A Q&A with American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco in which he talks location of conference tournaments, travel habits of Shocker fans and keeping pace in college athletics.
Refresh our memories on the addition of Wichita State to the American — when did that possibility first open up?
Mike Aresco: I’m not sure of the exact timetable, but it certainly occurred during the Big 12 review of their expansion. That was a six month-or-so period stretching from the spring of 2016 through the fall. During that period, knowing that we might lose some teams … we decided to look at our options down the road. One of them was to take a basketball-only school, or perhaps even multiple basketball-only schools, as well as schools that played both football and basketball.
We didn’t end up losing any teams, but the feeling was … just because we had not lost schools didn’t mean there wasn’t something we might do to strengthen the conference. The more we looked at this, we realized that Wichita State, for example, was a really good fit, potentially, in basketball. A much better fit than other schools that played basketball only. And we weren’t really in the market for basketball-football schools, There really aren’t any out there that have much interest for us at this point.
We were at 11 for basketball. Getting to 12 (schools) made a lot of sense. It would certainly balance the league. It also would not prevent further expansion down the road.
We decided that we would not go the route of adding multiple basketball schools, or attempting to. We didn’t want to go back to that failed model of the past where you had a lot of schools, especially smaller schools played basketball and didn’t fit our profile. If a school like Wichita was interested and we were interested in them, they would make sense because they fit our profile. They’re similar to many of our schools. They understand what our conference is about.
Did you visit Wichita during the exploration?
Aresco: I didn’t feel we needed to do it. We knew enough about the university. We were trying to do it under the radar. Relative to some of these expansion processes, this was a fairly quiet one.
I hoped you had a funny story about a disguise and sneaking around campus.
Aresco: I did not come in any kind of disguise and I can tell you categorically I did not visit campus. I will be visiting Wichita State in September.
Wichita State made a public declaration that it wanted to find a new conference in December 2015. How much did those statements attract the American’s attention?
Aresco: I don’t think it had an enormous amount of significance. On the other hand, we knew from that statement, and just generally, that Wichita was looking to switch conferences, and for what we felt were the correct reasons.
They felt they could do better and fit better in a larger conference that provided them, perhaps, with basketball opponents that made more sense for them. Also, they would be aligned with schools that were much more like them.
How active is the American conference office in helping and directing non-conference men’s basketball scheduling?
Aresco: We’re heavily involved. Not in terms of mandating things as much as trying to encourage people to do what’s necessary to generate a higher RPI, generate more conference bids and strengthen our conference. You earn respect by winning those big non-conference games.
We discourage playing over No. 300 (ranked) RPI schools. We don’t permit (NCAA) Division II schools, things of that nature. We like to see a certain level of RPI with your non-conference schedule. We’ll have requirements about how many teams you can play with a certain RPI.
You want to make sure everyone in the conference is doing what they need to be doing. If a few schools aren’t doing those things, it’s going to hurt everyone. Basketball is really dependent on an overall conference RPI, much moreso than football.
Is there talk of a men’s basketball challenge series with a conference?
Aresco: We have talked to some of the P5 (Power 5) conferences. I won’t name them, but we absolutely have talked to them about it. We think we’re getting closer, actually. We know that’s important. It doesn’t have to be a full challenge. It could be a mini-challenge. We have some attractive venues where we could play. It’s definitely a priority for us.
The American cities present fans with a variety of local food favorites — cheesesteaks in Philadelphia, chili in Cincinnati, seafood … What’s your recommendations?
Arecso: I’d probably get in trouble if I overdid it. You’ve got great food in all the towns we visit. We’re in so many large cities that are extremely cosmopolitan. The Philly cheesesteak stands out, as you can imagine. You’ve got to eat barbecue in Memphis.
I don’t think anybody will have any issue finding great places. And I didn’t even mention New Orleans, for goodness sakes, with all the great Cajun food and the oysters, the great seafood. How do you top that?
How does the American determine where conference tournaments such as baseball, volleyball and softball are held?
Aresco: We do have some that are home sites. Others are neutral sites. Baseball, we’re at a neutral site through 2021 and that’s Clearwater, Fla., and that’s worked pretty well for us.
We’ve had a debate in the conference of home sites vs. neutral sites. Certainly, travel costs are higher where you don’t know where you’re going until very late. There’s always been a debate on that. Where there are home sites, Wichita could be in the mix for that and we award those several years in advance.
What is the future for the men’s basketball tournament?
Aresco: We’re in Orlando in 2018. We’re looking at 2019 and then we’re looking at 2020 through 2022 or possibly 2023. Certainly, Oklahoma City was one of the cities that we’re looking at. We had a number of significant bids. I think the fact we added Wichita probably helped generate interest.
We’re not sure whether we want to anchor the tournament for awhile in one place, or whether we should spread it around and plant the flag in various places. Sometimes when you move around it creates a little bit of difficulty in terms of sponsorship.
Wichita State fans developed a reputation for traveling in great number. How much of a factor might that support be when looking at host cities?
Aresco: I don’t think there’s any question about that the fact that you have a fan base that does travel is definitely a factor. You have really, really strong and enthusiastic fan base and you have strong donor support.
Is is possible to briefly summarize where media rights may be headed?
Aresco: It’s a big issue. We’re on the clock, to some extent with TV and with media. It’s not just TV anymore. We’ll look at everything.
There’s no question that the online companies are starting to do more than just dip their toes into live sports and live video. They’ll be a factor. TV, of course, is still going to be extremely important. You’re not replacing TV with online, at least not yet.
We will look at all media. We don’t view this as TV anymore, per se. On the other hand, we’re really happy with our partnership with ESPN. Despite all the talk about cord-cutting and all the things you see, ESPN is still the most powerful sports entity, the most powerful sports network. ESPN also has a very significant streaming operation.
They key for us is going to be getting much more revenue than we currently have. That’s why this is going to be a really seminal moment for us. We are still about roughly a year-and-a-half, or so, away from a negotiating period. We may talk to our partners next spring. That’s typically when you at least have some informal discussions. It wouldn’t be negotiation, per se, but there wouldn’t be many years left on the deal.
We run through 2019-20 and at the beginning of 2019 we have a negotiating period. It’s not that far away. We’ve been talking to people and trying to determine our value. We know it’s extremely heightened compared to five years ago.
How will we know when the American’s “Power 6” campaign is a success?
Aresco: Branding is extremely important. We think we’ve established a brand now that is much closer to the P6.
When will we have established that part of our goal? When (the media) are calling us that or accepting us as that or clamoring for our admittance to that club. We’ve seen it already with some writers saying we’re the unofficial sixth power conference. I think it’s generally acknowledged that we’re closer to the P5 than anyone else.
The P6 campaign is not the end game. It’s the start. The end game would be to have a TV deal that puts us at least in range of the P5. It doesn’t have to be a deal like the Big 10 or the SEC. We understand we’re not the Big 10 or the SEC. We still think we’re much closer to them than the others.
We’ve struggled with the emphasis on the P5. It doesn’t happen in basketball as much. It’s really more of a football thing, but football drives TV deals. We’ve had to fight to make sure that when the writers and the online people, networks focus on the P5 that they include us. We strive to get ourselves included.