One thing UConn fans know better than most is that the college athletics landscape can change rather quickly.
There wasn’t a whole lot going on in Storrs athletically on a national scale until the Big East happened, and then it got good. Great, even.
But it can all go away just as fast.
One day you’re looking forward to a lifetime of annual games against a robust slate of strong basketball schools and decent football programs—almost all of which you care deeply about beating even in a down year—the next you’re looking at a schedule with names like Tulsa, Houston, and East Carolina wondering what the hell happened.
In this rapidly changing climate, the American Athletic Conference has solidly positioned itself as the leader among those conferences sitting outside of the “power five” gates. It can maintain that position and maybe even move up thanks to the Big 12‘s decision to stand pat after its shameful masquerade.
The only way for the American to remain a solvent conference for schools like UConn, Cincinnati, South Florida, and the others who have invested heavily in their athletic programs, with many taking student subsidies to prop them up, is to earn more money from broadcasting partners.
The AAC has made progress as a not-for-profit holder of sports entertainment programming rights. The value of its live sports assets has clearly grown. New Year’s Bowl wins by UCF and Houston and overall improvement in each year have shown that it can compete on a national stage.
Across the conference, schools which have large alumni bases and major metro locations are putting more money into athletics, getting better with each passing year, and growing their fanbases. Navy was an exceptional addition which has raised the quality and size of the conference’s audience significantly. South Florida is poised to build something very special with Charlie Strong after the success of the Willie Taggart era.
But it needs more. Maybe a lot more.
Which is why AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco needs to put on his innovation pants and find a way for his conference to keep up with the P5 Joneses. The conference probably deserves a raise as it is, but it can also grow revenue through expansion.
Recent reports have stated that Wichita State may be joining the AAC in some capacity. Earlier reports have stated the school may be looking to start a football program, so while this week’s report was as a basketball-only, anything is possible. That would be fine, but we need to think bigger.
If done correctly, expansion could actually reduce travel while increasing the footprint, improving the football product and, most importantly, bringing in more money.
Here are a few candidates who would definitely be worth reaching out to:
Boise State and BYU
These two schools bring large, dedicated fanbases and quality football teams while also allowing the conference to expand geographically. These additions can yield East and West divisions which can act as mini pseudo-conferences. They probably should be football-only members.
Army and Air Force
Adding the two other service academy schools once again adds large national fanbases while bringing more geographic unity and #brand alignment—imagine the American Athletic Conference having all three FBS-playing service academies!
Air Force would become a factor in the West while Army gives UConn, Temple, and Cincinnati a nearby rival in the East. With Navy already a football-only member, these schools could probably do so as well.
Georgetown and Villanova
This is definitely the wildest suggestion here, but Georgetown and Villanova could both raise their revenue, bring a new major sport to their dedicated fanbases, and enter the path to major college athletics by moving their football programs up to FBS and joining a much-improved AAC. Plus, DC could use a big-time college team to root for.
Temple may object to a cross-city rival, but that’s the kind of animosity which makes college sports so great and fun! The AAC needs that. For Georgetown and Villanova, joining back up with the best basketball program they’ve had the pleasure of sharing a conference with would be an added bonus.
Other Schools You Could Make a Compelling Case For
UNLV, San Diego State, Old Dominion, Charlotte, Colorado State, Northern Illinois, Wichita State, UMass, UAB, North Dakota (powerhouse FCS program; hoops has won two of its last three conference titles and upset 5-seed Oklahoma in the NCAA Tournament in 2015!), probably others.
Let’s say the AAC adds the six schools on top of my list. We’d have an 18-team football conference that looks like this:
The key here is if the AAC’s broadcast partners would be willing to pay for these additions. I think they would. While cable networks have been experiencing subscriber losses and ratings dips, there is still a healthy market for quality live sports programming. Fox, NBC, and CBS didn’t invest in their own sports networks by mistake. There will be some competition for the AAC rights, especially with the football improving, and especially if they can add more eyeballs.
There could be even more competition if an online media company, like Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, or even Twitter or Google/YouTube, decides to invest in live sports programming. They’re all in the video content game, so they may as well play to win.
As long as the AAC keeps making irrelevant amounts of money, it will constantly see its quality coaches leave for greener pastures, watch its best schools flirt with major conferences if an opening may exist, and carry a perception of weakness despite whatever happens on the field. Expansion is a move would stabilize and hopefully improve the conference. All options must be considered.