UCONN Won’t Drive Up the Value of Big East Media Rights, But Will Come Out Ahead


On Friday evening (6.21), Digital Sports Desk broke the news that the University of Connecticut was planning on leaving the American Athletic Conference to return to the Big East Conference. UCONN’s motivation to pursue a homecoming (was in conference from ’79-’13) is driven by their desire to grow athletic department revenues and Big East basketball media rights are expected to be a valuable commodity when they become available following the ’24-’25 school year, but the move back to the Big East leaves the UCONN football program without a home (the AAC isn’t going to let them stay in a football-only capacity) since the conference doesn’t sponsor the sport. Andy Katz has reported that the school “hopes to get some games with BC, UMASS, Syracuse and Rutgers [and fill out the schedule with some] buy games like at Clemson and Tennessee.”

Howie Long-Short: Big East University presidents voted on Monday “to extend an invitation to UCONN to rejoin the conference.” The University’s board of trustees will vote on the matter Wednesday and are expected to announce acceptance as soon as Thursday. AAC bylaws require UCONN to give 27 months’ notice to leave the conference, but the school is hoping to negotiate their exit in time for the ’20-’21 school year.

Fox Sports is paying the 10 Big East schools $500 million over 12 years (+/- $4 million/school/year) for their media rights – “far less than the huge deals received by the Pac-12 and ACC”, so it’s reasonable to believe that the value of those rights will increase significantly come 2025; remember, the tech companies are also expected to have an interest in acquiring live sports rights, which should drive up the bidding. Some have suggested that adding UCONN to the conference gives the Big East further leverage in negotiations, but one high-ranking television executive (at a company that could make a play for the rights) told us that the addition of the 4x men’s college basketball national champions does little to drive up the price; “there are just so few individual basketball programs that stand on their own and drive an audience. Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina – maybe, Kansas; that’s it.

UCONN is going to come out ahead financially (even with a $10 million buyout and without payouts from bowl tie-ins). With an athletic department deficit north of $40 million, they’re not making this move unless they’re certain it will boost the bottom line. AAC media rights expire in ‘2020 and SBJ has projected that they could be worth 3-4x the $2 million/school/year brings in now, but that figure assumed UCONN’s inclusion. As it currently stands, the conference is without a Grant of Rights agreement and it’s difficult to believe that any network would commit significant dollars to the conference without one in place in the wake of this departure.

The senior sports TV exec. we spoke to was “extremely bearish on smaller conferences with smaller fandoms.” He suggested that “the era of buying conference rights to fill linear cable hours is over and in the new era, media spends will reflect that. You’re going to see the most valuable rights get more expensive and the price of lower tier rights fall.” That bodes well for a Big East conference that remains among college basketball’s elite, but makes you wonder about how much longer Group of 5 schools will be able to compete with their Power 5 brethren.

The haphazard way the AAC was constructed has made scheduling an expensive endeavor, so a return to the Big East should help UCONN cut expenses; bus trips to games against Seton Hall and St. Johns are significantly cheaper than chartered flights to Houston and SMU. As the school’s expenditures decline, UCONN expects to grow ticketing revenues with a schedule once again packed with traditional rivals (think: Georgetown, Villanova). A reinvigorated fan base is also likely to boost the school’s overall fundraising efforts.

Fan MarinoOne question that needs to be asked is why UCONN should continue to play football in the bowl subdivision. Independence makes post-season appearances unlikely and the program is a drain on financial resources. Remember, UCONN joined the AAC in 2013 because it was viewed as the best option for football after rivals Syracuse, Miami, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, Louisville and Rutgers all left the Big East for greener pastures; what the AAC lacked traditional rivals, it made up for with a chance at to play in the top football conference outside of the Power 5. But if the school is making the move back to the Big East because football in the AAC failed to give it the financial lift it had hoped for and independence is going to be a costlier, more difficult path to on-field glory, why not drop down to the championship subdivision where it might be able to compete?

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Author: John Wall Street

At the intersection of sports & finance.

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