Those with an ear to the ground on Twitter saw some interesting news scroll down their feed Monday morning: American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco is interested in getting every AAC school to agree to a grant-of-rights.
For those who didn’t swim the frigid waters of expansion rumors in 2016, let’s start with the obvious: What is a grant-of-rights? In simple terms, it’s a contract that locks each school into the conference for the remainder of the next media deal. Why is this happening now? The conference’s current (and hilariously terrible) deal expires in 2020. In an effort to increase the conference’s leverage and secure the largest deal possible, Aresco is trying to get every school to commit. If this happens, he can go to ESPN and say, “We’ve vastly outperformed our last deal. Give us more money and we can guarantee our league won’t lose UC, UCF, or Houston for the duration of your contract with us.”
It can’t be emphasized enough how putrid the current contract is. It’s been described as “essentially a hostage negation that doubled as a TV deal.” The conference negotiated it in the midst of the Big East collapse when they had no leverage. As a compromise, Aresco elected to go short-term (seven years) in order to cash in when the deal ended in 2020.
Schools are getting “somewhere around $2 million” per year from ESPN. If you know anything about collegiate athletics, that is nothing. As Yahoo! pointed out, Clemson and LSU are paying their defensive coordinators more than ESPN is paying Cincinnati. It’s a travesty.
Today’s Sports Business Daily report estimates a new deal could be “three to four times higher” if every school is willing to commit to staying together. This is great! The issue is that even an increase to $7 or 8 million per year is a terrible deal for schools like Cincinnati, and one they’d have to be drunk to agree to. The ACC is the “poorest” of the Power Five conferences, and each of those 14 (plus Notre Dame) members makes $26.6 million each year—more than 13 times what Cincinnati will make this year.
The issue here for Cincinnati is two-fold. I think there’s a chance the next media deal could climb north of $10 million annually per school. Is this good for UC? Sure. They could always use the money, and that increased revenue would go a long way for an athletic department that’s used to making dollars stretch.
On the flip side, taking the short-term cash relief will lock Cincinnati into a conference that seems to essentially have no shot at competing for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Believe it or not, this exclusion is probably more costly than a bum TV deal. I don’t care how much money you pony up, eventually a coach like Luke Fickell is going to get frustrated if he has zero chance at winning a national title, even in his best year.
I’d rather continue to be broke, praying for a Power 5 lifeboat, than make a few extra dollars and essentially commit to playing in the minor leagues for the foreseeable future.
It’s been reported that part of these grant-of-rights negotiations have centered around the idea that the money wouldn’t be distributed evenly between schools. The idea is that maybe, somehow, top performers like UCF could take home more than stagnant members like East Carolina. It’s a fair but radical idea that hasn’t been done anywhere else in the country. The AAC, more than any P5 conference, deals with a wide gulf between the haves and the have nots. Not only is top-10 darling UCF competing in the same conference as UConn (the worst team in FBS football), but the entire bottom half of the American is in a continuous state of dry rot in both football and basketball.
Last year, East Carolina finished lower in KenPom than in-state neighbor North Carolina A&T of the MEAC. If ECU can’t take AAC money and put a top-300 basketball team on the floor, why should they get a pay raise on the backs of schools like UCF and Houston? Good luck explaining this to them, however. They’d never agree to this lopsided model of revenue sharing.
At the end of the day, an AAC grant-of-rights makes little sense for anyone. Do you think UCF is going to want to win 25 games in a row only to collect a beggars sum from ESPN and share it with The University of Tulsa? Give me a break.
The conference has largely exceeded expectations, but the continuing gulf between the upper class of the Power 5 and the lower class of the Group of 5 does not make for a harmonious marriage for the AAC—which sits virtually right in the middle.
Aresco can try to lock everyone down, and I suppose its his job to attempt to build the conference and do right by its members no matter the odds, but he’s delusional if he thinks he’s getting signatures from everyone.
Honestly though, UC fans can’t be too mad about any of this. As long as Cincinnati is on the outside looking in, any whispers of a move that could shuffle the deck is good for the Bearcats. I think there’s little risk of the grant-of-rights coming to pass, but maybe the simple threat of a deal could spark movement elsewhere.
The chances of that feel less than negligible, but it’s better than nothing, and nothing is all we’ve got right now.