UConn’s Power 5 conference quest far from over

Connecticut players take the field before their 20-9 win over Cincinnati in an NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016, in East Hartford, Conn. UConn continues as part of the American Athletic Conference while holding out for a position in the Big 12 (Winslow Townson/AP)

Few things have been as frustrating and draining to observe as the Big 12’s desire and then lack of desire to add new members.

UConn president Susan Herbst and athletic director David Benedict certainly must feel the same way. After UConn was chosen as one of the 11 expansion finalists, they went all out, presenting the Big 12 with a slew of required documents in their pitch to join the Big 12. It didn’t amount to anything, but that isn’t anyone at UConn’s fault. The Big 12, led by Bob Bowlsby, simply cannot make up its mind.

Of course, there is a reason these candidates did everything they could to meet the criteria and supply the materials Bowlsby and company wanted. The money Power 5 conferences provide is unmatched in the world of college athletics. For a school like UConn, who operates its athletic department like a Power 5 program but receives significantly less money than those schools due to the American Athletic Conference’s small TV deal, any chance to grab more money is worth taking.

While it didn’t work out this time around for any expansion candidate, it does not necessarily mean UConn athletics as we know it is doomed.

Yes, it is not ideal to be missing out on the more than $20 million per year that each Big 12 school receives simply for being a member of the conference. That money is crucial and would do wonders at UConn, who is receiving more and more subsidies from the state of Connecticut each year. But for now -and possibly the next handful of years- UConn’s athletic department is hanging in there, still raking in money from when schools left the Big East a few years back. It isn’t enough for UConn to be viable long-term, but it’s enough to survive for now.

UConn was not a good fit for the Big 12, and it likely never will be. The logistics of travel and composition of football-focused schools made it unlikely that they would win the expansion sweepstakes. Fortunately for UConn, while they didn’t get the invite, no one else did either. This leaves UConn in the American and stuck with the conference’s small payouts for the time being.

ESPN’s TV deal with the American is the biggest bargain in collegiate sports right now, with the network paying $18M a year to the conference to broadcast its games. This low price tag was simply due to the lack of brand names in the conference among a myriad of other reasons. Through numerous big-time bowl appearances from schools like UCF, Houston and Navy and a constantly exciting men’s basketball tournament, the American has turned into a crown jewel for ESPN, bringing in high ratings for mere pennies on the dollar. This will change when the contract expires in 2019, as commissioner Mike Aresco will almost certainly be able to ask for significantly more money if the conference remains as is.

This situation is far from ideal for UConn, but is certainly a decent fallback option. As the Big East money dwindles, the Huskies will benefit from a presumably much larger TV deal between the American and any TV network once the current one expires in 2019.

Of course, it’s impossible to guarantee the American will stay intact all the way until 2019. While Big 12 expansion is off the table for now, they will likely continue to consider expansion cyclically until ESPN buys out the pro rata clause in their TV contract, which would allow schools to make more money if more members were added.

That being said, if the Big 12 were to add more members or change their contract, it would likely extend their Grant of Rights, which dictates when their current TV deal, and in this case the conference as we know it, ends. Power schools in the Big 12, like Texas and Oklahoma, don’t want this. They want it to expire in 2025 as scheduled, and if there’s one thing to be learned from the Big 12 through this expansion fiasco, it’s that if these two schools want something, they get it. There’s a great chance that in 2025, the Big 12 implodes, and the Power 5 as we know it consolidates to four.

If UConn wants a spot in a big-time conference, it will almost certainly have to happen before 2025. After that, they risk being overshadowed by bigger draws like Texas and Oklahoma. It wouldn’t be easy to pull this off, but UConn’s best bet at a big-time conference before 2025 is arguably its best fit; the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Notre Dame football currently has an agreement to play a partial slate of ACC games every year to round out its schedule as an “independent” team. If the Irish ever decide to become a full-fledged ACC member with the hopes of cashing in on ACC network dividends and maintaining its own lucrative independent TV contract with NBC, it would leave the conference with 15 members. It’s easy to see that UConn would be a logical option on paper to even things out and become the 16th team.

Now, there’s a lot of moving parts there, including Notre Dame swallowing its pride and fully joining the ACC, and Boston College giving up on its quest to be the ACC’s premier New England school, but it isn’t far fetched. It’s hard for any independent team, even Notre Dame, to fill out a schedule, and joining the ACC completely could possibly make the school even more money. Adding a school like Notre Dame would be a huge get for the conference, and would likely add UConn simply because it’s a logical fit regionally, academically and athletically. Not to mention, it would likely be the first 16-team “super conference,” and could allow the ACC to cash in on an even more lucrative TV deal.

As TV contracts inch closer to expiring, expansion talk will certainly heat up once again, and the Huskies will be prepared to make their pitch. Whether it be the Big 12, ACC or another big-time conference like the Big Ten, UConn will be ready. But for now, UConn, like so many other schools on the outside looking in, will just have to wait and see how things shake out for these next few years.


Dan Madigan is the sports editor for The Daily Campus, covering football and women's basketball. He can be reached via email at daniel.madigan@uconn.edu. He tweets @dmad1433.