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How the AAC is Spending Money With an Unknown Future

The amount of money that the AAC members are going to make through their media contract is about to change. Has that changed how they’re spending money, though?

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NCAA Football: Temple at East Carolina James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

By now, you know that the AAC is losing its best three programs historically. Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF are moving to the Big 12, amid conference realignment that was triggered by Texas and Oklahoma moving to the SEC. Most people don’t need the history lesson on what happened from there. Some people thought the AAC might poach from the Big 12, but the opposite happened. This forced the AAC to poach from C-USA, while the Sun Belt made a move on C-USA too, in a major shift for the G5 conferences.

More interesting is what happens next, and how the details, structure, and way of doing business in the various conferences are going to change now. For the AAC, generally seen as the top Group of Five conference, this could lead to a massive shift in perception. Importantly, it could also lead to a massive financial shift that changes the way programs in the conference do business.

Right now, the AAC media deal is a billion dollar deal. It puts tons of sporting events, including Olympic events, on ESPN+. The deal, also, importantly makes sure that AAC home games are on the ESPN family of networks, with the less important or viewed games available for streaming. This helps build viewership because, like it or not, which helps develop and strengthen fanbases. Just look at the ESPN+ series ‘Our Time,’ for example, which showed the UCF program behind the scenes. With more people moving to streaming, this was less of an issue in transition than it could be, even if the AAC moved earlier than some fans would have preferred.

Ultimately, the deal is worth approximately $7 million annually to each program individually. That doesn’t touch Power Five media deals, where the ACC has the current smallest at about $17 million annually per school. It does blow other G5 schools out of the water, though, with the Mountain West’s $4 million annually being the second closest. C-USA, down around $400,000 annually, is on the bottom rung. This is part of why the AAC is generally better than other G5 conferences, they have more money to spend.

However, there is a clause in the media deal that can be triggered if there is a shift in conference membership. In essence, if there is a change in conference membership that changes the media value of the conference, the contract can be renegotiated. To this point, the deal hasn’t changed. Furthermore, when UConn left that wasn’t enough to trigger the clause. Football, it should be noted, is where most of the media value is, and seeing where UConn is as a program that probably isn’t surprising. On the other hand, Cincinnati just went to the Playoff, while UCF and Houston have been to a combined four New Year’s Six games since the conference formed in 2013. They’re all huge media markets, with large alumni bases. Simply put, that’s a lot of value lost.

At the same time, the AAC is adding six new teams. So, if those six teams are deemed to have enough value to offset the three teams lost, then there won’t be change. They could also, hypothetically, be worth a portion of the value or even bring more value. However, even if there is no change in the value of the deal, it will now be divided fourteen ways, instead of eleven, annually. Even if the deal doesn’t change, teams will still make less off the deal.

One would think that this would make teams more conservative in how they’re spending money. However, some programs aren’t acting like they’re going to be dealing with financial changes. SMU, for instance, just offered to more than double Sonny Dykes’ contract, paying him more than $4 million annually. He turned them down for TCU, so they hired Rhett Lashlee instead. SMU is a private school, so Lashlee’s contract details aren’t readily available, but it’s safe to assume he is being paid in the $2 million range, like Dykes. On top of that, SMU just unveiled plans for $125 million worth of renovations and construction for their football program. So, money doesn’t seem like a concern.

They’re joining USF, who unveiled plans for a new practice facility and is seriously talking about an on-campus stadium for the first time. The Bulls also just extended head coach Jeff Scott. It was a two year extension, which will leave him in Tampa through 2026. His initial deal was worth about $2.5 million annually, good money for the G5. This doesn’t come with more money, but it is a vote of confidence for a coach who is good at raising money, even if the on-field results aren’t there.

Both SMU and USF have another similarity. They thought they deserved a chance to join the Big 12. Neither of them made it. Missing out, getting left behind, was a wake up call for them. The investments are coming in to invest in their future. That way, the two won’t miss the next round of realignment.

Not every school is looking to move to the P5, though. ECU, for instance, is trying to re-establish themselves. Head coach Mike Houston has done a great job of that, and he earned a contract extension. He’ll be with the Pirates through 2026, earning $1.4 million annually now. His old deal was around $500,000 annually. Houston has earned that raise, but it also implies that ECU is unconcerned about making less money in the near future. UTSA, who is entering the AAC, gave their coach Jeff Traylor an extension too. Traylor is now making an average of $2.8 million annually through 2031. The Roadrunners are in it for the long haul.

Temple is the only team to fire their coach. The Owls fired Rod Carey after three seasons and a 12-20 record. His record in the last two seasons was just 4-15. The program’s culture, meanwhile, was in a tailspin. It needed to happen, but it was costly. Temple gave Carey a large buyout after losing Geoff Collins and Manny Diaz in less than a month. The idea was to keep other teams from hiring him away, but it just cost more to fire him. It cost $8 million to buy him out entering the 2021 season, his third with Temple. The Owls then hired Stan Drayton. He has had an extensive career as a running backs coach but lacks experience as a coordinator. No details are currently available on his contract.

So, what does all of this mean?

It means that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The AAC might be in turmoil and there are questions ahead, but the truth is that to build a good program you need to spend money. Regardless of the conference, the top spending teams are almost always the biggest winners. So, even with the possibility of less money coming into their programs, teams are still spending more as they try to keep up and set themselves up for success.