The American Athletic Conference, a league born from the fall of Big East football eight years ago, is in rebuilding mode again.
This time, it could find some competition in the market from the Sun Belt when it starts courting new members.
Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston, three of the AAC’s most successful schools in the revenue-generating sports of football and men's basketball, announced Friday they would be joining the Big 12. The schools said the moves will come by July 1, 2024, at the latest.
Meanwhile, the Sun Belt Conference sent out signals it is open to adding to its 10-member football league.
“We think the Sun Belt couldn’t be in a better position for this moment," Sun Belt Commissioner Keith Gill told the AP. "As a league we’ve never been stronger. We certainly think that, particularly after these moves but even arguably before, we’ll be the best non-autonomy FBS conference in the country.”
The AAC has held the title of the best non-Power Five major college football conferences during the College Football Playoff era (2014-present). The American even touted itself as a peer to the P5 —- despite a massive gulf in revenue — with its Power Six campaign.
“Today’s news confirms what we have said all along regarding our status as a power conference,” AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco said in a statement. “The irony that three of our schools are being asked to take the place of the two marquee schools which are leaving the Big 12 is not lost on us. Our conference was targeted for exceeding expectations in a system that wasn’t designed to accommodate our success."
UCF, Houston and Cincinnati account for four of the American’s five New Year’s Six Bowl appearances, and at least one has appeared in six of the conference’s seven football championship games. Cincinnati is currently ranked No. 7 in the country.
The three have also given the AAC clout on the court. Each has made the NCAA Tournament at least once in the last three years. Cincinnati is a tournament regular and Houston reached the Final Four in April.
“All three of these institutions have enjoyed unprecedented success as members of The American, as have our remaining schools,” Aresco said.
AAC bylaws require members to give 27 months' notice before leaving and a $10 million exit fee, but there is precedent for early departures and financial settlements between the schools and the league.
For example, UConn paid $17 million to the AAC to withdraw early and join the Big East in 2020.
"Our expectation is to be playing football in the Big 12 in 2023,” Houston athletic director Chris Pezman told The Houston Chronicle.
In the last round of sweeping conference realignment, the Big East's prominent football schools such as Pittsburgh, Syracuse, West Virginia and Louisville were poached by the Power Five, and the conference's basketball-centric schools broke away from the remaining group.
Aresco, a former CBS executive, was hired during the turmoil in 2012 and managed to reconstruct a football-first conference by adding schools such as Houston, UCF, SMU, Tulane and Navy. It was rebranded the American Athletic Conference in 2013.
The AAC signed a 12-year, $1 billion agreement with ESPN in 2019 that seemed to solidify its status as the best of the so-called Group of Five conferences. It is unclear if that deal will remain as lucrative after Cincinnati, UCF and Houston depart, and whether the American could add schools to replace the lost value for ESPN.
"Our remaining schools are unwavering in their commitment to competing and succeeding at the highest level and we will not allow external factors to put a ceiling on our potential," Aresco said.
But how attractive is the American without the departing three schools and possibly a diminished TV contract?
Aresco tried to woo Boise State and San Diego State from the Mountain West into the American back in 2012. The American has also tried to persuade Army to join rival Navy in the AAC in the past. Air Force from the Mountain West would also be appealing.
UAB has remerged from the near-death of its football program to become the strongest team in Conference USA over the last three season. Plus, it's located in a market with a voracious appetite for watching college football in television.
The Sun Belt, meanwhile, is coming off its best football season ever in 2020, placing Coastal Carolina and Louisiana-Lafayette in the final AP Top 25.
Gill said the conference's university presidents and athletic directors met Thursday to discuss how the Sun Belt might be able to take advantage of the changing landscape.
“One of the things that we talked about is clearly if there are schools that add value to the Sun Belt, we'll certainly consider them for membership,” he said. “We're not necessarily looking to grow, but we certainly will be opportunistic.”
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