The landscape of college athletics is once again in flux, as it has been almost relentlessly for decades.
With these tremors and changes come a new set of questions and speculation about where UConn, with its unique set of strengths and shortcomings, will fit in the future. While there is no indication that a change from its current affiliation with the Big East is on the horizon, the move from Southern California and UCLA to the Big Ten, Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC creates a possibility – or a hope? — a slot opening into which UConn could be inserted.
“I don’t think it’s something UConn should excite or worry about,” said Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College and a leading sports expert. “Obviously they want to look at options, but I think the kind of options they have will have a marginal impact rather than a major impact. They’re pretty sure, compared to other Power Five football schools. than the SEC and the Big Ten. They all have massive changes coming to their financial lives. I don’t think UConn is going to face something like that.
After the original Big East broke up in 2013, the football schools went one way, into the American Athletic Conference, and the basketball schools formed their own conference and bought the Big East name. After seven years, UConn, which had been passed over in several Power Five conference extensions, made the proactive decision to join many of its former rivals in the new Big East and go independent in football.
In their first season as an independent, UConn went 1-11. The men’s basketball program made the NCAA Tournament two years in a row, the women’s program won the conference championship both years and reached the Final Four.
“Based on the tenor of the conversation within our fanbase, I think we’re positioned in the best possible way based on our options,” UConn AD David Benedict said.
“People feel very good about the return to the Grand Est and what it means for our programs and our student athletes and the return of the rivalry games, and in terms of competitiveness, that has only helped us. “, Benedict said. “For the majority of our sports, it’s been great. For football, independence is the best opportunity on the table right now.
Texas and Oklahoma announced their decision a year ago. USC and UCLA announced their plans this summer, making the Big Ten a coast-to-coast megaconference. That leaves the Pac 12, Big 12 and ACC in flux. Are the leagues merging? Or enlarge? Or stick with fewer crews and, presumably, reduced TV revenue as a result?
“One thing is certain: the Big 12 is open for business,” new commissioner Brett Yormark told reporters at the Big 12 media day. “We will leave no stone unturned to generate value for the conference.”
At the ACC media day this week, commissioner Jim Phillips said “everything is on the table”, including a possible expansion.
“At the end of the day, it has to add value to your conference,” Phillips said. “You can define value in different ways. You can define the value from an academic point of view. You can define the value of athletic achievement and competitiveness. Are they an AAU research institution? You can also define it by money.
UConn is working to reduce a $47 million budget shortfall for athletics. Its deal with the Big East would require a $30 million exit fee, but even the least lucrative of the Power Five conferences, the ACC, distributes nearly 10 times what the Big East does to its schools, or about $4 million. of dollars.
UConn freshman football coach Jim Mora told rookies about his goal of joining the ACC, according to a report from Hearst Connecticut. Last week, Governor Ned Lamont, in an off-the-cuff response, tweeted UConn was “pretty good join the conference of their choice, unless other teams are afraid of them.
None of this should be taken to mean that a move is imminent, or even underway.
“It is the responsibility of every sporting director to do the best job possible to place your institution in the best possible position,” Benedict said. “The Big East is the best option we have. I think the Big East has been great for UConn, and I hope they feel the same. I hear very few people talk about realigning the conference and UConn, whereas before, before joining the Big East, it was everything that people were talking about.
Most of the conference changes, especially the recent ones, have to do with football and TV money. USC and UCLA bring high-level football and the Los Angeles television market to the Big Ten. The ACC, which has a rights-licensing deal with ESPN that runs through 2036, is trying to retain its most successful football programs, perhaps closing a revenue gap between what they bring to the conference compared to the others by distributing the money accordingly.
UConn’s football program, which hasn’t had a winning season since 2010, doesn’t offer conference football chops, at least not yet, and the 30th-ranked Hartford/New Haven TV market while important, is not as likely to attract an invite on its own.
“I don’t think there is a game of football for [UConn]said Zimbalist. “The action right now is in football. It’s not in basketball. And in terms of basketball, UConn could probably do well in any of the FBS conferences. Basketball money, of course, is much, much less than football money.
Football money could be as high as $200 million, depending on the school, where basketball money, Zimbalist said, tends to reach $30-35 million. UConn brings unique elements, such as its high national profile in women’s basketball, a sport in which television rights money is expected to grow in coming years, and its growing national competitiveness in hockey and baseball, but those are not likely to move a conference. neither does the needle.
However, the one constant in the landscape of college athletics has been change, and there are likely more changes to come. What if the ACC loses teams and needs to add more, or perhaps form a partnership with another conference?
“One of the things that’s likely to happen, just like the Pac-12 lost UCLA and USC, some of the top schools in the other Power Five conferences are going to knock on the Big Ten and the SEC. “, Zimbalist said. “And some of them will probably leave existing conferences. When they do, the reduced conferences will then start looking at schools they haven’t looked at before, like UConn. … It kind of depends on what becomes of the ACC. If I was UConn and was considering moving to the ACC, I would like to see a commitment from the ACC to women’s sports, and women’s basketball in particular.
What if more schools became independent in football, giving UConn more programming partners? If the ACC, Big 12, and Pac-12 have fewer teams, that could mean they’re looking for more non-conference football opponents. UConn plays at Utah State, Michigan and NC State this coming season, and hosts Syracuse and Boston College.
“Coach Mora and his team have done a great job selling independence as an added value for a non-Power Five program,” Benedict said. “We have schedules that you can’t arrange if you’re a Five Eyes conference.”
When UConn moved to the Far East, one of the benefits was reduced travel costs. Long football trips are more acceptable for a sports department because there is only one game per week. In other sports, those who play several times a week, long trips, like USC or UCLA traveling between Rutgers or Maryland, certainly create challenges for these student-athletes.
Maybe the money coming in from the Big Ten or the SEC alleviates those worries, or maybe at some future date football will split off and form its own conferences.
“The best question for everyone in college athletics,” Benedict said, “is why do we continue to allow football to determine how all other sports compete within a conference and/or geography. It doesn’t make sense to me that there isn’t a viable way to separate them, because football is unique, different in the way it travels than any other sport.
The Big East Conference, which doesn’t have a high-profile media day until the basketball season approaches in October, has been quiet in the recent round of realignment. Commissioner Val Ackerman said the conference needed to be “nimble” and, looking ahead to its upcoming TV deal, is open to growing. Basketball powerhouse programs such as Gonzaga, Dayton and VCU have been mentioned as possibilities, but the conference, like UConn, is staying put for now.
The distant future is unclear as always. In the short term, it seems inevitable that the SEC and the Big Ten will separate themselves from the rest, at least financially. In June, data analytics firm Navigate released conference revenue projections for 2022: the Big Ten schools are expected to raise $57.2 million each, the SEC school $54.3 million, followed by the Big 12, ($40.6 million) Pac-12 ($34.4 million) and ACC ($30.9 million).
“Their math is basically, we’re adding a market, there’s so many homes in the market, it’s worth so much in TV rights,” Zimbalist said. “On the other hand, we now have to split the money we have, which may be shrinking, between another school. They’re looking at these two trade-offs, and I don’t expect Connecticut to have really attractive options. .
Dom Amore can be reached at [email protected]