With March Madness set to once again swarm the country, American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco continues to plan big as the conference plots its course in college football and basketball. While recent years have seen the injection of cost of attendance stipends, continued uncertainty over conference expansion and a line drawn between the so-called P5 and G5 leagues, the American has, more than any other conference, had to evolve its strategic foothold in the collegiate landscape, bolstered by a football season that saw the likes of Houston, Memphis, Navy and Temple make waves in the rankings. With negotiations for a new TV deal on the horizon, Cynopsis Sports spoke with Commissioner Aresco about the state of the league, persistent realignment rumors and how the conference is positioning itself for the media discussions ahead.
Aresco on the state of the conference: We’ve been working to build something here and I think that we are probably ahead of schedule as we’ve exceeded expectations with an outstanding football season, which of course, is the key to everything. Sustainability is key. I think that people look at us and wonder if we can continue to do it since we obviously don’t have the resources the other guys have but we have enough. It’s about hiring good coaches and having the desire to win, and we’ve got that. We had four teams this year in the Top 25 at one point. We won the Fiesta Bowl two years ago, we won the Peach Bowl this year. We also had five ABC national games this year and we had countless games on ESPN and ESPN2 on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. That’s how you build your brand, develop some fans and create an identity. Clearly, football will be driving our TV deal when that comes back into play and we are counting on that.
On strategy: I thought this group of schools had some real potential that hadn’t been realized yet, especially in football and I thought they would be better together than splintering off. No one is going to argue that we weren’t in turmoil three years ago and no one can argue that we took some real hits when we lost some teams. A lot of people were writing us off, and honestly, I was wondering if they were right. But as long as we were able to get us a TV that gave us the proper exposure, and enough money, which includes the exit fees and NCAA credits left behind, to make them the highest paid within the Group of 5 and still be competitive with the P5.
On exposure: We want to continue to create value for our TV partners in any way that we can. We play Thursdays, we play Fridays, which is wide open and helps us get great exposure. That also helps our TV partner in ESPN. We do a game of the week with CBS Sports Network as part of a sub-license deal with ESPN, which gives them really good value. ESPN decided to put our Championship Game on ABC over a Texas/Baylor game. You couldn’t have imagined that two or three years ago but they did it because it was a compelling game. We had almost 18 or 19 games that had over a million viewers this year, while we only had 11 before that. Some even had several million viewers such as the Temple/Notre Dame game which was the highest-rated game of the week that week.
On the media strategy: When we first started, there were some media outlets who didn’t think we were going to get out of this. I understand that. We were not in great shape, we still had to do a TV deal, we had to get through that Catholic 7 negotiation to make sure we would get a clean break. We had to get a new name and a new logo. We had to get a new bowl lineup, which we did with great destinations. But with the media, we had to get in and change the narrative about the P6 and breaking into the P6. We had six schools at this conference that were once in a BCS conference or the old Southwest Conference. What I was hoping to do was to win some big games that would become part of the narrative and make us the next best under the P5. Sure enough, that started to happen. It’s a real credit to our schools and their athletes in terms of what we’ve been able to do. Because of that, we’ve now had serious interest from title sponsors for our football, basketball and the bowl game that we own.
On rights plans: We’ve got to look at TV and online and the future and see if there is a proverbial pot of gold. As our conference gets stronger and the other rights are tied up for years, we’ll be negotiating a new contract with ESPN and potentially others in just a few years. We are going to be a valuable conference to have because everybody else is tied up well into the 2020s and even 30s. We’ve got to look at the digital aspect of that and see how to monetize that strategy. You are seeing more and more networks that are pure digital plays and that is definitely going to be part of our strategy. We’ve retained Wasserman to advise us on TV and they are helping us with the strategic plan that we will probably have ready this Spring.
On potential conference realignment: It’s always something we have to deal with. We tell our schools that we understand the attractiveness of going to a P5, we are not naïve about it. But the best thing to do is to continue to build our own conference into a top contender. If anybody does leave down the road, I want them to look back and say that they played in a great conference. Of course you always have to be prepared. With the Big 12 looking like they will finally make a decision in late May, that should settle the environment one way or the other. But if they do decide to take some of our members, we still have really good schools and they are all schools that the country has heard of. If we lost one or two, we wouldn’t even feel it necessary to add any because we can now play a championship game with 10 teams. Of course, they may be some schools out there who we think would add value to get us back to 12. The key is to be prepared.