In this year’s April Fool’s edition of The Daily Campus, the front page story declared UConn’s long-awaited return to the Big East conference. Then, it was a joke. Now, it’s a reality.
On Thursday at Madison Square Garden, UConn formally accepted an invitation from the Big East, leaving the American Athletic Conference after a tumultuous six years. The move was unanimously approved by the UConn Board of Trustees the day prior.
“We were tired of being the little feather in the wind of conference realignment,” UConn president Susan Herbst said on Thursday. "This is about taking our destiny back.”
With the exception of football, men’s and women’s hockey (which will remain in Hockey East) and women’s rowing, all UConn athletics will compete in the ‘new’ Big East beginning in 2020, rejoining old rivals including Villanova, Xavier and Georgetown. Compared to the AAC’s geographic issues, inconsistent competition level and lack of historic rivalries, UConn’s return to the Big East feels like a homecoming of sorts.
“The intensity of the competition, the passion of our rivalries and all of our most triumphant wins and toughest losses helped to make us who we are,” Herbst said in a statement. “Coming back here means UConn is coming home.”
The move has been met with near-universal celebration from UConn fans and coaches alike, but it doesn’t come without its fair share of sacrifices. It’ll end up costing the school at least $13 million—a minimum $10 million exit fee from the American plus a $3 million entry fee—a number that could very easily climb depending on the AAC’s withdrawal terms. It’ll also remove UConn from the American’s lucrative TV deal with ESPN signed in March.
And of course, one large question remains: What happens to football? The Big East does not sponsor football, and the American has made it clear that UConn will not be permitted to remain as a football-only member. That likely means the Huskies will have to go independent in football—a move that’ll make scheduling a major difficulty, and eliminate any possibility of a conference-negotiated TV deal. Dropping the sport, athletic director David Benedict assured, is not a consideration.
Ultimately, though, there’s good reason to believe the short-term financial sacrifices will be well-worth the long-term returns. Herbst said on Thursday that increased fan attendance and donor support paired with decreased travel costs (no more trips to Tulsa or Houston) will hopefully cut into the $41 million athletics deficit of last year.
“Initially we have more costs,” Herbst said. “But this is about the long-term."
That turnaround has already begun. Since the first reports started coming in last week, over 2000 fans have either purchased or renewed ticket packages for basketball alone.
The Big East has always been, and remains, a basketball-first conference. UConn athletics are certainly about more than basketball. Field hockey (which never left) is a perennial powerhouse. The baseball program (which undoubtedly suffers from the move) is among the best in the country.
But there’s a reason why Storrs has been proudly dubbed “the basketball capital of the world.” This move reaffirms UConn’s commitment to its basketball programs, and no sport benefits more than men’s hoops. Head coach Dan Hurley is certainly looking forward to being able to offer recruits the promise of playing postseason basketball in Madison Square Garden.
“This was like a Christmas surprise,” Hurley, who admitted he was just as stunned as anyone else, said on Thursday. “When you’ve got the history and tradition we have at UConn, the fan base, the quality of the university—who wouldn’t want to play here now? We’re back in the Big East.”
The official date of UConn’s move to the Big East has yet to be determined, though given the American’s required one-year exit notice, the Huskies will have to play one more year in the AAC, with sights set on rejoining the Big East ahead of the 2020-21 season.