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UConn cuts the check and exits. So now what?

Good morning! We have precious few weekends left before college football, so I hope you’re all taking advantage of them. I took my two girls camping over the weekend, which sounds great on paper…but let’s just say I have a newfound appreciation and understanding of the dad in Calvin and Hobbes. Someday, I’ll look back at the wailing and gnashing of teeth in the wilderness as building character or something.

Anyway, on to the college football news.

UConn cuts the check. So now what?

UConn’s withdrawal from the American Athletic Conference is now official-official, as the two sides have agreed to a $17 million exit fee with a July 1, 2020 departure date.

The Hartford Courant called that $17 million fee a good investment for UConn. I saw plenty of fans of AAC schools get pretty excited over the fee as well. After all, they’re ditching (by far) the worst football program in the league and getting paid for it? Seems like a great deal! Others, like this column from the Cincinnati Enquirer, thought the AAC was too soft on UConn. The initial demand, reportedly, was $30 million from UConn.

My lukewarm take? I don’t think it matters all that much. Yes, maybe the AAC could have gotten a little more money by demanding UConn follow the exact letter of the conference bylaws, but did they really want a lame-duck UConn hanging around their football conference for a few more years, especially since each team might make more money by just letting them walk? And seeing as this fee is actually paid out over several years, it’s not like any specific school is getting some enormous windfall. It’s fine. The whole thing is fine.

The more interesting question, to me, is what the heck happens to UConn now?

The school confirmed they’ll be competing as an independent, which means they suddenly need to schedule a ton of games, pronto. That 2020 schedule only has four games confirmed right now and filling it with anything decent would be a tall order for a good team, something that UConn…isn’t. The UConn Blog took a look at who else still needs a 2020 game, and took a stab at a potential 2020 schedule.

UConn cuts the check and exits. So now what?

According to FBSchedules, the only other teams not listed here with current 2020 openings include: Florida State, Arkansas, South Carolina, Old Dominion, Air Force, Coastal Carolina and Louisiana-Lafayette.

I think that’s a good starting point. My guess is that the Huskies probably end up with two FCS teams in 2020 and take a stab at trying to get another team to rearrange some future schedules to get an open date in 2020 (perhaps to get another, slightly better home game). This schedule might look better if anybody in the AAC is willing to play them in the short term (SMU needs a 2020 game, for example).

The school seems cautiously optimistic they can get some decent games beyond 2020, and I agree. The going rate for a one-off buy game is between $1.3 and $1.6 million right now, and at that price point, it makes more sense for many schools to just schedule home and homes (or 2 for 1s) to try and save money. UConn does have a few advantages compared to say, UMass, New Mexico State, or Liberty. They have a relatively large athletic brand, they have the ability to tie men’s and women’s basketball games to sweeten schedule deals, and their location might be attractive as a destination for a school with a large alumni base in New York or Boston. Perhaps that is enough to lure Big Ten or ACC teams to play the odd game in Connecticut. The Huskies could probably get BYU to come to campus as well.

But that leaves two big questions for me.

Can UConn improve enough on the field to get those decent games? Last year’s UConn outfit was historically terrible, and now the program won’t have conference bowl tie-ins, and recruiting could (at least in the short term) get even worse. If the team is still in the bottom ten of FBS in say, 2022, can they convince decent teams to play them on the road, even if the math checks out? And will they be able to convince enough fans to come? The financials of their Big East move only work if FBS football doesn’t become even more of a financial black hole and that requires some baseline competence.

The other question, one that I haven’t really read anybody from UConn answer…is what’s the end game here? Improve enough to get into the MAC or Conference USA? Hope that realignment in the mid 2020s creates a football-only regional conference option? Just hope to not lose too much money, play four northeastern teams a year and try to make the Cure Bowl?

Basically every independent outside of Notre Dame and Army’s short term goal is to “not be an independent” anymore, even though nobody has a realistic path to get there. I think UConn can find a way to make this whole thing work for a few more years, but things could get messy if Randy Edsall retires, or gets fired. What happens to the bargaining position of UConn if this team goes three more years without cracking five wins? Or when the fans aren’t showing up to watch Florida International?

That doesn’t make the Big East move the wrong decision. I personally think it was the right one! But you’d like to see a bigger vision being proposed here, if you’re going to try and sell FBS as a long term home.

LSU won’t cut checks to the rest of the university like they used to

One of the rationales for big time college athletics is that the biggest departments actually send money back to the rest of the school. We tolerate the huge stadiums and the massive institutional resources, knowing that when times are good, they can kick back some of that ticket sale money to help fund libraries and stuff.

LSU was one of those schools. But it won’t be anymore. Via Tiger Rag:

Under an unprecedented fund-transfer policy initiated by former LSU athletics director Joe Alleva, the LSU athletics department contributed millions of dollars to the academic institution that is LSU. Between 2012 and 2017, LSU athletics contributed nearly $50 million to the university under this policy despite the initial guarantee being just $36 million during that time.

But in an exclusive interview withTiger Rag, Woodward said that policy will no longer continue under his watch, at least not as it has existed in recent years.

“It’s something that’s very dangerous, when universities rely on recurring money, especially from an auxiliary like the athletic department,” Woodward said. “So no, I think, while I will always support the university in some form or fashion, we can not sustain what we’re currently doing.”

In another story, via The Advocate, Woodward is quoted:

"The athletic department stands willing and ready to help the institution any way we can," Woodward said. "But this is a poor way to run a university, to depend on athletic department money recurring in the budget."

I don’t want to dunk on this too hard, because higher education finance is really complicated, and I understand there may be lots of nuance here that I’m missing. But here’s what I do know.

LSU, generally, has some fundraising problems. It’s the only school in the SEC where athletic fundraising outpaces academic fundraising. The initial revenue sharing agreement between the athletic department and the rest of the school was set up, in part, because Bobby Jindal’s administration dramatically cut funding to the university system.

LSU doesn’t have a massive endowment compared to many SEC peers, doesn’t have as rich an alumni base, and doesn’t have the corporate support of some other larger schools.

I honestly agree with Woodward: depending specifically on the athletic budget to cut a check to support physics programming is not a good way to fund a university. You don’t want to be in the position where you’re really depending on the success of a football team to pay for academic programming (though more schools are in this boat than they’d like to admit). That’s a problem that ought to be addressed by the corporate, political, and educational community of Louisiana. What those long-term solutions look like is above my pay grade. My only suggestion is to find a way to resurrect Huey Long….and that’d probably bring other problems.

But it’s worth wondering…how much was LSU really counting on those athletic checks to fund this operation? LSU spent over $900 million dollars last year. LSU athletics, over a five year period, contributed $50 million. I mean, $50 million dollars is still a lot of money, but in the grand scheme of things here, is Woodward’s decision that important for the bottom line?

Also, given LSU’s new locker room project, the optics of all of this are terrible while the academic side of the school struggles with capital projects, and will lead to all sorts of tail wagging the dog type tweets.

It’s also worth remembering that the exact point of LSU’s athletic department, on paper, isn’t just to win games; it’s to support the educational and institutional mission of LSU. In practice…of course the point is to win games.

And stories like this make it harder and harder to argue otherwise.

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