Skip to main content

American Athletic Conference is on Solid Ground but has Bigger Goals

Dana Holgorsen, Houston Cougars Football

Dana Holgorsen, Houston Cougars Football

If you want to make a case for the ongoing improvement of the American Athletic Conference, Mike Aresco has you covered. The league’s commissioner and former television executive has stats. He has a lot of them. And he enjoys providing them to the media whenever possible.

Did you know that the top half of the AAC is 22–14 vs. the Power 5? Did you know that there’s a new 12-year TV deal with ESPN? Aresco will admit that the AAC — formed largely out of chunks of the old Big East and Conference USA in the last upheaval of realignment — isn’t the SEC or Big Ten, but he’ll quickly point out that the league is continuing to gain ground on the back end of the dreaded “P5,” a designation Aresco and his coaches have come to loathe.

Currently, AAC member schools receive around $2 million annually from their TV contracts. Starting in the 2020-21 academic year and running through 2031-32, the league’s new $83.3 million contract will pay around $7 million a year per school. So that’s not the $50 or $60 million annually that the Big Ten and SEC TV deals hand out to its members, but it’s enough improvement to try and nip at the heels of lower-performing Power 5s — specifically the Big 12 and Pac-12.

“This whole G5 label and being lumped together as a G5, it really hurts us. It really sticks in my craw. I think this TV deal really helps separate us,” Aresco says.

He’s right — the annual revenue for the AAC is now a clear divider between that conference and the rest of the (don’t say it!) G5. It’s still a long way from the estimated $30 million each Pac-12 school receives (the Big 12 is the next closest, with an estimated $36 million paid to each program).

But wait — why are we talking about program revenue? Why is everyone in college football — even fans and recruits — categorizing football by television contracts? Why aren’t we talking about UCF, a program that ran the table in 2017, beat Auburn in the Peach Bowl and almost did it all over again with a new head coach in 2018?

“It drives me nuts,” Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell says. “OK, so one school makes $5 million in one area and another school makes $40 million. Still, that doesn’t hold you back on how you develop your kids. Do they have a nicer facility, a nicer training table, a nicer weight room? Sure. But that doesn’t prevent you from developing NFL talent. We’ve done it.

“I think we lose out in recruiting because of this perception. I’m OK recruiting against a nearby school like Kentucky and losing out if the kid likes their shiny new facility. That’s fine. But in the actual sense of football, it’s the perception we see in these kids — ‘You’re not a Power 5.’ So what?”

Fickell opposes the notion of a single, defining line separating the haves and have-nots of college football. Cincinnati is one of the few programs outside the Power 5 — along with UCF, USF and Houston — that’s arguably comparable in talent, resources, support and desirable geography.

And there’s one new, far more invaluable asset Aresco gained this offseason that has nothing to do with television revenue or playoff consideration that could end up being his most valuable argument to date in favor of the AAC’s validity as a “major” conference.

“This. All this,” new Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen says while waving his hands at the skyline in a crowded Houston restaurant. He’s answering the same question he’s been asked since leaving Power 5 West Virginia — a program just points away from a Big 12 Championship Game appearance last year — to come to a Group of 5 school.

Holgorsen is keen to point out his affinity for West Virginia but admits that in college football’s numbers game, Houston’s geography outweighs the value of any particular conference affiliation.

“We’ve had more high school players voluntarily attend our spring practices in a few weeks than what we could reach by going out on the road for weeks. That’s the power of this city,” Holgorsen says.

“You can’t overstate how important hiring Dana was, the kind of signal it sent,” Aresco says. “Certainly we’ve had a tough time retaining our football coaches, but I’d much rather have programs hiring coaches with tremendous upside who move on than mediocre hires who don’t build programs.”

More than any UCF win streak, Dana Holgorsen is the AAC’s biggest win to date: A coach at a successful Big 12 program left for a $20 million contract and a P5-competitive assistant salary pool because he saw a higher potential upside at a G5 program. And for the first time, the “POWER SIX” PR campaign Aresco has pushed for years in trying to edge the AAC back into the national conversation has succeeded, at least in this instance.

“Look, whether or not it was embraced with snark, the P6 effort has been successful,” Aresco says.

Entering 2019, there’s an understandable bounty of optimism for the American: UCF has dominated the conversation through two different college football playoff debates, while programs such as Memphis and Cincinnati have thrived. And with Holgorsen coming to quickly reinvigorate a UH team that fell to 8–5 and was walloped by Army in a bowl game, the conference has enough top-end depth not to hitch its wagon to a single favorite, a la the Mountain West and Boise State.

The league believes its aggression in scheduling will carry it further. Aresco specifically cites a mandate that he gave his member institutions five years ago to start scheduling as tough as they could, no matter the home-and-away structure of the deals. His message to schools like Houston — still angry about being left behind during the formation of the original Big 12 — and Cincinnati, a Big East team left alone after traditional rivals Louisville and West Virginia were scooped up, was to play their way out of the problem.

“I don’t know if I’d call it a mandate, but there was a very strong suggestion that every school schedule at least two P5 schools per season, and of course now we like to call them ‘other P6’s,’” Aresco says.

Everyone bought in, which is why you’ll see the AAC playing a slew of top-30 programs in the first three weeks of the 2019 season: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Washington State, Stanford, Wisconsin, Michigan State, NC State, Ohio State and Auburn.

Increased TV revenue and the lag in similar deals for the Big 12 and Pac-12 are helping the AAC argue that college football is stratified and not binary. Now, the conference will have to contend with the last and most important hurdle in public perception: the playoff committee.

UCF ran the table twice to no avail. Aresco’s short-term plan: If there’s a playoff expansion to six or eight teams, the AAC will lobby hard for an automatic bid alongside the other five major conferences. But if the system stays in place as a four-team format, then Aresco wants to kill ’em with kindness. Seriously.

“Look, I think the committee has a lot of integrity,” he says. “I think before McKenzie Milton was hurt, UCF was as good as any team in the country. I think it’s our job to persuade, to go out and change people’s minds, with the football that we play and tell people about the job we’re doing in that regard.”

If there’s one caveat to the newfound success, it’s that time — both the past and the future — is quietly working against a stable AAC. The most frequent frustration that individual programs cite is a lack of excitement in conference play relative to their various past histories. Houston wants Texas A&M or Texas, not East Carolina.

“I’m not sure what playing UCLA does for our fans, locally. I’m not sure it really does anything, at least not what scheduling a West Virginia or Louisville could do,” Fickell says.

Aresco knows there’s no fix to this, and it dogs fan bases at some of his best programs.

“Our message has been, make new traditions. Build new rivalries,” he says.

The TV deal Aresco just negotiated will be a boon for athletic budgets but lacks one key safeguard. There’s no grant of rights provision in the deal, meaning that any AAC school could leave immediately for another conference and not forfeit any television revenue in the process. The grant of rights is the clause that keeps schools locked in place; without it, it’s just as likely now as it was before the new AAC deal that the Pac-12 or Big 12 could recruit Houston or UCF when their deals expire in the coming years.

Meanwhile, in Houston, Holgorsen shrugs off the ongoing narrative of P5 value, his actions having already spoken for him.

“It’s just not a smart way to look at things. It’s about the value of the individual programs. It’s not the schedule or the affiliations. It’s about what you can build and how far you can go. I didn’t think about the conference affiliation or the playoff. All I saw was enough potential to build something amazing, so I came here.”

— Written by Steven Godfrey (@38Godfrey) for Athlon Sports' 2019 SEC Football preview magazine.

(Top photo courtesy of Houston Athletics)