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New Haven Register (Connecticut)
No two words can burn down the internet any quicker than these two: Conference realignment.
Any hint of movement. Heck, any talk of no movement. Ka-boom! Spontaneous combustion.
So here we were on a sleepy Monday, when sports fans were still wondering why Rob Gronkowski was on the field for that last play in Miami and how Harold Baines got into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, when a Sports Business Journal story hit.
The American Athletic Conference, SBJ reported, is asking schools to sign a grant-of-rights agreement that would lock them in for the duration of a new media rights deal. Part of the negotiations, SBJ also reported, have explored the possibility of top AAC schools getting more revenue than others. The American's seven-year, $126 million deal with ESPN ends in 2020.
Couple this with two quotes by Big East commissioner Val Ackerman upon her announcement Sunday that its tournament would remain at Madison Square Garden and we had our spontaneous nutmeg combustion.
"If we were to expand in the future, it would allow us to be flexible with our schedule," Ackerman said.
"If we go to 11, we could keep the double round robin," Ackerman said.
So there you have it, one report, one hint, and ka-boom!
UConn will be a prisoner of The American until the Year 2525, if man is still alive, and will get screwed over by Central Florida or will screw over Tulane.
Or, no, UConn will be moving to the Big East next week.
Enter speculation and remarks by fans and media everywhere. Conference realignment, even when nothing has changed since 2014 and likely won't for another five years, is the greatest cottage industry going. Build the cottage. Burn it down. Rebuild the cottage. But you can never turn away. Something crazy could happen.
"The report wasn't accurate in key areas," American commissioner Mike Aresco said Tuesday. "I don't know where this stuff comes from. We haven't asked our schools for anything at this point. We're in the preliminary stages of important negotiation. Our formal period starts next year. We're discussing a lot of things."
UConn athletic director David Benedict declined comment on the report.
When a school signs a grant-of-rights deal, it means if it leaves a conference it would surrender all its television revenue through the end of the agreement. In the days before monster conference deals, stiff penalties would suffice to halt movement. No more. Although there are some who feel grant-of-rights could be contested in court, signing away your media money essentially guarantees you're not going anywhere.
There also can be conference composition clauses in contracts where if schools leave, a media entity has the right to force renegotiation of a deal. So there are different ways to attack fears that, oh, Central Florida, Cincinnati, Houston or Memphis would leave for the Big 12 when its GOR ends in 2025. It would be a stretch to argue that UConn would be considered at this point. But, hey, UCF was 0-12 in 2015.
"I don't know where the emphasis on grant-of-rights came from," Aresco said. "It's one way where conferences deal with this kind of thing. Conference composition is another. I have no idea where we're going to go with this. It may not be an issue at all."
Is it fair to say grant-of-rights and conference composition would be among the things discussed?
"Absolutely," Aresco said. "They'll be discussed. But this thing made it sound like it's all or nothing and that's not the situation."
The concept of giving schools more money than others is a hot button topic. In the past, it was done. Texas, from its Longhorn Network deal with ESPN, still keeps $15 million on top of the Big 12 distribution of $36 million annually. By contrast the American television deal brings only about $2 million to each school.
SBJ, citing sources, reported that a new American deal would be worth three to four times more than the current deal if a media entity was guaranteed schools weren't leaving. The idea would be to keep, say, Central Florida satisfied enough in 2020 that it would be willing to sign a GOR over many years and negate any move to the Big 12 in 2025. This also isn't the difference between $36 million and $51 million. You're talking in the area of $6 million to $10 million. You could leave some American schools fighting for scraps. It could get ugly.
"I don't see it," Aresco said on unequal distribution. "I think the majority of our schools will agree with me. I firmly support our current policy of equal revenue sharing. We don't have entirely equal sharing right now because of the money left over from the old Big East. UConn, Cincinnati and USF were responsible for a lot of that.
"But as we move forward our plan has always been equal sharing of revenue. Unequal sharing is not who we are. We turned down Boise when they were ready to join. They said they wanted a special deal, they wanted more revenue than the others and we said no. I felt that was the foundation of our conference."
For UConn, with a football program that MUST improve to protect basketball, everything should be on the table and with unrelenting scrutiny. Not for tomorrow. Or next year. But over five to seven years.
There are many variables.
What Texas and Oklahoma decides to do when the Big 12 grant of rights expires in 2025 will be crucial. If they left, the Big 12 would be irrevocably damaged. Would those remaining schools take on a half-dozen AAC schools or be forced into some kind of merger?
What about the future of the College Football Playoff? Would existing Power Five schools force an expansion from four to eight teams? If it expands and annually includes one Group of Six school and the resulting payoffs are substantially greater for those outside the Power Five that could be enough to sustain the outsiders.
If the Alston vs. NCAA case — which has been described as the mother of all play-for-pay lawsuits — ends in NCAA defeat that could allow individual conferences to make their own calls on compensation. We know how the SEC would go. Would Florida State and Clemson look to leave the ACC for the SEC? Would this cause a split within the Power Five into two divisions and could that second group include the AAC?
And then there's the matter of Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google. The future of how games are distributed is a topic of hundreds of millions of dollars. How does that figure into sustaining college football?
A series of Power Five media renegotiations will heat up to 2022-2024. If everything falls through by 2025 for UConn on that front, if it does not turn it around on the field and Rentschler Field is empty a decision must be made on ending the program. For now, Aresco remains focused on a Power Six.
"A lot of people don't think (Power Six) is realistic," Aresco said. "Check back in a few years. We've shocked the world over the last five years. We were like a company in bankruptcy organization six years ago. It was a mess. We came out of it and we're a thriving group that's sustainable."
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