The American Athletic Conference exists because of instability in college athletics and, more than any other conference, its future will be shaped by financial forces that alter how schools associate with each other.
Wichita State accepted an invitation to join the AAC on Friday and becomes a member July 1. That addition gives the AAC 12 basketball schools and keeps it at 12 for football.
Perhaps, there’s some stability in the future for the four-year-old American.
“We’re done for now,” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said on Friday in a conference call with reporters. “We’re very happy where we are at 12 and 12.”
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A dozen schools feels right for Aresco, who batted aside speculation and media suggestions that his conference consider other non-football additions such as Dayton or VCU. For Wichita State, the opportunity to upgrade from the Missouri Valley Conference, its home since 1945, makes any future risks of defection worthwhile.
The American’s TV deals end in 2020, which means negotiations could begin soon. Contracts for some power-five conferences begin expiring in 2022, which could set off more changes.
The strength of the American is that members such as Connecticut, Houston and Cincinnati consider themselves worthy of a higher-profile conference. That motivates schools to spend money on facilities and budgets. It also makes those schools, and others, likely targets should expansion crest again.
Until that day, Aresco and American schools are focused on pushing the idea of the “power six.” Wichita State, its streak of six NCAA Tournament appearances and its 10-6 NCAA record in that time, helps make that case.
“We didn’t want to simply be a power-six conference in football and lag behind in any way in basketball,” Aresco said. “Wichita will give us a tremendous boost. If it has a beneficial effect on our next TV negotiation, that’s wonderful and I hope it does. In the end, we took them in because we think they’re the right fit for our conference. You have to have quality product and I believe we’ve strengthened ourself in a key area.”
Wichita State is expected to serve as a men’s basketball rain-maker, a geographic fit with the western part of the conference and a solid addition in its other sports.
“We’re ready for it,” WSU men’s basketball coach Gregg Marshall said.
Its potential to earn NCAA Tournament units — valued at around $1.6 million a game — is critical to the conference. WSU may also prove helpful for TV negotiations, although football rules the checkbook in that area, and in attendance at the conference basketball tournament, especially if Tulsa’s BOK Center is considered as a future site.
“They bring a tremendous basketball pedigree,” Aresco said. “They put a lot of resources into basketball. This is a long-term build that they’ve had.”
The American came into existence in 2013 after the ACC raided the Big East and the Big East’s seven private schools decided to go their own way. The football schools formed the American and kept NCAA money earned by former Big East schools such as Syracuse, West Virginia and Louisville.
In 2015, according to the Providence Journal, the American took in $29.3 million, the largest share in the nation, from those NCAA credits. That money, distributed over six seasons, sustains the American and is fueled by UConn’s titles in 2011 and 2014 and former AAC member Louisville’s in 2013.
In 2017, for example, the American earned three NCAA credits with Cincinnati (1-1) and SMU (0-1). In 2014, it earned 12 with UConn, Cincinnati, Memphis and Louisville going 9-3.
Wichita State is counted on to keep that revenue flowing in future seasons.
Aresco said the conference doesn’t want to revisit the issues that broke up the Big East. The interests of the basketball schools, all private, conflicted with the football schools, largely state-supported, and caused the rift. Aresco sees one basketball school as a fit.
“You never close the door on strengthening the conference,” he said. “If we saw a way to continue to strengthen the conference down the road, you never rule out expansion. But there’s absolutely nothing in the works now.”
AAC growth chart
Seven private schools, unhappy with football-motivated expansion, vote to split and take the Big East name.
The remaining schools — Central Florida, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Houston, Louisville, Memphis, Rutgers, South Florida, Southern Methodist and Temple — form the American.
Louisville (ACC) and Rutgers (Big Ten) play one season in the AAC before departing.
East Carolina, Tulsa and Tulane join the American, all from Conference USA.
Navy joins as a football-only member.
Wichita State joins in basketball and other sports.