AAC hopes to channel success into prestige
Commissioner glad Big 12 expansion talk is over
On Monday in Dallas, the Big 12 Conference announced that it will not expand. A couple of thousand miles away, in the Providence, R.I., offices of the American Athletic Conference, there was a collective sigh of relief.
AAC commissioner Mike Aresco has spent the past three months wondering what would happen if the Big12 expanded. Every school in the 12-member AAC except Navy and Tulsa has actively lobbied for inclusion in the Big 12.
Cincinnati, Connecticut and Houston were considered the most likely to leave the American for the Big 12. In the end, Big 12 presidents and athletic directors decided the conference was better off standing pat at 10 schools.
“I’m just glad it’s over. It’s been a long process that has been tough on everyone. We needed closure,” Aresco told The Baltimore Sun Media Group on Wednesday.
Big 12 expansion was a public process that fueled considerable speculation. Every AAC school being considered was dissected to determine its worthiness to join a Power Five conference.
Aresco said the process, while disconcerting, raised the profile of the AAC.
“Someone joked that this was all orchestrated by me to generate more publicity. While I categorically deny that, I will say there is a silver lining in every cloud,” Aresco said.
“I think the silver lining of this situation is that it shined a light on our schools and the strength of our conference. I don’t know how our league could have gotten this much publicity, and it was all favorable. That’s something money can’t buy and we need to capitalize on that.”
Aresco had several contingency plans in case the AACdid lose one or two schools to the Big 12. While the fourth-year commissioner does not need to carry out those plans, he also does not plan to sit back and relax.
“Having nothing happen does not mean you can say we’re fine and take a vacation,” Aresco said. “We have a lot going for us right now. We have a lot of momentum and we need to take advantage of it. We have to continue to improve. We’re not there yet. We have work to do.”
Aresco said the fact that so many AAC schools were candidates for Big 12 expansion speaks to his conference’s strength. He intends to use that fact to press his argument that the AAC belongs on equal terms with Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Southeastern conferences.
“We want all our schools to refocus on making the American a Power Six conference. We want to re-establish that narrative, that campaign,” Aresco said.
AAC football programs own 16 victories over Power Five teams over the past two seasons, including Houston defeating Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl last season. Additionally, Central Florida beat Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl three seasons ago.
“No one can argue with our competitive success. We have 16 P-5 wins over the last two seasons. We have thrust ourselves onto the national scene in a big way and shown we are really relevant,” Aresco said. “What I’m hoping to do is create a critical mass of opinion that the American is a P-6 conference.”
To truly be considered on par with the current Power Five, the AAC must command a more lucrative television contract. Ten AAC members wanted to jump ship because the Big 12 offered each school an additional $20 million to $25 million per year in revenue.
The AAC was forming when Aresco signed a television deal with ESPN that took effect for football in 2014. That seven-year deal worth $126 million pales in comparison to those of the Power Five.
“We lacked the leverage four years ago. The league was in disarray. We weren’t even sure what the membership was,” Aresco said.
In the wake of the spotlight shone by Big 12 expansion, Aresco said this might be an ideal time to renegotiate with ESPN.
“We’re going to see if we can’t do that. We had thought a good time to renegotiate was the summer of 2017. In view of what’s happened, we want to expedite that,” he said. “We are a far more valuable brand than we were before. We have an awful lot to offer. An investment in the American is going to pay big dividends.”
Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk applauded Aresco for steering the AAC through this latest rough patch.
“What an incredible job Mike Aresco did. Just keeping all the schools focused on the issues of the conference throughout all the distractions,” Gladchuk said while watching football practice Tuesday night. “All the anxiety, speculation and absolute uncertainty of the last three months would be difficult for any commissioner to try to deal with. I thought the way Mike managed it was really commendable.”
Aresco oversaw the AAC Football Media Day in early August, less than a week after news broke about the Big12 reconsidering expansion. The commissioner did not shy away from the subject.
“We faced the elephant in the room. We never pretended it wasn’t there. We had open dialogue with our schools. There were no bruised feelings at all. We wanted to maintain our dignity and take the high road,” Aresco said. “Now we need to make sure we are sensitive to the aftermath. There is some disappointment.”
Houston, in particular, was stung by the Big 12 decision to not expand. Tilman Fertitta, chairman of the University of Houston Board of Regents, said the school will continue to seek membership in a Power Five conference.
“Mike Aresco had to perform a balancing act. He had to respect the will of the institutions that were seeking membership in the Big12,” Gladchuk said. “Alot of those decisions were being driven by presidents and trustees and not athletic directors.” Saturday, 3:30 p.m. TV: CBS Sports Network Radio: 1090 AM, 1430 AM Line: Memphis by 21⁄