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AAC Expansion: The Top Candidates

Map of Top AAC Expansion Candidates

Map of top AAC expansion candidates. Click for an interactive version.

The American Athletic Conference (AAC) is going shopping for new members. The upcoming departure of Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF to the Big 12 will leave the AAC with only 8 members for each major sport. The AAC is widely expected to extend invitations to at least 4 new members, and possibly more.

In our last post, we presented the major metrics (rankings, attendance, budgets, etc.) for every program that's in the mix. Today, we'll go through the top candidates for an AAC invite to assess the strength of their case.

The Conference USA Standouts

Conference USA has three programs that deliver the whole package: Successful football programs, top-tier facilities, and prime locations in major media markets. Consider these three to be front-runners in the competition for an invite to the AAC.

University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB)

Pros

  • Sustained football success: In the 4 seasons since the reinstatement of football at UAB, they have gone to a bowl game every year, gone to the Conference USA championship game three times, and won the Conference USA championship twice.
  • Protective Stadium is a brand-new, high-capacity stadium in a desirable downtown location.
  • High football attendance: UAB had an average of more than 24,700 attendees per game at their old stadium in 2019, and is on track to have even higher attendance in Protective Stadium in 2021.
  • Basketball team would be above-average compared to the remaining members of the AAC.
  • In the center of a large metro area (population: >1 million) with no NFL team.
  • Restores "The Battle of the Bones" rivalry game with Memphis.

Cons

  • University of Alabama is only 1 hour away, and the Crimson Tide will always absorb a lot of the local football fandom and energy around Birmingham.

University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA)

Pros

  • UTSA has suddenly jumped out to become one of the best G5 football teams in the country. The team is undefeated so far in 2021, and has achieved milestone road wins against Illinois and Memphis. UTSA has received votes in the AP Top 25 poll for the past 3 weeks.
  • The Alamodome is one of the best college football venues in the country. It's one of only two indoor football stadiums in the FBS, has a prime (though off-campus) location near downtown San Antonio, and has been recently renovated to improve fan experience.
  • Large undergraduate enrollment (>22,000 students) creates a large pool of potential student and alumni fans.
  • In the center of a massive metro area (population: >2.5 million), with no local NFL teams or other FBS teams.

Cons

  • Football success is very recent, and has not demonstrated that it will be sustained over time and across possible changes of coaching staff.
  • 2019 average home football attendance of <20,000 per game is significantly below the average attendance of remaining AAC members (>28,000). Even in a very successful 2021 season, attendance hasn't been much higher so far.
  • Adding UTSA would stretch the footprint of the AAC even farther - UTSA is 250 miles southwest of SMU, and 500 miles west of Tulane.

Florida Atlantic University (FAU)

Pros

  • Recent football success, including Conference USA championships in 2017 and 2019, and a bowl win against a 10-2 SMU team in the 2019 Boca Raton Bowl.
  • In a massive metro area (population: >6 million).
  • Provides a new in-state rival for South Florida.
  • New >$45 million athletic complex will help improve recruiting to be competitive in the AAC.

Cons

  • Have not demonstrated that football success can be sustained without Lane Kiffin as head coach.
  • 2019 average home game attendance was only 17,607 per game, even in a year where FAU went 11-3 and won Conference USA. This would give them the lowest average attendance in the AAC.
  • The Miami area has many existing options for top-tier football: The Miami Dolphins in the NFL, University of Miami in the ACC, and FIU in Conference USA. FAU can only claim a small share of a very large market.
  • Adding FAU would stretch the geographic footprint of the AAC even farther: FAU is 200 miles southeast of USF, and 680 miles south of East Carolina.

The Sun Belt Football Powerhouses

The Sun Belt Conference includes several football teams that punch far above their weight, and have achieved an impressive track record of upsets against Power 5 opponents. If the AAC wants to add members purely to add football strength to the conference, these three programs will be near the top of their list.

Coastal Carolina

Pros

  • Extremely successful football program: Has been consistently nationally ranked in the top 25 for the past 2 years, and is currently the second-highest-ranked team from the G5 after Cincinnati (who will be leaving the G5 to join the Big 12).
  • Situated in a medium-sized (population: ~500,000) metro area with no other top-tier football options.
  • Provides a natural rival and travel partner for East Carolina.
  • Tourism amenities, including beaches, plentiful hotels, and cheap flights on discount airlines, make Myrtle Beach an appealing place for AAC fans on the East Coast to travel to see their teams play.

Cons

  • Unclear if football success can be sustained if head coach Jamey Chadwell leaves for another program, and also unclear whether Coastal Carolina can afford to pay Chadwell enough to keep him around.
  • 21,000 seat stadium would be the smallest in the AAC.
  • 2019 average football attendance of ~15,000 per game would be the lowest in the AAC.
  • Basketball team is worse than any existing AAC team.
  • Low enrollment for a public school: Only ~8,800 undergraduates, which also means a lower number of interested alumni.

Louisiana

Pros

  • Consistent football success: Ended the 2020 season ranked 15th in the AP poll, and have gone to 4 bowl games in the past 5 seasons.
  • Home stadium can seat more than 41,000 fans.
  • Provides a natural rival and travel partner for Tulane.
  • Solid branding: "Louisiana" has more potential to build national name recognition than teams suffixed with directions or campus names.

Cons

  • 2019 average home football attendance of 18,203 per game was lower than any remaining AAC member.
  • Basketball team is worse than any existing AAC team.
  • Lafayette is only ~1 hour from LSU, and the Tigers will always absorb a lot of the local football fandom and energy.

Appalachian State

Pros

  • Sustained football success: App State has won the Sun Belt championship in 4 of the past 5 seasons, and has gone to a bowl game in every year since becoming eligible in 2015.
  • Solid football attendance: 2019 average attendance of ~23,800 per game was the highest in the Sun Belt.
  • Would cement an in-state rivalry with East Carolina.

Cons

  • Athletics budget of <$29 million is lower than most other programs under consideration.
  • Basketball team is worse than any existing AAC team.
  • Football stadium has a running track between the stands and the football field.

The Virginia Programs With Big Budgets

The state of Virginia has three universities with outsized athletic budgets compared to the other programs under consideration. All three have significant flaws in their qualifications, but if the AAC is looking for programs that can keep pace with the $59.5 million budget of the median AAC program, these are some of the best available options.

Liberty

Pros

  • 2019 athletic budget: $47.75 million (higher than any program in Conference USA or Sun Belt)
  • Sustained football success as an FBS Independent: Finished the 2020 season ranked 17th in the final AP Poll, and won bowl games in both seasons (2019 and 2020) in which they were eligible.
  • Basketball team would be above-average vs. remaining AAC teams.

Cons

  • 2019 average home football attendance of 18,272 per game was lower than any remaining AAC member.
  • Cultural, religious, and political stances may be a source of concern among member institution leadership and stakeholders.

James Madison University (JMU)

Pros

  • 2019 athletic budget: $48 million (higher than any program in Conference USA or Sun Belt)
  • Sustained football success at the FCS level: Finished 1st in the CAA in 4 of the past 5 seasons, went to the FCS National Championship game 3 times, won the FCS National Championship in 2016.

Cons

Old Dominion (ODU)

Pros

  • 2019 athletic budget: $42.6 million (highest in Conference USA, and significantly higher than any Sun Belt program)
  • In a large metro area (population: >1.7 million) with no NFL team, and no other local FBS teams.
  • 2019 average home football attendance of 18,272 per game was surprisingly strong, given that the team went 1-11, with the only with coming against an FCS opponent.
  • Could provide a regional rival and travel partner for East Carolina (< 2.5 hours away by road).

Cons

  • No recent football success. ODU's most recent winning season was in 2016.
  • 22,480-seat stadium would be the smallest in the AAC.

The Middle-of-the-Pack Programs in Massive Metro Areas

In the last major round of conference realignment in 2013, AAC commissioner Mike Aresco focused on adding programs in major metro areas in order to address large media markets and position the conference for better TV deals.

Over the previous 8 years, the proliferation of cable sports channels (which generally show a single game nationally, rather than different games in different markets) and over-the-top streaming services has made traditional "media markets" less relevant for TV revenue. At the same time, the population surrounding a university is still an important source of potential fans and TV viewership, so a location in a metro area with a high population is still a significant advantage from a TV revenue perspective.

The two universities below have auspicious locations in large, fast-growing metro areas, but have generally been undistinguished in football and basketball.

Georgia State

Pros

  • Center Parc Stadium (formerly Centennial Olympic Stadium, then Turner Field) has a prime location near downtown Atlanta.
  • The Atlanta metro area has >6 million people, and a high level of football interest.
  • High undergraduate enrollment (~21,000 students) creates a large pool of interested students and alumni.

Cons

  • Hasn't been a consistent football contender within the Sun Belt.
  • Atlanta already has lots of local options for top-tier football: The Atlanta Falcons in the NFL, Georgia Tech in the ACC, and University of Georgia in the SEC ~1.5 hours away.

Charlotte

Pros

  • Charlotte metro area has >2.6 million people, and a high level of football interest.
  • High undergraduate enrollment (~20,800) creates a large pool of interested students and alumni.
Cons

  • Hasn't historically been a football contender within Conference USA (although the 2021 team may change this).
  • 15,000 seat stadium is the smallest football stadium at the FBS level.
  • 2019 average home football game attendance of ~12,300 per game was extremely low by FBS standards.
  • Charlotte already has the Carolina Panthers NFL franchise.
  • Basketball team would be worse than any existing AAC team.

The Utility Players With Decent Basketball Programs

Conference USA has two programs that haven't had enough football success to make the list of "standouts", but still have enough all-around success to potentially push themselves into the conversation.

North Texas

Pros

  • 2019 average home football attendance of >21,000 per game indicates a high level of fan interest, even in a season where North Texas went 4-8.
  • 2020-2021 basketball team was the strongest in Conference USA, and won an upset victory over Purdue in the NCAA tournament.
  • Huge undergraduate enrollment (>26,000) creates a large pool of potential student and alumni fans.
  • Athletics budget of >$39 million would be middle-of-the-pack among remaining AAC members after accounting for additional TV revenue.
  • In a mega-metro with a population of >7.5 million people.
  • Turns the annual "Safeway Bowl" rivalry game vs. SMU into a conference game.
Cons
  • Haven't recently been successful in football - 2019 and 2020 seasons both only had 4 wins.
  • Dallas area already has an NFL team and two other FBS teams (TCU in the Big 12, and SMU in the AAC) competing for football attention.

Marshall

Pros

  • 2019 average home football attendance of >$23,000 per game indicates a high level of fan interest.
  • Basketball program is currently solid, and would be above-average compared to the remaining AAC members.
  • Long football tradition and some national name recognition.

Cons

  • Far away from existing AAC members: 400 miles west of Temple, 470 miles northeast of Memphis.
  • Low and declining enrollment (~7000 undergraduates), and a small metro area with a declining population (~360,000 people) limit the pool of potential fans.

The Other Service Academy

(Ok, this section only has one team, but we're trying to keep it consistent)

The AAC includes the US Naval Academy (Navy) as a football-only member. It tried inviting the US Air Force Academy (Air Force) to join from the Mountain West, but they declined. They might instead consider the other major service academy, which is still playing football as an FBS Independent.

US Military Academy (Army)

Pros

  • Major national brand, with fans all over the country.
  • Average home football attendance (>31,000 per game) is higher than the average of the remaining AAC members.
  • Adding a football-only member makes it easy to add a non-football member with a strong basketball program (assuming the AAC can find one that's interested).
  • Turns the Army/Navy game into a conference game, which gives Navy one additional slot for an out-of-conference game each year.

Cons

  • Traditional scheduling of the Army-Navy game on the week after conference championship weekend would mean the result of the Army/Navy game can't be used in the determination of who plays in the conference championship game.
  • Army-Navy game would likely be excluded from the conference's TV deal.
  • Far outside the AAC's existing geographic footprint, increasing travel for the conference. However, this is a much less significant problem if Army is added as a football-only member, since it would not increase travel for other sports.

Conclusions

Realistically, only teams from the first two sections ("Conference USA Standouts" and "Sun Belt Football Powerhouses") are likely to receive serious consideration for an invite to the AAC. The other programs in this list are in the conversation among fans, journalists, and talking heads, but the points listed as "Cons" make each of them a long shot to "move up" to the AAC in this round of realignment.

Next time, we'll be looking at the potential new geographic organization of the AAC after it picks up its presumptive new members.

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