Less than three years after making the move to the Big East, UConn’s name has come up in realignment discussions surrounding the Big 12 Conference. On Friday, Boardroom’s Russ Steinberg reported that league commissioner Brett Yormark recently visited Storrs to meet with the school’s administration as part of “exploratory” discussions.
This news comes after both Sports Illustrated and The Athletic mentioned UConn as a potential target for Big 12 expansion.
The conference is set to lose its major powers in Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC, with BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF joining alongside remaining members Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas Tech, and West Virginia.
While UConn’s move from the AAC to the Big East in 2020 has seen its football and basketball programs move in the right direction, the Big 12 would provide a significant increase in payout money to an athletic department that had a $53 million budget deficit 2022. The Big East’s current deal pays each school a little more than $4 million per year while the Big 12 is set to give out upwards of $20 million per year.
It would also provide UConn football with a conference home. The program currently operates as an independent since the new Big East doesn’t sponsor football. Though this has gone well, there are questions about the long-term viability of the situation. The school has built full, 12-game schedules with opponents that excite the fanbase and even reached a bowl game last season for the first time since 2015 under first-year head coach Jim Mora.
Considering how well UConn fits into the Big East, both geographically and culturally — not to mention the athletic department’s success since moving to the league, headlined by a men’s basketball national championship this past April — the money could still motivate a move.
UConn athletic director David Benedict emphasized that finances are only one part of the equation.
“I don’t think money guarantees success,” he told CT Insider recently. “I think you can look around the country and identify programs in those conferences that aren’t winning national championships or are competitive at that level. In some cases, members of [Power Five] conferences are still losing a lot of money on an annual basis...”
He also gave some hints as to where he stands.
“But I would have no interest in going into a situation — this is me, personally, speaking — where you’re going to get more money but you’re not going to be competitive in anything. That is not attractive to me, at all. And that certainly was a factor in making the move back to the Big East.”
Any move out of the Big East would cost UConn money in the short term, too. If it were to leave anytime prior to 2026, that would require a $30 million exit fee. That number drops to $15 million for the next three years after that, and then to $10 million every year beyond.
The wheels of conference realignment at the top of Division 1 began turning in 2021 when Texas and Oklahoma decided to leave the Big 12 for the SEC, which will happen ahead of the 2024-25 season. In June 2022, UCLA and USC announced a move to the Big Ten, leaving the Pac-12 in flux.
Now, both conferences are looking to expand. According to SI, the Big 12 is eying four Pac-12 schools — Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah — along with San Diego State and UNLV out of the Mountain West and Memphis in the AAC in addition to UConn. Colorado State, SMU, and Fresno State are also in the mix but “further down the pecking order.” The Pac-12, meanwhile, is looking at SDSU and SMU.
According to The Athletic, Yormark is “doing his homework” and “nothing seems imminent in terms of extending invitations to new members”.
Elsewhere in the landscape, seven members of the ACC — Clemson, Miami, NC State, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, and Virginia — have met to determine if it could find a way to leave the conference before the media rights deal (and with it, the grant of rights) expires in 2036, according to Virginia Tech athletic director White Babcock.
This isn’t the first time UConn has been connected with the Big 12. In 2016, the league considered expansion, and UConn — along with practically every school outside the Power Five — threw its hat in the ring. Ultimately, the Big 12 chose to stay put at 10 schools.
Until the dust settles, UConn’s name will likely remain in the discussion. Just about anything else is speculation until we find out.