For the past week or so, commissioner Mike Aresco has been conducting interviews with most of the newspapers that cover member schools of the American Athletic Conference.
Aresco’s message has been consistent: All is well. There is no cause for concern.
Connecticut announced last week it is leaving the American Athletic Conference to join the Big East Conference for all sports other than football. That’s because the Big East does not sponsor football.
Connecticut athletic director David Benedict had hoped to speak with Aresco about the possibility of remaining in the American as a football-only member. That idea was immediately shot down by the commissioner.
“The short answer is no, not a chance,” Aresco told the Associated Press last week.
AAC bylaws require Connecticut to give a notice of 27 months before leaving and pay a $10 million exit fee. The Huskies will remain in the American in all sports for the entire 2019-2020 school year.
In an interview with The Capital on Monday, Aresco said Connecticut’s departure does not weaken the American Athletic Conference at all.
“We’re moving forward,” Aresco said. “None of our goals have changed one bit from this. We feel very confident because we’re strong and we’ve been strong. We’re focused on the future and this is not going to change anything for us in that regard.”
Aresco had planned to take a vacation to Europe this week, but that was postponed so he could address this situation. He was not completely blindsided by Connecticut’s move because there had been several warning signs.
“It didn’t come as a huge surprise. We knew it could possibly happen. On the other hand, nobody does this out in the open so you typically don’t get a heads up,” Aresco said. “There have been rumors percolating for years. They had expressed their unhappiness in various ways. We thought that discontent was misguided.”
Connecticut was left behind when the football portion of the Big East Conference fell apart due to the exits of Boston College, Miami, Pittsburgh, Rutgers and Syracuse. Connecticut was one of three football-playing members (along with Cincinnati and South Florida) that did not get into a Power Five conference and never seemed entirely comfortable in the American Athletic Conference.
Clearly, Connecticut’s recent decision to rejoin the realigned Big East Conference was based solely on basketball. In this era of major college athletics, such monumental decisions are usually based on football.
“Connecticut has expressed a desire of going back to a romanticized past that was the former Big East,” Aresco said. “It would typically be very rare for a large state university to do that based off basketball. If you are in college athletics at the highest level, you need to be all in with football.”
Widespread success on the football field was a big impetus behind the American’s P6 campaign. Central Florida, Houston and others in the conference have defeated Power Five conference opponents and the AAC has routinely garnered the lone Group of Five berth in a New Year’s Day bowl.
However, Aresco is equally proud of the American’s achievements in basketball and believes the conference is every bit the equal of the Big East in that sport.
“If it weren’t for football, we wouldn’t have this landmark television deal. Football has lifted this entire conference,” Aresco said. “That being said: we haven’t neglected basketball. We’re going to be a powerful basketball league. Connecticut made a decision to focus on their region for basketball.”
Aresco was referring to the recent media rights contract the American Athletic Conference secured with ESPN, which is reportedly worth $1 billion over 12 years. Connecticut was not entirely happy about the new deal because it gives ESPN sole rights to the vast majority of AAC events.
Connecticut has long-standing separate arrangement that allows New York-region sports channel SNY to broadcast multiple men’s and women’s basketball games each year. Because UConn women’s basketball is so widely popular in that region, the SNY ratings for those broadcasts were significant.
ESPN intends to put a lot of AAC athletic events on its digital platform known as ESPN+, a streaming service accessed only through subscription. Benedict bemoaned the potential loss of “linear TV exposure” along with the likely end of the school’s “successful relationship with SNY” when discussing Connecticut’s “disappointment” with that aspect of the ESPN contract.
“We are embracing the ESPN vision of the digital future. That was obviously a sticking point for Connecticut based off public comments,” Aresco said.
There is a provision in the new media rights contract that allows ESPN to renegotiate because of Connecticut’s departure. Naturally, Aresco was not eager to discuss any potential changes to the deal.
“We’re going to sit down with ESPN fairly soon. We have a great relationship with ESPN,” Aresco said. “Obviously we hope that the impact is minimal, but I really don’t want to get into it. I don’t want to do anything that would put them on the spot. We’re still a powerful conference in both revenue sports.”
Meanwhile, the American Athletic Conference is in no rush to replace Connecticut as a member in order to remain at 12 schools. In fact, Aresco indicated the AAC does not intend to seek a replacement at this time and is learning toward remaining at 11 schools for the near future.
“We’re not calling anyone. People have my phone number and if there is a school out there that is interested we are willing to have a conversation,” said Aresco, who is sensitive to concerns about the American “raiding” other Group of Five conferences.
“It’s not something we have to do. Unless we can get a school that enhances our brand and our strength, it’s not worth doing. If we can’t find anyone that makes sense, we would stay at 11.”
Aresco noted the American Athletic Conference would need to obtain a waiver from the NCAA in order to hold a championship game for football. The Big Ten Conference played with 11 members for almost two decades.
If the American remains at 11 members, the choice is to have uneven East and West divisions or eliminate divisions and switch to some sort of round-robin scheduling format. Aresco seemed to favor having each member continue to play eight conference contests with the two teams with the best overall records meeting in the championship.
“There are three arguments about getting either a waiver or legislation: One, a conference should be able to determine its champion any way it wants. Two, why would you encourage us to go back to 12 and essentially raid another conference? Third, why would you force us to contract to 10 (to play a round-robin conference schedule)?”
Naval Academy athletic director Chet Gladchuk declined to comment about Connecticut’s departure from the American and its potential impact. Gladchuk told The Capital via text message he wants to wait until the AAC athletic director’s meetings in Newport, Rhode Island later this month before speaking about the issue.