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How ESPN Became the AAC’s New Best Friend

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Once viewed as a worrisome adversary, AAC teams, fans and administrators should now see ESPN as a powerful ally in its quest to regain major conference status in college football.

Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

ESPN wants the AAC to be good at football.

If you’re a UConn fan – or root for any AAC school – that statement has to make you scratch your head and question my sanity.

I understand your concerns. The AAC wouldn’t exist if ESPN hadn’t stripped the old Big East for parts. The conference’s football perception was destroyed by ESPN during its Big East days and continued full-throttle a year ago. The denigration of Louisville’s inferior competition last year did no one any good.

But the 2014 season is dramatically different than the 2013 season for one obvious reason – the college football playoff has arrived. And with it, the entire landscape of the sport has changed.

For the AAC, the biggest change is they do not have guaranteed access to a major New Year’s Day bowl anymore. They are lumped in with the Mountain West, Sun Belt, MAC and Conference USA champions battling for one spot.

Here’s the rub – ESPN doesn’t want the Mountain West, Sun Belt, MAC or Conference USA champion playing in the Cotton Bowl or the Peach Bowl. They want the AAC champion.

The BCS posed a problem after the double-hosting model was introduced in 2006 because it was stuck with two "poor" teams from a ratings standpoint – the Big East champion and a BCS buster. When the BCS busters with name value, specifically Utah and TCU, left for greener pastures, ESPN inherited a problem.

Namely, ESPN could not have a team like Northern Illinois in primetime on New Year’s Day. This was confirmed when UCF played on New Year’s Day last year and ratings were up 11%. In response, the college football powers moved the AAC berth over to the "BCS buster" category in an effort to eliminate the Northern Illinois’ and Hawaii’s of the world from dragging down ratings ever again.

Is it any coincidence that UCF couldn’t get an ounce of respect in 2013 yet were discussed on College Football Live this summer as a better program than Miami or Florida?

The television contract signed between the ESPN and AAC was treated by most writers and fans as the death knell. The money disparity between the Power Five and the AAC appeared to be too great to overcome.

This notion omits that there has always been a disparity between the princes and the paupers. Texas plays a different game than Iowa State, which in turn plays a different game than Florida Atlantic. Absolutely nothing has changed in this regard.

While everyone focused on the money aspect, the devil laid in the details. Many rooting for AAC teams were rooting for NBC to win the television contract. In a shrewd move, NBC did not offer a lot of money – ESPN could match anything easily – but instead loaded an offer with exposure. They promised noon kickoffs on broadcast leading into Notre Dame home games. They offered a growing cable network that would devote all its energy to one conference. It seemed like a home run.

So to match NBC’s offer, ESPN had to match that exposure level.

Here’s a key quote from the contract’s press release that sums it up, "In essence, the extensive national television coverage replaces previous syndication and local telecasts."

Up to 90 percent of the AAC’s home games will be on national television, a caveat that necessitated ESPN striking a deal with the bargain-hunting CBS Sports Network to pick up AAC football games. The exposure level for the conference has increased ten-fold from a year ago.

An early peek at ESPN’s schedule shows how valuable this will be for the conference. UConn’s opening home game against BYU shifted from a crowded Thursday slot to a primetime Friday showcase on ESPN. On Sept. 6, Tulane and USF have home games against Georgia Tech and Maryland, respectively, which are suddenly receiving national coverage via ESPNews and CBS Sports Network.

UCF is slated for three Thursday night appearances on ESPN. With the exception of Boise State in week one against Ole Miss, no team from the Mountain West, Sun Belt, MAC or Conference USA will appear on a ESPN Thursday night telecast.

It is a contract that will greatly benefit the conference and the network.

For ESPN, they have access to dirt cheap college football that people will watch in markets with fantastic growth potential. We saw just last year with UCF that a college team can thrive in a big market and bring ratings when they win games. Don’t you think ESPN would love to see Houston be great? Or SMU in Dallas? Or USF in Tampa?

For the AAC, they are waging a public relations battle. They have until the end of this decade, when the contract runs out, to become a power conference. Whereas Big East football existed largely on regional sports networks up and down the East Coast, AAC football can potentially exist on a national scale. Sure, ESPNews isn’t ABC and CBS Sports Network isn’t ESPN, but it’s better than it was.

The AAC needs to continue winning games. It’s a giant step forward for the conference to know if they do, they will be rewarded.