The Connecticut Huskies will be leaving the American Athletic Conference to join the Big East Conference. In turn, it leaves the AAC minus one storied college basketball program… and a school supposedly with a football team.
Jokes aside, while this news is certainly welcomed by the majority of college basketball fans who have fond memories of UConn creating magical moments in Madison Square Garden, this is a significant blow to the AAC — a league largely formed from the desire to chase football money no matter who owned the naming rights to the Big East moniker.
It might be semantics, but UConn never left the Big East. Instead, it was the Catholic Seven that split from Mike Aresco’s league (then known as the Big East) as it began to bring in poor basketball programs in the name of football, that reshaped the entire landscape.
The downfall of the Big East was predicted for a few years leading up to the Aresco-Catholic Seven fallout. Sixteen schools left the league prior to the official split, leading Jim Calhoun to suggest a final breaking point between the basketball-only members from Aresco’s newer programs was “inevitable.”
Summarizing the ordeal in short, the Catholic Seven secured the rights to the Big East name, leaving the rest of the members to rebrand as the American Athletic Conference.
Nevertheless, when the AAC formed, there was hope. Football money was, and still is, king. Basketball can certainly drive in solid revenue for a program. For plenty, it’s a cash cow. However, a quality football program can generate so much more to the point it was the literal reason the “old” Big East was willing to bring in lukewarm programs such as the South Florida Bulls.
Unfortunately for UConn, the marriage between their school and the AAC was costing it too much.
Back in January, the school claimed a more than $40 million void in its athletic department budget after the football program lost $8.7 million, men’s basketball $5 million and women’s basketball more than $3 million in 2018.
While UConn is leaving for what it believes to be greener pastures, the optics don’t appear swell for the AAC. Having basketball as the impetus for conference realignment with an athletic department that actually has football is peculiar — painting the foundation of the AAC in poor lighting.
Even with optics aside, if asking someone just a week ago about the American’s standing in the realm of college hoops, an optimistic viewpoint would be shared. After all, UConn is a valuable brand and it was about to be coupled with another solid brand back on the uptick, as the Memphis Tigers are entering the 2019-2020 college basketball season with as much hype as any team in the country.
Nonetheless, losing that one, biggest brand they had, is a killer to the AAC from a basketball standpoint. Programs such as the UCF Knights are fine, even if better than given credit for, but no one is going out of their way to consume a team without Tacko Fall. A similar thought can be shared with the SMU Mustangs and Cincinnati Bearcats, though the latter is in a brutal spot since losing Mick Cronin to the UCLA Bruins.
Furthermore, with the league’s partnership with ESPN, which UConn voiced concern over back in March, it might become tougher for casual fans to watch the AAC in general. Even though it won’t be every game, the league agreed to a 12-year deal with the network to broadcast games on their subscription ESPN+ service. Without UConn’s brand attached to this Netflix-for-sports model, it’s unlikely fans outside of specific fandom bubbles will voyage through a rarely traversed path to witness Tulsa or Tulane play basketball.
Where exactly does this leave the American?
Ideas are already surfacing about how the league might add a football-only program, then chase an elite college basketball counter. That being said, while nice in theory, why would a program equal — or close — to UConn’s stature join a league after the Huskies claimed to have suffered such a massive financial loss since being a member?
There’s also the logistics. Or, honestly, the more accurate disregard for it. Conferences were once a haven to logistics, as each league focused its membership base with geography in mind. For the AAC, there’s no real rhyme or reason, inserting additional stress on programs that aren’t making insane amount of money on travel expenses.
To be fair, it’s all conjecture at this point. Nothing is official, even if it’s expected, with UConn joining the Big East. There’s also a chance, speaking in terms relative to basketball only, the Memphis Tigers become such a transcendent program that this loss can be offset by a single growing commodity.
Relying upon transcendence, however, especially the kind that has no bounds to loyalty, doesn’t feel like a great business plan.
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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