Will the American Athletic Conference succeed?
When the conference officially debuted on July 1, well, I wasn’t optimistic. As a UConn fan yearning for a golden ticket to a “Power 5” conference, it wasn’t the best day. ESPN quickly revealed that its smear campaign against the Big East may have transferred over to a lack of interest in the American.
But after a month of reflection – I believe the conference has a chance. The looming Division 4 rumors will not be a death knell, more of a subtle sea change that gives the Power 5 more influence but not all the influence.
There is a brief glimmer of hope for the American Athletic Conference to build itself back up to “power conference” status. Or at least get into the ballpark in the next 5 years before its TV rights go back out to bid.
Now obviously there is one thing the conference must do over all else – just win, baby. The conference can’t control that. They can control everything else. Here is how the American Athletic Conference can thrive:
1) Sensible Divisions Based on Geography
This is simple and obvious, but is the most important. It cannot fall into the trap that the Big Ten and ACC fell into by trying to divide by perceived strength and balance. It worked out terribly for the Big Ten, though they are changing it next year, and the ACC stubbornly maintains its Atlantic/Coastal divisions despite the fact no one can remember who is in which division.
For the 12-team American, which starts in 2015, the alignment is pretty easy. The North includes UConn, Cincinnati, Temple, Navy, East Carolina and Memphis. The South includes SMU, Houston, UCF, USF, Tulsa and Tulane. Not only does it make geographic sense, I don’t notice a big imbalance between the relative qualities of the programs.
2) Rivalry Games on Thanksgiving and Black Friday
The next several steps focus on the need for the American to establish an audience. Or more specifically, to avoid getting lost in the shuffle. ESPN, and Fox Sports, and CBS, and conference networks, air a lot of games. It’s increasingly difficult for any college game to carve out a unique timeslot or audience. Or even find a time when there is only one or two other games going on, as opposed to 10 nationally televised contests.
Here’s my solution for the end of the regular season since the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend is the most crowded.
Establish an end of the year rivalry game for each team within the conference. Play these games on Thanksgiving and Black Friday, in the same slot, every year. Don’t have a tradition? Create one. Rutgers played UConn at 10am on Thanksgiving morning in 2004 – and I loved it because if you wanted to watch football, you had to watch my Huskies. So let’s roll with it.
Thanksgiving, 10am: ECU vs. Memphis
Thanksgiving, 8pm: UCF vs. USF
Black Friday, 11am: Navy vs. Temple
Black Friday, 2:30pm: Tulsa vs. Tulane
Black Friday, 6pm: UConn vs. Cincinnati
Black Friday, 9:30pm: SMU vs. Houston
3) Weekly 11am Game every Saturday
Remember what I just wrote about it being impossible to get a timeslot to yourself these days? Well here’s one solution. Last year when Notre Dame opened the season against Navy in Ireland, it kicked off at 9am on CBS and was the only game going. Of course, games in Ireland don’t happen every week, but the same principle applies.
On New Year’s Day for about a decade, I watched the Outback Bowl more than any other of the early kickoffs. Why? Because it started at 11am and I watched it. If the game was good, I continued watching through its conclusion, before catching up on the other games. The American can take advantage of this. Make the 11am timeslot a weekly tradition.
4) Own Friday Night Football
In 2006, the Big East returned to prominence thanks in large part to back-to-back Thursday night classics on ESPN featuring Louisville, West Virginia and Rutgers. Of course, it ended up being a double-edged sword as the ratings successes of those games proved the value to other college conferences beyond the Big East and ACC, and then to the NFL.
The American is not going to get more than 1 or 2 Thursday night games per year. And with NFL games every Thursday night, in addition to the usual strong lineup of broadcast television, is that where the American really wants to be?
No, it’s time to take over Friday nights – long the home of WAC shootouts, Boise State classics and shocking upsets. Every week, there should be an American Athletic Conference football game on ESPN2 at 8pm. Period, end of story. I know the common complaint – Friday nights are for high school football. My response is, “Who cares?” The conference, right now, is fighting for survival. Friday nights are, to use a term from my day-job, a “growth opportunity.”
5) Create Preseason Bowl Games
There have been a lot of rumors floating around about the conference looking to start up bowl games, specifically one in Miami at Marlins Park, which is all well and good but is not the “growth opportunity” the conference needs to look at.
No, the conference needs to focus its energy on creating pre-season classics, a la the Chick-fil-a Kickoff in Atlanta and the Cowboys Classic in Dallas. These are important for a multitude of reasons, but mostly the television rights for these games, the recruiting advantages, the lure of playing major name-brand teams and the ability to garner additional interest in the conference as a whole.
My suggestion is to create 3 games on opening weekend in fertile recruiting areas that align with 4 conference teams that rotate against big name opponents. Play one game on Friday night, one game on Sunday night and one game on Labor Day afternoon – currently three timeslots that have little to no competition.
Create a game for the Superdome in New Orleans, with Tulsa, SMU, Houston & Tulane rotating as the American representative.
Create a game for the Citrus Bowl in Orlando with UCF, USF, Memphis & ECU as the rotation.
Finally, create a game in the Mid-Atlantic (DC, Baltimore or Philly) with Cincinnati, UConn, Navy & Temple as the rotation.
What do major schools like? Money, recruiting and exposure. These games would give them all three. Think about this opening weekend scenario for a quick second: Houston vs. Arkansas in New Orleans on Friday night; USF vs. Clemson in Orlando on Sunday night; and Penn State vs. Cincinnati in Philadelphia on Labor Day afternoon. It works.
6) Play the Title Game on Thursday Night
The first weekend of December is going to be extremely crowded with conference title games on Saturday. The Friday night timeslot has been established at certified #MACtion, in addition to the Pac-12 title game in years when Fox televises it.
Likewise, the Big East had tried – sometimes successfully like in 2012, sometimes not – to schedule a key conference game on the last Thursday of the year. It makes perfect sense to keep that going and schedule the title game in that timeslot and be the only college game going on at the time.
The only drawback is poor attendance but, again, this is about exposure and a wide TV audience. The ACC drew flies for its first few title games and, despite the mocking, they’re still around, right?
7) Don’t Expand Unless it’s BYU
Realignment, realignment, realignment. It’s all we’ve talked about for the past, uh, 5 years at this point? It may never stop. But for the American, the conversation starts and ends with one team – BYU. It’s the only team the conference could realistically add that would bring value. I’m not saying BYU is joining anytime soon as they seem content in their attempt to become Notre Dame 2.0, and that’s fine. But if BYU ever changes its mind, be there, be prepared and then we can start gossiping about team #14.
Did I just mention BYU being independent? I think I did. One huge problem BYU has had, and probably will continue to have, is scheduling decent games later in the year, especially in November. Even Notre Dame was running into that problem and ended up pairing with the ACC to ensure they didn’t end up playing an Idaho or New Mexico State in mid-November.
The American should reach out to BYU yesterday and offer them up a similar deal, with 4-5 guaranteed games with conference teams. The American’s best attribute is location – highly populated, metro areas across the eastern half of the country. BYU wants to be a national team that plays a national schedule. It seems like a perfect match and helps boost the American’s television deal value, in addition to BYU’s own deal with ESPN.
9) Stay at 8 Conference Games, No Permanent Crossovers
8 or 9 conference games? The Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 will be at 9. The ACC will be at 8, with the Notre Dame games. The SEC is currently at 8 but must eventually go to 9 or drop permanent crossovers. The Mountain West is at 8, in large part due to Air Force being unable to go to 9 due to playing Army & Navy every year.
Well, the American is in the same position with Navy having 3 non-conference games set in stone every year with Notre Dame, Air Force and Army. So 9 is a non-starter. Without permanent crossovers, every team will play every other conference twice every four years. It works. Don’t mess it up.
10) Be a Bowl Lurker
The bowl lineups for just about every conference have been announced and, yikes, it doesn’t look good for the American. That’s okay. The fact is that the only thing that matters, or will matter, is getting a team into the college football playoff, either as a Top 4 team or playing in one of the New Year’s Six bowls. After that, it’s just window dressing.
That being said, the American needs to lurk and prepare to fill open slots. The SEC, for example, will have contracts with up to 10 bowls. Well you have to imagine the SEC is going to get 3, maybe 4, heck even 5 teams in those New Year’s Six bowls. That opens up a lot of bowl slots in a lot of good bowls. The American would be wise to sign up backup contracts with these bowls and be flexible with teams to take advantage of this.
Other conferences will likely come up short too – John Swofford said he wants 11 tie-ins for his 15-team conference. The ACC will never, ever, ever have 11 bowl eligible teams. The Big Ten is also likely overextended since the new 9-game schedule adds a loss to half the league.
11) Be Greedy – Put Advertising Everywhere
The TV deal blows. That much cannot be denied. But that doesn’t mean the American can’t make money other ways. We’ve seen the debate about jersey advertising – something that is commonplace in other parts of the world – slowly reach the United States with the NBA looking to take the lead. Well, why not jump to the front? Let FedEx put its logo on the Memphis uniform. Money is what the American lacks – it’s time to think outside of the box.
I was watching Canadian Football last week and there were 4 huge ads on the field. Let American teams go for it. Ads are good if it means more money. There are other ways the conference can sell itself – if there was ever a time to whore it up, it’s now. The gap between the American and the ACC is huge. A little creative thinking will close that gap. Greed is good!
12) Create a Powerhouse Editorial Staff
ESPN shut down the American blog on July 1. I got really, really mad about it. It’s time to (very subtly) throw up a giant middle finger at the ESPN, SI.com and Yahoo Sports’ of the world. If they don’t want to cover the conference like they cover others, that’s fine – they only write bad things anyway.
Follow the lead of professional leagues, specifically the NFL, and create an in-house conference editorial staff. You can start off with bloggers. Bring in a few journalism veterans*. Shape the message. Bring the news. Filter out the commentary from the sports publications and their inherent bias.
*I’m a blogger and a journalism veteran. Just saying…
13) Keep a United Front Publicly
UConn and Cincinnati will leave the American in a heartbeat. Everyone knows that. But the public groveling from both – especially from Cincinnati – was disturbing. The entire league needs to agree, behind closed doors, to stop the public appeals for a better conference. UConn has closed ranks since the ACC failure and said all the right things about making things work in the American. I don’t follow Cincinnati sports close enough to know if they’ve done the same. In public, everyone needs to be on the same page and supporting Mike Aresco. This is a must. Perception is reality in America. And the American.
14) Do Whatever ESPN Wants
Play games on Wednesday afternoons? Do it. Play games in Singapore? Do it. Do the Bristol car wash in May? Do it. Play bowl games before Christmas? Do it.
ESPN is the American’s best friend right now, even if they’ve been a really, really shitty friend in the past. For the conference to succeed, they need ESPN to be a willing partner. Will it ever happen? Who knows? But it cannot be antagonistic. We know where the American stands in ESPN’s eyes right now.
It doesn’t matter. The conference must embrace ESPN until the contract comes up for renegotiation. Until then, leave the ESPN-bashing to me and my friends.
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