As Big 12 expansion looms over AAC, new media could end up pivotal to both leagues’ futures
NEWPORT, R.I. — The waters of Narragansett Bay lap up against the hulls of yachts here, providing a soothing soundtrack in one of America's most tranquil resort towns. The American Athletic Conference has hosted its annual football media days here for more than a decade, stretching back to the days when it was known as the Big East. Amid the serenity, chaos has been the league's constant companion.
The league has endured multiple raids from the ACC and hosted officials from "members" like Boise State and TCU who never actually became members. The only team in the current AAC remaining from the original eight Big East football teams in 1991 is Temple, and the Big East threw out the Owls in 2004 before inviting them back in 2012.
When your only constant is change, media days swept with speculation, rumors and wandering eyes become normal. Like a tempest hovering over port, the big news looming over the AAC is the Big 12's announcement last month that it's exploring expansion. The Big 12 is expected to add at least two and possibly four members, something that could indelibly change the AAC. Again. "There's not anyone in this room not trying to get into the Power Five," said Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville. "It is what it is. It's a money game, everyone is looking for a chance to move up."
As usual when realignment talk heats up, the conversation at AAC media days revolved around television contracts. Most of the quiet conversations at the clam bake and in the back hallways of the hotel centered around the fascinating square-off between the Big 12 and its television partners. After all, a majority of the major realignment moves the past two decades have been motivated by potential cable dollars.
The Big 12 expanding is viewed by ESPN and FOX executives as essentially exploiting a loophole, as the pro rata clauses that will pay out an average of nearly $25 million per year weren't installed to entice new members. (They were put in place as teams were changing leagues to avoid arbitration when determining the value of incoming and outgoing schools.)
With no candidates to add that are considered no-brainers, the television executives aren't excited about spending a large combined amount annually—nearly $100 million on average—for schools that don't offer a whole lot of value. (Consider that the AAC's entire 7-year deal with ESPN is for $126 million. The league also has a secondary contract with CBS.) So if the Big 12 does go ahead and add two or four teams, it could jeopardize future relationships with ESPN and FOX.
Other than the obvious question of which teams will be added, here's what prompted the most chatter at AAC media days: Does the Big 12 risk irking its television partners? That would imply perhaps that the cable paradigm will be so different in 2024–25 when the league's contracts end that it'll need options outside of traditional cable. Basically, an argument can be made that Big 12 expansion is simply a way for the league to cash out before it undergoes wholesale change in the middle of the next decade. Facing life without linchpin programs Oklahoma and Texas is becoming an increasingly real part of the conversation for the future of the Big 12.
But in college athletics, predicting what will happen eight years from now is tricky. Consider that if someone told you eight years ago here that an NFL game would be broadcast on Twitter in 2016, you'd have wondered if they slipped something into their lobster bisque.
It's becoming increasingly clear that the Big 12's long-term plans are predicated on cashing in from alternative broadcast sources, which could include Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Netflix or some broadcast medium that's yet to have been invented.
In a fitting twist, the appetite of those non-traditional broadcasters will best be gauged by none other than the AAC. The AAC's television deals expire in 2019, which means that it will get a chance to be a guinea pig for bringing so-called "new media" to the table. "Anyone with eyes can tell that the big Internet companies—I wouldn't even call them new media, they're not anymore—are going to be bigger players," AAC commissioner Mike Aresco told SI.com on Tuesday. "There's no question. TV is TV and media is media. You can watch a game on a pie plate."
Aresco said that the league is in talks with Amazon to broadcast some of its women's basketball and non-revenue sports as soon as this year. Amazon has more than 50 million subscribers to its Prime Video service. While nothing is finalized, that offers a small window into a new world.
The ACC's deal with ESPN is up in 2036. The SEC's deal with ESPN is up in 2034. Aresco points out there's a limited amount of content becoming available, and college commissioners are banking on new players being at the table. "I positioned this conference (for) being a player in that," Aresco said. "We could be one of the only premier conferences that have the kind of the product we have that would be attractive to the Googles, to the Amazons, to the Facebooks, to the Twitters."
The same thoughts are likely driving Big 12 expansion, as the league looks to maximize its current deal before the chaos that appears inevitable in the middle of the next decade. By doing so, it could sour traditional cable relationships. How much will that matter in 2025? No one is quite sure how things will change by then.
If the evolutions of the Big East and AAC have taught us anything, it's that change is the new normal. And the current landscape tumult indicates that could mean watching South Florida play East Carolina live on Amazon in 2020.