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The American Athletic Conference is reportedly getting a healthy raise without sacrificing flexibility

It’s good news if you’re a fan of an AAC program, bad news if you hate ESPN+.

AAC Championship - Memphis v Central Florida Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

According to Sports Business Daily, American Athletic Conference schools are about to get a nice boost to their coffers, thanks to their new TV deal with ESPN.

The new agreement is reportedly a 12 year deal, running from 2020-2021 through the 2031-32 academic year, is worth an average of $83.3 million a year. That comes out to just short of $7 million a year per school. The current deal pays a little less than $2 million, so that represents a very significant jump.

More importantly, the schools get more money without giving up flexibility

The big question with the AAC was whether a new TV deal would require a grant of rights agreement. A GOR would essentially make it impossible for a conference school to leave for another league over the duration of the TV contract. With half the conference tied at least informally to the Big 12, any agreement that would have limited flexibility would have been very politically difficult.

The current AAC contract now runs beyond the next round of power conference TV deals, including the Big 12’s, which expires in 2025. But without that GOR, a school like say, UCF, could still theoretically leave if a larger, more lucrative conference had a spot.

But there’s no guarantee any realignment happens after the next round of major TV deals. An annual check of close to $7 million a year isn’t a terrible fallback plan.

The new deal is great if you like ESPN+, less great if you don’t

One reason ESPN might be motivated to pay substantially more for AAC rights? Per the SBD report:

Football and men’s basketball will remain on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU, but the majority of basketball games and about half of the football games will go to ESPN+. Other live sports including baseball, softball and soccer also will air on ESPN+.

No disrespect to the Horizon League, Ivy League, MAC, Sun Belt, and other conferences who have content on ESPN+, but AAC football and basketball should clearly be the flagship programming for the subscription service.

If you’re already a college sports die-hard, or a fan of other non-power football, you already have compelling reasons to pay for ESPN+, and now just got another one. But if you’re already awash in streaming subscriptions and are determined not to pay for more, you’re going to miss out on what’s becoming a pretty solid basketball league, as well as good college football. After all, the AAC sent four teams to the NCAA Tournament this year, more than the Pac-12, and the same number as the Big East.

UConn basketball and UCF football fans probably won’t be thrilled with this arrangement.

It’s also bad news for the rest of the Group of Five that has to compete with the AAC

The AAC likes to brand themselves as part of the “Power Six,” as a peer to the Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12, etc. For some sports, the competitiveness gap isn’t very large, but even with this new TV deal, the financial gap certainly is. Even the much-maligned Pac-12 will distribute more than double what the AAC will each year, and that’s without large swaths of their football and basketball content behind a paywall. Plus, the AAC being featured on a platform with the likes of the MAC and Sun Belt, instead of say, the ACC, sort of undercuts that Power Six messaging.

But if anything, this deal makes it even more clear that there’s a pretty big gap between the AAC and the rest of the so-called Group of Five, like the Sun Belt or Mountain West. If you’re a program that needs to compete against an AAC school for coaches, recruits, or a coveted New Year’s Six bowl spot, that job just got much harder over the next few years. That additional $5 million a year for the AAC could go a long way towards facilities or coaching upgrades that you might not be able to afford.

Overall, this seems like mostly good news for the AAC, although plenty of questions remain

The market for live college sports programming is projected to change quite a bit over the next decade. To the extent that anybody without a $40 million TV deal can claim stability though, the AAC can, by tying themselves to the most powerful entity in college football, ESPN.

But the league will still need to sell fans on the idea of major sports behind a paywall, and there’s no guarantee that conference membership will remain the same in the next ten years.

But for now, a bunch of schools that could probably really use the money, are getting more money. Hopefully that leads to a better product on the field.