3/19: Updated with more specific details, including a correction on the length of the contract.
The American Athletic Conference’s new media deal is here, and the numbers are tepid. There are many details to pick apart, and I’m sure I’ll end up doing so in the coming weeks, but for now, the number that matters most to Cincinnati is $7 million. UC will receive $7 million per year as part of this new contract, up from “about $2 million” in the previous media deal (which I spent some time lambasting in December when commissioner Mike Aresco was foolish enough to hint publicly at the pursuit of a grant-of-rights agreement for the conference).
It should be noted that a bowl payout of an additional $1.5 million will help with some extra cash. It’s hard to complain about the pay raise. It’s not what UC deserves (I was hoping for $8 million at a bare minimum), but it’s a fairly significant step in the right direction. Most importantly, it could’ve been worse.
It did get me thinking though. Now that the AAC is finally making more than pennies on the dollar, what can be done to fine-tune the league further? While the AAC’s new deal runs until 2032, the Big 12’s deal expires in 2023. That’s a place where realignment could come.
Until then, how could we theoretically beef up the conference?
Note: I’ve turned off realism for this exercise. I can say with near certainty that Aresco will pursue none of these ideas. With that in mind, I still wanted to keep this based on some semblance of reality. If I were going true fantasy, this piece would be concise and read, “Cincinnati to the ACC.” The goal here was just a provide a temporary band-aid to UC’s conference affiliation woes. I also wanted to keep this simple, so pretend football and men’s basketball are the only sports that exist for the next few minutes.
Schools kicked out:
The Pirates have successfully snakebitten Cincinnati twice now in basketball. They’ve beaten the Bearcats in football just once since 2001, and while that was an absolute smackdown in Greenville, ECU hasn’t been very competitive overall. I was mildly intrigued by East Carolina’s addition when the “Big East” announced it in 2012. They’re no Boise State, but the Pirates were one of Conference USA’s premier programs. From 2006 until their final C-USA season in 2013, the Pirates missed a bowl appearance just one time, making seven trips in that span. They even peaked as high as #14 in the AP Poll in 2008. It seemed like they’d be able to win games, and—maybe just as importantly—they offered a fan base. From 2010-2012, they boasted a top-50 attendance ranking, even peaking above 50,000 in 2011. That’s very impressive for a C-USA program.
When they joined the AAC, things went well to start. The 2014 Pirates reached #18 in the AP Poll and played (and lost) an instant classic with the Bearcats at Paul Brown Stadium. They finished an acceptable 8-5 but went 5-7 the next year. They foolishly fired head coach Ruffin McNeill and haven’t won more than three games in a season since. Predictably, this has played out in their attendance figures. 2018 attendance shrunk to 32,908 per game, despite every possible advantage, including a home game against North Carolina, a home schedule that ended on November 17, and visits from top AAC teams Memphis, Houston, and #10 UCF. It was the least-attended year of Pirate football since 2004.
On the basketball side, things have been even glibber. The Pirates have not reached the NCAA Tournament since 1993 when they were a 16-seed after winning the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament. The Jeff Lebo era began in 2010, and he immediately snapped Greenville’s 13-season streak of losing records. His tenure peaked in 2013 when the team finished with a 23-12 record and won the CIT. Since joining the AAC, ECU has been unable to post a winning record or finish better than 6-12 in conference play. Their best season in the conference, by KenPom’s standards, saw them go 12-20 and finish 190th in 2015-16. Much like football, their fan support matches their performance. East Carolina averaged 3,363 fans last season. The facility isn’t up to the AAC's middling standards. Minges Coliseum opened in 1968, and the university hasn't renovated it since 1994.
East Carolina feels stuck in the mud, and the experiment has run its course. They still have a strong fan base by AAC standards, but winning is more important. As fantasy commissioner, I banish them back to Conference USA.
Want the quickest summation of why Tulsa doesn’t belong in the AAC? They didn’t even attempt to join the Big 12 in 2016.
Of the conference’s 12 teams, ten applied for Big 12 consideration three years ago. The only two that abstained were Navy (a service academy with vastly different budget expectations and no real shot at Power Five competition) and Tulsa. To top it off, Tulsa is in the heart of Big 12 country. That’s a red flag. It’s a sad state of affairs when a marker of an AAC team is their dissatisfaction with the conference itself, but here we are.
Tulsa football used to be pretty good! From 2003 through 2012, they made eight bowls in 10 tries. They won double-digit games four times in that span. (All that success made them a head coaching farm system for UC’s Big East rivals. Steve Kragthorpe left Tulsa in 2006 to coach Louisville. Todd Graham left Tulsa in 2010 to coach Pitt.) In their time in the American, they’ve had some success. They reached a bowl game in 2015 and surged to 10 wins in 2016. Despite that, the 23-39 overall record doesn’t lie.
Making matters worse, they play at Chapman Stadium. It opened in 1930, which pulls at my heartstrings, but it’s was renovated in the last 15 years to remove more than 10,000 seats. Its capacity is just 30,000, and they struggle to approach filling it. Last year, they averaged a garish 17,098 fans per game. The basketball team averaged 4,517. Here is really where my biggest issue with the Golden Hurricane lies. The football program seems to be a mess, and while basketball has been mostly competitive (maybe even shockingly so), it’s not enough to offset the fact that Tulsa can’t make anyone care about its sports—not even its own fans. They bring nothing of value to the conference besides an occasional top-100 game in basketball. That’s not good enough for inclusion or a $7 million annual check.
Tulsa is almost the reverse of ECU. They’ve brought some success, especially in basketball, but the fan support is virtually non-existent. As fantasy commissioner, I’m pulling the plug.
The “Big East” invited the Green Wave as a conference addition at the same time as the Pirates. I assume the reason for their acquisition was as backfill for Rutgers—serving the same role as a strong academic school in a good market despite under-performing athletics. The issue with this logic is that strong academics and bountiful TV markets don’t play out the same at the AAC’s level as they do in the Power Five. Academic and research firepower matter to conferences like the Big Ten, but not the AAC. Plus, when schools are receiving $7 million a year and don’t have a conference network, television markets don’t mean much. The game is smaller in the AAC. Winning and commanding a fan base is far more critical, and Tulane has struggled in both areas.
Tulane is a neat school. They have a rich history, a gorgeous location in New Orleans, a cool brand, and sneaky-fun facilities. Yulman Stadium—opened in 2014 and designed like a soccer stadium—is small but well-suited to what Tulane is trying to do. Devlin Fieldhouse, meanwhile, opened in 1933 and is a gorgeous example of a classic basketball venue. It’s criminal I haven’t seen a game there yet. It seats just 4,100 people, but again, suits what Tulane is trying to do.
Ultimately, that’s the issue with Tulane. They were a charter member of the SEC, but withdrew in 1966, unwilling to divert money from academics or loosen admissions standards. It’s a culture that I sense still permeates the university. Tulane is not going to prioritize athletic domination, not even with the increased TV money. I respect it, but it makes for a poor fit with a conference desperate to maximize relevance and bridge the ever-widening gap between the haves and the have nots of college sports.
Tulane football’s winningest season of the 21st century came in 2002: 8-5 in C-USA with a bowl win over Hawaii. Since then, they’ve finished .500 or better just twice. One of those came in the AAC, as the Green Wave went 7-6 last season, joining Cincinnati to win the conference’s only bowl games. Head coach Willie Fritz is slowly dragging Tulane in the right direction, but history suggests any success he has will earn him a quick ticket out of town and reset the clock for a program where winning has proven to be difficult. Basketball is even dicier. The Green Wave haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since they were members of the Metro Conference and haven’t made an AP Poll appearance since 1997. They haven’t mustered a winning season since joining the AAC and are headed for their second season with single-digit wins in the last three years. As of this writing, the Green Wave is ranked #305 (!!) in KenPom, behind programs like North Alabama and VMI. They make ECU look like a hardwood powerhouse.
As you might expect, the fans reciprocate this (lack of) success. Tulane football—despite the best season in more than 15 years and the advantage of drawing opposing fans to exciting New Orleans—averaged 18,015 fans in 2018. The Green Wave’s basketball program averaged 1,610 fans a year ago. Holy crap, there are high school programs in Cincinnati that could give them a run for their money.
Look, I like Tulane—as an idea—more than most teams in this conference. That doesn’t mean I think it makes sense to hand them checks if they aren’t going to compete at the level the conference needs. It is with a heavy heart that I, Fantasy AAC commissioner, send them back to C-USA where they belong.
Schools Brought in:
For a brief moment in 2016, it looked like Cincinnati might form a conference rivalry with the Cougars when both schools were apparent front-runners for Big 12 expansion. While this ultimately didn’t come to pass, it yielded some very entertaining exchanges with the fans in Provo. I may even go as far as saying the barbs tossed back and forth that summer between UC and BYU were about as potent as any Bearcat fans have shared with fan bases in the AAC. This pairing seems ripe for rivalry, or at least a spark.
BYU football is currently unaffiliated. School officials and fans alike seem to prefer independence as they wait out the next round of conference expansion. I can’t fault them for embracing the flexibility, but it makes the short-term future pretty illogical. Does joining a conference braced to disintegrate at the first sign of P5 movement hamper their chances to upgrade affiliation? I can’t imagine it would. If BYU is destined for Power Five glory, playing football in the AAC for a few years won’t change that, but it will earn them a ticket to a New Years Six bowl game if they can put a successful season together.
These kinds of seasons have gone missing in Provo recently. Head coach Bronco Mendenhall left BYU for Virginia in 2015, and the program has faltered by its standards, winning just 11 total games the last two seasons. The Cougars have a rich history on the gridiron and have qualified for a bowl in 13 of the last 14 seasons. Going back to 1978, they’ve missed a bowl appearance just seven times. That’s 41 seasons and 34 bowls. That’s a lot.
The Cougars bring fans by the boatload. Despite fewer wins than the fan base is used to and a home slate that doesn’t exactly make my mouth water, they still showed up to the tune of 52,476 per game. That’s, uh, pretty good. I would rather play there than Tulsa. LaVell Edwards Stadium holds more than 63,000 fans and features the most gorgeous backdrop in FBS football. Adding their football program would be a tremendous asset.
There are hiccups with this marriage that will prevent it from happening anywhere other than in my fantasy. First, BYU won’t want to join, especially in one sport—their most profitable. Second, there are plenty of issues with adding another time zone to the conference, although this is less of a problem in football—since the conference plays most games on Saturday. BYU’s television network might also be a hurdle, among other issues we discussed back in 2016.
No matter, my role as fantasy commissioner gives me a lot of power, and I’d like to welcome BYU to the Fantasy AAC.
The mid-major basketball scene is easier to dive into than football. While not many football programs below AAC-level offer compelling cases for addition, life on the hardwood is simpler. Basketball is a cheaper sport, making it one where it’s easier to build a robust program without the benefit of a deep well of money. Adding the right basketball school requires looking at which programs have done the most with their limited funds and offering them the opportunity for more. It’s how the AAC ended up with Wichita State in 2017.
When finding my basketball-only addition, I had four criteria:
Located in the AAC’s footprint. This rule eliminates some of the strong west coast programs such as Gonzaga, New Mexico, and San Diego State. Wichita State is pushing it here, but I still stand behind their addition.
Not overlapping with a current AAC program. This rule eliminates Dayton for existing in Cincinnati’s bubble, and a program like St. Joseph’s for existing in Temple’s.
A sustained period of success. Sorry, sexy 2019 programs like Nevada, Wofford, and Buffalo. We need a decade or so of winning.
A substantial fan base. We’re contracting the conference with quality in mind. No more room for schools without a following.
And so we land on the Virginia Commonwealth Rams. Single-sport members aren’t ideal, but this is otherwise a near-perfect addition for the AAC. The Bearcats and Rams have some recent history. VCU won a game at The Shoe in 2014—aided by a stunned Bearcat team playing just hours after their head coach announced an indefinite medical leave of absence. Cincinnati returned the favor in Richmond the following year, scoring a big road win before Christmas.
The Rams have the pedigree. They’ve made eight tournament appearances in the last ten tries, and this year’s team is on the cusp of making it 9-for-11. They famously streaked to the 2011 Final Four, where they fell at the hands of the Butler Bulldogs, another former mid-major that’s used their new conference to become a more mainstream force. Might VCU have the same potential?
A wart on VCU’s resume is their basketball venue. They play at E.J. Wade Arena, a 7,637-seat multi-purpose facility that reminds me of a younger, smaller, pre-renovation Fifth Third Arena. It’s not a pretty place, but they fill it well enough. The Rams are working on a sellout streak that eclipsed its 130th consecutive game this season. It’s easy to turn up your nose at the quality of the building, but considering some of UC’s current competition, sign me up to play anywhere opposing fans will come out in droves.
VCU is the ticket. Welcome to the Fantasy AAC.
The Fantasy AAC:
(bowl appearances since 2009)
South Florida (6)
(tournament appearances since 2009)
Wichita State (7)
South Florida (1)
Narrowing the conference to 10 teams allows for a 9-game conference schedule in football, which I’m sure will be divisive. On the positive side, the additional league game against the spiffed-up AAC will almost certainly yield a quality opponent. For example, imagine replacing Marshall on the 2017 slate or Ohio on last year’s schedule with Houston or Memphis—teams Cincinnati wasn’t able to play due to the AAC’s 12-team format. Playing teams every year will also help build rivalries in a conference that desperately needs it. Cincinnati and Houston played fun games in 2014, 2015, and 2016 and now haven’t seen each other in two years, totally killing any momentum those contests had built. On the negative side (in Cincinnati’s case), the non-conference freedom just got razor thin. As long as the Bearcats are in the AAC, it’s likely they’ll play an FCS team. They also have a built-in game with Miami (OH) each year. This format leaves just one game for a big-ticket, non-conference opponent. If we're honest, this is typically the best Cincinnati can do anyway, 2019 aside. Maybe this isn’t an issue. Perhaps it is. It just changes how UC has operated for decades.
Kicking out two basketball programs also clears the way for a true round-robin in basketball, meaning UC would face every conference opponent twice each season—once home and once away. In the current AAC, the abridged schedule works in Cincinnati’s favor. The conference uses the lopsided format to save Cincinnati from two games against programs like ECU and Tulane. Remove the schools you don’t want to play twice, and the rest of the conference is fair game. As with football, ensuring every program visits each arena once per year will help instill some rivalries where they’ve been lacking.
The refinement of the conference’s basketball lineup also opens the door for a potential non-conference scheduling series with a league like the Pac-12, which currently does not have a partner like the Big 12 does with the Big East/SEC and the Big Ten has with the ACC. I doubt the Pac-12 will be interested in scheduling a cross-country series with a conference of lower esteem, but cutting out weak teams would help the likelihood if nothing else. After all, this season saw the AAC pass the Pac-12 in KenPom’s conference rankings. Typically these types of agreements see match-ups arranged by the networks (ESPN in this case) in pursuit of a national appeal. Say what you want about the AAC and the (current state of) the Pac-12, but I think annual games like Cincinnati-UCLA, Houston-Utah, UConn-Arizona, Memphis-USC, and Wichita-Oregon would command TV viewers and help both conferences.
How much is this Fantasy AAC worth to media partners? Using some crude math, the current deal of $7 million for each of the league’s 12 member schools pegs the conference’s total annual value at $84 million. Shedding excess schools may knock the value of the overall deal, but even if the revised contract were to value the conference at $75 million annually, that breaks down to $7.5 million per school. Cincinnati gets a slight pay raise for improved strength of schedule and annual games against every conference opponent. That sounds nice to me.