The American Athletic Conference (AAC) managed to secure a $17 million buyout from the Connecticut Huskies in order for the school to leave the league for the Big East Conference next summer.
That’s not the silver lining in this otherwise gloomy cloud for the AAC.
Money is the endgame for any entity operating within big-time-money sports. What the American managed to do, however, is use its vision to help its branding moving forward.
The AAC not only snagged some immediate cash, but part of the agreement is for the Huskies to play four home-and-home basketball series with teams from the American. At the time of this writing, the years and teams involved are not yet known, although this appears to be a sneaky victory for the league.
It should be argued the AAC has other reasons for optimism. The Memphis Tigers are bringing in an other-worldly recruiting class and appear set for national relevance; The Houston Cougars are in the middle of a solid few year run and have the booster support needed to sustain it; so on and so forth.
Still, as college basketball purists love to say whenever pay-for-play conversations are discussed: Fans root for the names on the front of the uniforms, not the back.
There’s truth to the sentiment. While Zion Williamson and the Duke Blue Devils benefited from each other in terms of branding, there’s countless examples of projected top NBA Draft picks not driving ratings or money toward lesser than brands. Ben Simmons with the LSU Tigers, as well as Markelle Fultz while with the Washington Huskies, didn’t force casual hoop heads to consume their games in hyperbolic mass.
Was there a small bump? Of course. But the nudge in national relevance was neither sustainable or large enough to shift power dynamics in major college basketball. In fact, both Simmons’ and Fultz’s coaches at the time are now no longer overseeing those programs.
What’s important to the AAC is that Connecticut Huskies have a strong college basketball brand. The football counterpart… not so much.
Only the Tigers, who have floated in and out of the national conversation for decades, can sniff the branding left on UConn by Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun. Even with the Tigers, though, a youthful market only recognizes Memphis’ time in the national spotlight with John Calipari, forgetting the dominance of the Dana Kirk era, or even the magical run of the 1972-73 team.
Furthermore, there’s an entire generation of young people fully unaware of Temple’s consumable John Chaney era, or the other solid programs that have fallen on harder times.
Nevertheless, while negotiating UConn’s buyout, the American created a sliver of a chance to once again showcase its programs in a way it can only do in non-conference settings.
Outside of fans already within the AAC bubble, coupled with it likely to be less consumed by casual fans thanks to the multi-year deal the league signed to air games on ESPN+, the only realistic way the league can grow is by piggybacking off the brands of larger, more prolific schools.
In a strange, convoluted way, AAC commissioner Mike Aresco should root for UConn to conjure images of yesteryear, making runs to the Final Four and being in the A-block of national talking-head shows. If the Huskies were to return to Calhoun-era-form, fans might be more likely to turn on AAC games when the league is participating in the home-and-home series with UConn.
Otherwise, if one isn’t already invested in its basketball league, the appeal might only rest in Memphis. Sure, the Cougars appear to also be building something special, but it currently lacks the branding legitimate national powers bring to the table to drive ratings and interest.
Admittedly, it’s a bit of a stretch, but Connecticut’s most usefulness to the AAC might actually be out of the league rather than in it, allowing for the Huskies to regain strength under the more powerful Big East brand, providing a theoretical series of games for the AAC to later use to expand its reach to a larger audience.
Everything would have to break right for this to happen. UConn needs to become more than competent. The Huskies must be a force to be reckoned with. For the AAC’s part, the league would need to market and create interest in future games against the Huskies in a way that garners fanfare beyond solely whatever it may or may not mean for UConn.
Even then, the positive impact for the AAC could be minimal, although it’s better than no impact at all.
Fictional and forced rivalry, possibly, but there’s a reason the AAC wanted UConn to agree to a series with the league as part of its buyout agreement. It knows it’s not only market sizes allowing for leagues to grow, but branding and perception of growth, both of which the league can use UConn to acquire over the next few years if it plays its cards correctly.
There’s also the possibility, since we don’t yet know the terms, some of the home-and-home games are granted to wayward AAC programs, or in women’s basketball (though, marketable growth can be used here as well), so it’s not guaranteed sunshine and rainbows just because theoretical positives might be looming around the corner.
Nonetheless, there’s reason for hope, maybe with partial blissful blinders on, UConn leaving the AAC is a blessing in disguise. And that’s all a fan base needs in the offseason — hope.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared on Forbes, but has been republished under the original author’s name at CBBToday thanks to the publisher-contributor agreement.
Joseph Nardone has covered college basketball for nearly a decade at various outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @JosephNardone.
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