The period between 2010 and 2013 was one of tumultuous realignment in the NCAA. Perhaps no other conference was affected more than the Big East, as more than a dozen powerful schools joined other conferences. The remaining programs as well as an influx of new teams formed the American Athletic Conference in 2013, but the changes greatly weakened the competitiveness and profitability of the conference. As a result, UConn’s athletic programs, especially basketball, have suffered over the last six years in many areas. With UConn Athletics hemorrhaging money and a mediocre broadcast deal about to take effect, there is now only one sensible option for UConn athletic director David Benedict and incoming President Thomas Katsouleas: Get UConn out of The American.
Whether this means moving to the new Big East (and effectively dropping Division I football or finding a new home for it) or finding a way into a Power 5 conference such as the ACC or the Big Ten, UConn Athletics must leave the American Athletic Conference. This is the right decision for a number of reasons, chief among them the fiscal state of the program and the direction in which the UConn Athletics is trending.
The AAC’s new television deal with ESPN is a 12-year deal for $1 billion averaging $6.94 million per year per school, according to a Sports Business Journal report. While this is certainly an improvement on the annual average of $2.16 million UConn received from the previous deal, many of the games will be available exclusively on ESPN+, the sports giant’s new subscription-based streaming service ($4.99 per month), leaving many Husky fans unable or unwilling to pay to watch games. Additionally, this deal is not enough of an improvement to cover for the $42 million university subsidy, the highest of any Division I public institution, according to a USA Today analysis from 2016-17.
Perhaps even more concerning about the AAC’s new television deal is that it pales in comparison to the Power 5 conferences it so wishes it could be a part of. For example, in 2016-17, ACC total revenue was $418.1 million in that fiscal year alone. Each of the conference’s 14 full-time members received a $26.6 million share, per USA Today. UConn won’t be able to acquire that money from its television deal for almost four years.
The ACC plans to start its own network in the next year, much like the SEC and Big Ten have in the last few years. Those two conferences garnered $650 million and $512.9 million, respectively, in 2016-17, according to the same USA Today report. That comes out to $40 million and $37 million, respectively, for each university in those conferences. The new Big East, on the other hand, signed a 12-year $500 million deal with Fox Sports in 2013, a deal comparable to the AAC ESPN deal, given the lack of football in the Big East. While there would be around a $5 million revenue drop, either dropping football or moving down to the FCS would possibly allow UConn to make up this difference.
While the AAC clearly has a negative fiscal impact on UConn Athletics, the impact is evident on the field of play as well. The competition faced in the AAC is far less than in any Power 5 conference or in the Big East and quality of recruits that come to the university is lesser as a result of playing in a lesser conference. This has even hampered the 11-time national champion women’s basketball team, which was inexplicably given a No. 2 seed in the 2019 NCAA Tournament due to the level of its conference opponents, despite finishing with a 31-2 record and having faced several top-10 opponents in non-conference play. Playing against weaker opponents arguably also hampers general preparation for the postseason across a number of sports.
It is by no means easy for UConn to leave the AAC but it is important to note that leaving is allowed under the new television contract. The school’s best selling point is one of the strongest basketball programs in the country, as well as the consistent success of other sports such as field hockey. However, the main obstacle to joining a Power 5 conference is the weakness of the school’s football program. UConn’s leaders need to make the case that the overall strength of its athletics programs is enough to deserve a spot in one of these prestigious conferences.
If that fails, UConn’s best option would be the Big East. The revenue would be similar, and possibly greater considering the losses UConn football has been posting. Notably, the competition would be much stronger, especially for basketball. The important thing is that UConn get out somehow, because the longer UConn remains in the AAC, the worse the situation will get for UConn Athletics.