scheduled as independents, rather than with a set conference schedule, and have the league just hold a postseason tournament, like the league currently does with Men’s tennis. Is that accurate? Is that something that people are considering?

Mike Aresco: Yes.

We categorize tennis as an individual sport, even though there are tennis teams, of course. And those sports, like swimming and diving and rowing and things of that nature, they do not have a regular season team schedule. They play within their region or maybe every now that they venture a little further, you know, in order to improve their positioning and to improve their competitiveness. But yes, we are looking at that and by the way, we're not going to be the only one. I have a feeling that the P5 schools are going to look at Olympic sports scheduling, along with G5 schools and other DI schools.

And here's what it's really all about. The Olympic sports don't generate revenue for the most part. You know, in some programs, baseball does pretty well. Some programs have incredible wrestling, you know, and they get big crowds, but for the most part, Olympic sports don't generate revenue.

So for years, we struggled with figuring out how we cut costs, and how can we make it a little easier on our student athletes? We typically don't charter as much with Olympic sports. We're a pretty far flung conference, but we're not the only ones.

So we looked at this and we said, How do we save costs? How do we reduce wear and tear on our athletes? And we've always done it within the paradigm of conference scheduling. And we said, okay, well, there's only so much you can do because you have automatic qualifiers, you know, people fighting for tournament berths, and at-large berths, and you have to play a certain kind of schedule.

But this concept now is really relatively simple, and it's gaining traction. We're looking at it, I don't know whether, whether we'll be able to implement it, you know, down the road, but we're looking at it. The concept is essentially that you treat your Olympic sports programs as independents. They can set up their schedules the way they want. They will compete, though, at the end of the season and in a championship within the conference. And you're right, they're already doing this in the 19 sports.

And the truth is, there are advantages to doing it this way. One, you can rely on your conference…you can still play within your conference if you choose. And your conference certainly becomes a failsafe if you can't schedule regionally the way you want. But you can schedule teams in your region. For instance, if you're UCF and you want to play Florida Gulf Coast, you want to play Stetson and something terrific in baseball. You can do that. And it'll probably help you RPI. It'll help your strength of schedule because you're playing teams that some teams, some schools invest more in certain Olympic sports and others are better at certain Olympic sports than others. You know, Houston, might want to play Dallas Baptist in baseball. So why wouldn't you want to do that?

And then, of course, there's enormous savings. Obviously travel is very expensive, just a huge part of the budget. This way, you can avoid situations where it doesn't make as much sense to play in Wichita or at East Carolina.

Just makes all the sense in the world. So that's something we're looking at.

Matt Brown: I've talked to individuals affiliated with some smaller D1 conferences that basically said, we're willing to consider just about anything to cut down on some of these travel costs, especially for something like baseball where your roster size is relatively large or equipment costs are relatively higher than some of the other Olympic sports.

On that note, let me ask you a hypothetical in light of potential exploring more independent scheduling strategies. Let's say you had a program like Memphis or Cincinnati, that historically is not a strong baseball program. They come up and they say, listen, we love our American Athletic Conference membership. We want to be a part of this conference in many other sports. But if we played baseball on the MAC or the MVC, we could play almost all of our baseball games on a bus, and we might actually be able to be a little bit more competitive schedule without having to play Houston or Tulane all the time. Is that something that you might consider? Could you imagine any other non power conference allowing a league at school to pursue an affiliate membership somewhere else in a sport that you actually sponsor?

Mike Aresco: Our conference would not want to go down that route. And I’m not even certain that would be allowed by NCAA bylaws.

Matt Brown: Let me let me ask you a different hypothetical. Sticking with baseball, we have a school like Dallas Baptist, which is normally a Division II institution but has been grandfathered in to be able to compete in D1 for baseball. There are a few other programs that have this arrangement with lacrosse, and hockey, and a few other sports.

I know schools in the Big Ten and in the Missouri Valley, out here in my neck of the woods, might decide, hey, let’s schedule some baseball games against DII or DIII teams, because that isn't gonna hurt my RPI. And it's a bus trip. If I’m Iowa, maybe it makes more sense for me to go play Grinnell than it does for me to get on the bus to North Dakota or Illinois.

Right now my understanding is it's not permitted now for new DII or DIII teams to bump just one or two sports, rather than their entire athletic department. Is that something that you would you think member institutions or other schools across the NCAA might be interested in allowing? If you bump up a few DII or DIII schools, you might potentially alleviate some of this travel problem. If you're, you know, a school in Colorado, maybe it’s easier to go play games against Colorado Mesa or you know, some of the other RMAC schools. Maybe Makes your travel component a little bit cheaper. Sure.

Mike Aresco: I think the NCAA is looking at that. I can’t say that we have a position on that at this point, but I think the NCAA would look at various waivers, including waivers for scheduling requirements.

Matt Brown: Does the league know how many men's basketball conference games that they're planning on having in the future, and will there be any kind of scheduling philosophy to try and mitigate travel, just other leagues are looking at?

Mike Aresco: We currently play 18 conference games for men’s basketball and I don’t anticipate that changing right now. There are so many things involved in changing those schedules, and I think that would be a hard thing to do. Down the road, it’s possible, but we don’t anticipate changing that schedule format.

Matt Brown: Okay, I have just one last question here for you. My understanding was that the final terms for your most recent television contract with ESPN was going to be altered a bit after UConn’s departure. Has that process completed? Or am I misinformed and the previous terms that were originally announced are the same exact terms?

Mike Aresco: We have completed the process and we don't get into any massive changes. You know the fundamentals of our deal. I don’t want to get into the specific financials, but it was an amicable process with ESPN. It didn’t change the fundamentals of the deal at all, but you always make some accommodation if there’s a membership change. And in this particular case, {UConn} brought potentially more value in basketball, which as you know, these deals are primarily about football, although that doesn’t mean basketball isn’t important, and obviously you have a big woman’s basketball program too, so we have to make adjustments there.

But we resolved everything, and we’re fine. And we’re looking forward to starting the new deal this year, if we play, and we’re cautiously optimistic that we’re gonna play.

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