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The AAC’s new TV deal highlights a big problem, and not just for UConn

The AAC isn’t coming apart, but UConn’s disappointment at the league’s new media deal illustrates the reason it could eventually. These schools just don’t have that much in common.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Final Four-Notre Dame vs Connecticut Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Typically, new conference TV deals are an occasion for schools to celebrate. After all, they’re all about to get a bunch of money! And most folks in the American Athletic Conference responded to their new TV deal, formally announced Wednesday, quite positively. Tulsa athletic director Derrick Gragg said the announcement “is the most significant day in TU sports history as it relates to economics.” Navy’s athletic director called the new deal “game-changing”, and said it “validates the decision the Naval Academy made to join this prestigious conference” after more than a century as an independent.

The deal reportedly gives each school an average of about $7 million a year (up from around $2 million) and puts more events on ESPN properties, further widening the financial gap between the AAC and other non-power conference peers. Seems pretty good, right?

But one school’s administration did not get on the effusive praise bandwagon: UConn’s. And the Huskies’ frustrations bring up a significant danger point for the AAC.

We’ll get to that in a second, but let’s start with something broader.

Conferences often start to fail when they stop having a cohesive identity and shared needs between their schools.

The SEC largely exists because its precursor league, the Southern Conference, had grown huge and unwieldily. That had made it impossible to reconcile the wildly divergent interests between big and small schools across different geographies.

We have an ACC because the Southern Conference didn’t learn that lesson and again couldn’t navigate different priorities and needs of big and small schools, leading a bunch of the big ones in the next version of that league to form their own league. It was hard to serve the needs of both VMI and Maryland at the same time.

The Missouri Valley? Once it lost its key identity of localized Midwestern schools, it basically changed membership every few years for decades before eventually ceasing to be an FBS football conference.

The WAC was the king of mid-major leagues, until it ballooned across multiple time zones and became impossible to manage. Now it includes the fringes of DI, from California to Chicago.

The Metro league produced lots of solid basketball teams, until the membership’s interests splintered and the league wasn’t even metropolitan anymore. The list goes on and on.

You can’t please everybody. But successful conferences are able to paper over those differences because they share history, geography, athletic interests, or institutional makeup. In that vein, the Big Ten schools are all large research universities. Most SEC schools have been playing each other for a century. They also get tons of money.

Why is UConn worried now? Well, UConn has some pretty unique needs that don’t align with the rest of the AAC’s.

They center around basketball, especially the school’s mega-elite women’s program.

Right now, UConn has a separate deal that allows New York-region sports channel SNY to broadcast multiple Huskies women’s basketball games each year. Lots and lots of people in Connecticut watch these games, which makes sense, because the UConn women’s basketball team is awesome. SNY reports that their ratings are better than say, some Red Sox games’, or Thursday Night Football’s. The men’s team also plays a few SNY games.

But the new AAC deal gives ESPN the sole rights to the vast majority of AAC sporting events, and ESPN plans to put a lot of these games on ESPN+, its subscription-only, streaming-only platform. That’s likely to land a lot of UConn women’s games behind a paywall, and likely some UConn men’s games, too. It’ll also put some UConn football there, because lesser games are likely to be streaming-only, and this is UConn football right now.

UConn athletic director David Benedict said in a statement:

I’m sure it comes as no surprise that we are disappointed that there will be a reduction in linear TV exposure for our men’s and women’s basketball programs, including but not limited to the potential loss of our successful partnership with SNY. While there are many things to celebrate about this new and forward-looking agreement, any potential loss of linear distribution of our men’s and women’s basketball programs would be disappointing for our fans and our student-athletes.

In another statement, Benedict said UConn understood “the conference has an obligation to make decisions based on what it thinks is most beneficial to our membership as a whole.” But he expanded on the problems the deal creates for his school:

However based on UConn’s understanding of the deal, there are certain exclusive components which we believe are not in the best interest of our fan base or representative of maintaining and building our brand.

We were nonetheless encouraged to hear on the recent teleconference that conversations between ESPN and SNY, regarding the continuation of a linear UConn basketball package, are forthcoming. We see tremendous value in our relationship with SNY as it provides a great platform for the UConn athletics brand and helps us garner a significant amount of exposure in the nation’s No. 1 television market.

UConn’s president also chimed in to say she is “deeply concerned about potential exposure for UConn men’s and women’s basketball.” UConn hasn’t said if it voted for the agreement.

The school is “hopeful,” Benedict said, that ESPN and SNY can make a deal.

Being forced to put hoops games behind an ESPN+ paywall would suck for UConn fans and SNY, which Sports Business Daily reports ($) has gotten millions out of its UConn deal.

Maybe everybody figures out a way for SNY to still broadcast women’s basketball in Connecticut. Maybe they don’t, and the games go to ESPN+.

This disagreement is certainly a problem, but I don’t think it’s the problem.

The bigger problem: The AAC was never going to satisfy every school’s needs. Think about how many schools need different things.

  • UConn is a basketball school that needs to recruit the Northeast, showcase women’s hoops, and make money to help an athletic department in dire financial straits.
  • Houston and UCF need as many games on cable TV as possible to showcase their football programs to skeptical media opinion-shapers.
  • ECU, Tulane, and Tulsa just need enough money to shape up their athletic infrastructure and make themselves something closer to big-time departments.
  • SMU is also in this conference.

The AAC is mostly Southern, but it has schools in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Storrs. It’s mostly urban, but it has schools in Storrs and Greenville. It’s mostly public schools, but it has SMU, Tulane and Tulsa. Around half the league has been open about wanting to be in a different league. The money here is big, but it’s not “paper over all differences” big.

The biggest things that bind the AAC together are that the schools care about about sports and don’t have anywhere else to go.

To be fair, that arrangement has produced a good product! The AAC was unquestionably better than the Pac-12 at men’s basketball in 2018-19. Even with many of its top coaches tied to other jobs, there’s reason for optimism for some of the struggling teams, like Memphis and Wichita State. The league’s produced plenty of interesting, competitive football teams. One won a national title, in case you missed it. (You didn’t miss it.)

It’s not that the AAC is on the brink of failure. But this particular conflict shows just how difficult it is to keep everybody together and happy.

Maybe this TV situation gets resolved quickly. Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe UConn leaves. (UConn should leave, in my humble opinion.) Maybe it stays for another two decades.

The issue now is about TV distribution of women’s basketball, but it’s not likely to be the last issue.

Maybe the next one is over future revenue-sharing, as the brands and athletic departments of a UCF or Cincinnati or Houston outstrip those at East Carolina and Tulsa. Maybe it’s over travel, or exposure, or academics, or something else entirely different in the future.

There’s a lot to be excited about in the AAC. But it’s hard to keep everybody happy when everybody has different needs.