What UConn's new TV deal means for FBS independents, and the future of UConn football

UConn bet on their own ability to generate linear exposure, and won. But now comes the hard part.

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Okay! Let’s talk about UConn.

I have to admit, I was not optimistic about the future of UConn football. Their recruiting had fallen into the toilet. They’ve gone 3-21 over the last two seasons. With the school’s decision to move to the Big East and signal basketball’s prominence, I assumed the program would wait out Randy Edsall’s contract, play a few major opponents that were previously scheduled, and then either downgrade the program or drop it. It was hard to get the idea that UConn really cared about football success.

But now, I have to admit, there’s at least a glimmer of hope.

UConn has a new TV deal!

Linear television exposure was clearly a priority for UConn, as they left the AAC (which will put a significant amount of content behind an ESPN+ paywall) for the Big East and Fox. Somewhat surprisingly, their football team will have a linear TV home as well.

Via the New Haven Register:

CBS Sports Network and UConn have partnered on an agreement that will televise four home games this fall and all home games through the 2023 season.

This fall, CBS Sports Network will television UConn home games with Indiana, Liberty, Middle Tennessee State and Army. Future games included in the deal include Purdue in 2021, Syracuse and Boston College in 2022 and Duke, North Carolina State in 2023.

Per the Hartford Courant, this TV deal also comes with a pair of network options, so it could be extended into the 2027 season.

CBS Sports isn’t a massive network, but it does reach over 50 million homes, and some of UConn’s new independent peers don’t have much of a linear presence at all. Liberty’s home games are mostly on ESPN+, and UMass and New Mexico State can be found on FloSports. Securing that amount of visibility is a significant coup, given how terrible UConn football has been.

What about the money?

The money isn’t huge, but that might not be the point for UConn. According to Michael Smith of the Sports Business Journal, the CBS Sports deal could pay “as much as $100,000 per game”, depending on the opponent. Unsurprisingly, CBS Sports is willing to pay more for home games against P5 opponents than G5 or FCS opponents. Smith projects the package “could fetch around $500,000” a year.

That’s not nothing, but isn’t big money. It’s more comparable to the smallest FBS TV distributions, like what a Conference USA program might get for their football rights (Conference USA teams get revenue distribution around ~$700,000, but that includes basketball rights as well. Other G5 leagues make even more). But UConn might not need a big football TV contract if they can continue to save money on travel, as well as sell tickets.

For CBS, the real value here isn’t so much UConn. It’s UConn’s opponents.

There’s *some* value in UConn’s football brand. This team has been at least decent before, and there is a real fanbase that is invested in their athletic success. But the team has been functionally irrelevant for nearly a decade. No TV company is shelling out big bucks just to capture the UConn football brand.

But paying for UConn’s media rights means you get the chance to broadcast every UConn home game, and the Huskies are playing some potentially valuable teams. Future home opponents include teams like Indiana, NC State, Duke, Syracuse, and Purdue. Maryland is scheduled after the four year window, and Rutgers and Pitt may join future schedules as well. Paying $500,000 to lock down two Big Ten games a year, plus noon slot filler, could be a smart bet for CBS Sports.

That’s good news for UConn’s visibility, but could put their football team in a challenging position. In order to sell tickets and build a strong relationship with their TV partner, UConn will have to schedule fairly aggressively. But this is one of the worst programs in FBS right now, and if they don’t start winning at least some games, it won’t matter how many times they play on CBS Sports. Fans aren’t going to want to support a perennial doormat.

UConn head coach Randy Edsall thinks this announcement should help the program improve recruiting. Via the Courant:

“To have this kind of agreement,” Edsall said, “to have our games televised nationally on linear TV is big from a recruiting standpoint. A couple of things have to happen for your program to be able to obtain success, and one component is the television package, which now we have, and it’s going to be better for us than where we were before [in the AAC]. And then it’s the scheduling, and when you take a look at scheduling we’ve been able to do over the next five years, it’s put us in a position to go out and recruit the type of student athletes we’ll need to compete against that schedule.”

He’ll have to be right, or long-term, this might all be moot. According to 247 Sports, UConn doesn’t have a single 2021 commitment, and their 2020 recruiting class was near the bottom of FBS. They’re already going to be in an uphill battle for recruits, given their geography and recent history, and if the team talent level doesn’t significantly improve, no TV contract or regional opponent scheduling is going to save them.

Sure, UConn could tell a recruit that they’ll be on TV more than most other G5 programs. That might help them poach a kid who might have otherwise gone to Temple or something. But in 2020 and beyond, amid an accelerating cord cutting trend, it’s hard for me to see this TV deal alone completely turning UConn’s recruiting fortunes around. Just ask BYU how that’s gone.

Okay, so who was right? UConn, or the AAC?

There seems to be a massive Twitter beef between UConn fans and supporters of other AAC schools, but I’m not sure this TV announcement really vindicates one side or another. Both entities want completely different things, and that’s okay.

AAC fans can take pride in stable TV distributions on a growing platform, a very high quality football league, and the chance to potentially improve that product even more via expansion over the next few years. UConn football sucked. Losing them is no great travesty.

UConn fans can take pride in knowing they get to rejoin an athletic league mostly full of historic rivals and regional opponents, without having to put important sports content behind a paywall. They get a chance to focus on what is most important to their fans, and they don’t have to go to Tulsa again.

I think everybody wins, to be honest. All of the parties get a chance to pursue policies that better align with their interests.

Can anybody else follow this blueprint?

We’ve discussed the possibility of other FBS teams deciding to go independent. Administrators at UConn and UMass have suggested other schools are considering it. And hey, if you’re not going to win big anyway or make massive TV money anyway, you may very well be able to save money on travel by playing a more regional schedule as an independent. ESPN could still throw you in one of their bowl games if you go 7-5.

I’m not sure if this TV deal makes it more likely anybody else chooses that path, mostly because I’m not sure how common UConn’s situation is. The Huskies don’t necessarily need their football contract + travel expenses to > conference distribution and travel expenses, because their conference move was made with basketball in mind. They already had a league and a TV deal for their Olympic sports, and had another massive brand to protect. That just isn’t the case for somebody like UTEP.

This linear TV deal has value in large part because of the school’s ability to attract P5 programs to play on their campus. How many other G5 programs can say that? Sure, if Boise State, or many AAC programs wanted to, they could probably secure those games. Could a MWC team with a nice stadium? Maybe, but then those games get more expensive, since they’d require travel. Could a MAC team? Could a Sun Belt team? I doubt that.

Independence may end up being a good idea for other programs for other reasons. But I don’t think too many other schools could expect to line up a linear TV deal like UConn’s, at least, not in the near future.

At the end of the day, this is the best news UConn football has had recently. But it isn’t the end of the road.

One of the most difficult parts about life as an independent is the feeling that every season is a referendum on your entire existence. Securing a linear TV partner, even one with a modest fee, offers some degree of stability and certainty that just wouldn’t exist otherwise, and that’s critical for recruiting.

It’s great that UConn’s future schedules are full of interesting buy games, regional bus trip games, and home games against schools most people have heard of. There’s a potential path to bowl eligibility in the near future. If the team becomes at least competitive, and the program does a good job selling tickets, then there’s a real path to sustainability at the FBS level. Is it a path to high level competitiveness? No, probably not. But there’s a path to sustainability.

But the program will still have to win. It will still need to recruit and develop talent. It will need to recruit and retain quality assistant coaches, something that will be difficult to do, given their budget, and the perception within the coaching industry that this is one of the hardest jobs in FBS. This remains a very difficult job, and there’s a real chance that economic problems as a result of Covid-19 could make it even harder.

There will likely need to be additional investments and changes if UConn wants to be a regular bowl participant. But this deal was a difficult and badly needed first step.

A lot of the college football world will be watching to see how this experiment turns out. And now, at least, it’ll be easy to find it.

Just tune into CBS Sports around Noon.

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