The complaints from Husky Nation are both endless and understandable.
No one wants to go to Hartford on a Tuesday night to watch UConn play East Carolina. Fewer still want to pack the Rent on a 30-degree Saturday afternoon in November for a football game against Tulane.
Being in the American Athletic Conference sucks.
It sucks, however, for so many more reasons than just the quality of opponents, and this is something too many fans seem to be missing.
Let me just say that I get it.
Games against Villanova and Georgetown are so much more fun than games against Tulsa and Tulane. There’s the nostalgia factor, too. That’s what makes even a theoretical game against DePaul Seton Hall sound nice.
Sadly, this daydream is incompatible with the landscape of modern college athletics.
When UConn was left out of the last round of conference realignment, it not only missed out on playing teams like Duke or Michigan State every year — it missed out on an annual payday that dwarfs what AAC and Big East schools receive.
In the simplest terms, the three biggest annual payouts from conferences to their members come from: their TV contracts, football bowl money and money from the NCAA Basketball Fund.
The AAC is not prepared to compete with the big boys in any of those categories. Even if a return to the Big East would represent an upgrade in some areas, it would not be enough to bridge the gap between UConn and its Power 5 rivals. The university has already invested millions in building up its football program to be competitive nationally and will not abandon that pursuit, sabotaging its chance for a big payday in the future.
The only viable route for UConn to stay relevant going forward is to get into a Power 5 conference, any way it possibly can.
In 2013, the American signed a seven-year, $126 million contract with ESPN for football and basketball. Broken down per school, that’s about $1.5 million — I’m not sure what the exact payout looks like, mainly because Navy is a football-only member, so their distribution may be different.
Regardless, we all know that a payout in the $1.5 million range is peanuts compared to the Power 5. Just how stark is the difference? Here are the per school breakdowns of how much TV money each conference received for 2015-16 with their deals.
(Note that this assumes equal distribution among all schools, which is not necessarily the case, but it should give you a good estimate)
SEC: $24.79 million
Big Ten: $19.92 million
Pac-12: $17.92 million
Big 12: $16.2 million
ACC: $14.13 million
AAC: $1.5 million
Source: Cheat Sheet
Now it is true that the Big East’s TV deal is worth more money. Their deal with FOX is worth $500 million over 12 years — if distributed evenly, that’s $4.12 million per school, per year. But that number comes with two huge asterisks next to it: First, because the Big East does not sponsor FBS football, it does not receive any bowl revenue. Second, the TV ratings in the Big East have been so pitiful that when it comes time to negotiate a new deal, it’s hard to imagine the league will get anything close to what it received three years ago.
NCAA Basketball Fund:
Basketball money is where the American has benefited the most so far in comparison to other conferences.
Simply put, the more NCAA Tournament games that a conference plays over a six-year period, the more “units” of money it receives. Each year, the value of one unit changes. The American is still raking in quite a bit, because its six-year history includes the final few years of the old Big East conference.
In that way, schools like East Carolina and Tulane have been able to benefit from UConn’s 2011 and 2014 championship runs, as well as Louisville’s run in 2013 and Syracuse’s Final Four appearance that year.
Look at this nifty chart from the Washington Post that shows how fortunate the American is:
But soon the American will be on its own. As the old Big East days disappear from the six-year window, the conference will have to rely on its own teams advancing in the NCAA Tournament. In the three years since the AAC formed, non-UConn teams have won just four NCAA Tournament games, two of them coming from Louisville, which is now in the ACC.
Meanwhile the ACC will benefit for the next six years from 19 wins in the 2016 NCAA Tournament — by far the most of any conference. The Big 12 and the Big East each had nine. The ACC also won 17 games in the 2015 tournament, with the Big Ten winning 12.
Here’s a breakdown of wins by conference since the Big East split after 2012-13:
Big Ten: 30
Big 12: 20
Big East: 16
Those 42 shares for the ACC are worth about $260,500 each this year, according to the Washington Post. That adds up to $10.9 million just for tournament performance in the last three seasons. As the chart above shows, their total payday ended up being $18.2 million. The AAC will make about $2.9 million for the same post-Big East split period by comparison. And the Big 12, which is potentially set to expand and could add UConn? Those 20 wins over the last three years will give them $5.2 million, with the opportunity for more down the line coming with expansion.
In fact, let’s say that for the past three years, the Big 12 also had Cincinnati, BYU, Connecticut and Houston — four perceived favorites for expansion. It would instead have accumulated 31 units between 2014 and 2016, good for $8.1 million.
That’s the basketball potential that the Power 5 could have.
Now look at bowl distribution. WARNING: here’s where things get really bad for UConn.
Each of the 10 FBS conferences also receives a base amount from the NCAA. In 2015-16, that was approximately $51 million for each Power 5 conference. The remaining five conferences on the FBS level receive a combined total of $79 million, or $15.8 million a piece.
To add Group of 5 insult to injury, conferences receive an additional $6 million for each team to reach the College Football Playoff and $4 million more for teams participating in the Cotton, Fiesta or Peach Bowls (provided they are not playoff games). Usually only one slot goes to a Group of 5 school.
If you’re wondering what FCS-playing current Big East schools receive, they are, naturally, far worse off. The NCAA awards some FCS conferences with a whopping $2.34 million.
Adding it all together
Now the painful part. Look at the combined revenue for TV, NCAA Tournament and Bowl distributions, estimated for 2015-16 (again assuming each school takes home the same amount):
SEC: $34 million
Big Ten: $27.6 million
Pac-12: $25.5 million
Big 12: $25.3 million
ACC: $22.1 million
Source: Cheat Sheet.
* It’s important to note here that the Big 12 reported sending an average of $30.4 million to its members. The reason for the discrepancy is that they include revenue from individual schools’ Tier 3 rights.
A Dime Back reached out to UConn and the AAC and learned that in 2014-15 (its most recent year on record), the conference paid UConn $10,560,662. That’s less than half of what ACC schools took home based on the three factors alone, and it’s even worse than it looks. Reason being: a significant portion of that check (how much exactly, we’re not sure), comes from exit fees that schools that abandoned the Big East are still paying. Eventually, that money will dry up and UConn will fall even further behind.
It’s that overwhelming margin that makes a Power 5 invite crucial to UConn’s long-term survival. It can get by for now in the AAC, but eventually that gap will widen to an insurmountable margin. We’ll see teams woo recruits with nicer practice facilities and arenas. We’ll see them pay for better coaches. We’ll see everything about the Power 5 college experience improve to the point where no one else can keep pace.
It’s why the Power 5 is the only answer for UConn athletics. Sorry, Big East fans. Sorry, #ConFLiCT fans.
Now go back to crossing your fingers in hopes of a Big 12 invite.