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American Athletic Conference reportedly set to expand with six Conference USA schools under consideration

The American Athletic Conference, led by commissioner Mike Aresco, is reportedly set to offer full membership to six current Conference USA schools. (AP Photo/Stew Milne, File)
The American Athletic Conference, led by commissioner Mike Aresco, is reportedly set to offer full membership to six current Conference USA schools. (AP Photo/Stew Milne, File) (Stew Milne/AP)

A Yahoo Sports report about potential American Athletic Conference expansion has been deemed accurate in terms of the schools being considered, according to multiple sources.

Pete Thamel, a longtime college football reporter with Sports Illustrated and Yahoo Sports, reported Monday that the AAC is considering adding as many as six schools.

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Alabama-Birmingham, Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice and Texas-San Antonio all intend to apply for membership in the American Athletic Conference, according to the report. All of those schools currently compete in Conference USA.

The potential addition of all six schools would increase the AAC membership to 14, helping offset the pending departure of Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston to the Big 12 Conference.

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American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco created an expansion committee featuring four athletic directors — Mike Kelly of South Florida, Laird Veatch of Memphis, Rick Hart of SMU and Chet Gladchuk of Navy.

Gladchuk said the consensus among the committee was that expansion was necessary considering the three defections.

“We only have eight schools that play football and that’s not where we want to be,” Gladchuk said. “We’re also cognizant of the ‘What ifs’ in the future should some other school choose to leave.”

While declining to comment on the Yahoo Sports report, Gladchuk did indicate the AAC expansion committee does not believe adding only three new schools would fill the void left by the departure of Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston.

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“To replace Cincinnati, Central Florida and Houston on a one-for-one basis is going to be difficult to do,” he said.

Navy is a football-only member of the AAC, while Wichita State is a full member without a football program. All six schools seeking membership would be full members that will field teams in multiple fall, winter and spring sports.

In evaluating schools for potential membership, the AAC leadership considered a wide range of factors such as television market, fan base and impact on recruiting. Each of the six Conference USA members mentioned as candidates are located in major metropolitan areas.

Texas-San Antonio is in the midst of a breakout football season, off to a 7-0 start and having just earned the first national ranking in program history. Charlotte has come a long way since starting a football program at the Football Bowl Championship level in 2013, qualifying for the Bahamas Bowl in 2019. Florida Atlantic improved in a hurry under coach Lane Kiffin, who led the program from 2017 to 2019, and finished first in its division of Conference USA twice.

American Athletic Conference leadership believes its lucrative television contract with ESPN will help any new member grow its athletic programs through increased revenue and improved exposure.

“We’re looking toward investing in the future in programs that have a tremendous upside,” Gladchuk said. “We need to look at institutions that have a profile that leads [current AAC members] to believe there is great potential.”

Rice is located in Houston, while North Texas is based in a suburb of Dallas and Florida Atlantic is in Boca Raton. Those regions — along with Charlotte, San Antonio and Birmingham — are all attractive from a recruiting perspective for the current American members.

“In the big picture, it’s critically important to have a conference that is significant in terms of competitive value, geographic relevance, and television interest,” Gladchuk said. “That’s what the exercise is right now — investigating, studying and researching what institutions will provide the AAC with all those intangibles going forward.”

It was reported by many media outlets that the AAC initially attempted to lure Air Force, Boise State, Colorado State and San Diego State away from the Mountain West Conference. Aresco denied those reports and made it clear in a statement that the AAC did not formally offer membership to any Mountain West institution.

“Our process for considering potential members remains deliberate, strategic and focused on the continued proven success of our conference,” Aresco said.

In March 2019, the American Athletic Conference agreed to a 12-year, $1 billion television contract with ESPN.

Conference USA schools are slated to receive $1 million per year in television revenue. According to the Yahoo Sports report, negotiations are ongoing for how much media rights money the six new schools would get upon joining the American.

“There are a number of qualities we would expect these institutions to bring to the conference,” Gladchuk said. “Ultimately, the AAC wants to maintain its stature as one of the top conferences at the Division I level.”

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