The college sports world got a jolt this month when the University of Connecticut announced it is pulling out of the American Athletic Conference and re-joining the Big East for the 2020 season. Pretty much everybody is thrilled, from players to donors to season-ticket holders.
Should they be? The short answer is sure, maybe, why not?
The long answer, well …
Okay, look, I swear to you that my mission in life really isn’t to rain on the parade of UConn fans. When it comes to most college sports I’m neutral-to-indifferent, with the uncomfortable exception of Penn State football. My dad took me to tons of games when I was young, and those great memories keep me quietly rooting for them — though it’s not easy after all the awful stuff that happened in that program.
Maybe the horror of the Penn State scandal has caused me to look on the rest of college sports with a jaundiced eye. I’m always wondering what’s happening beneath the surface. I’m wary of turning coaches into exorbitantly-compensated gods while student-athletes are basically unpaid minor-leaguers. I’m doubly wary of college administrations letting the glitz and money of big-time college sports warp how they make decisions and blind them to problems.
For instance, UConn athletics has been absolutely bleeding money lately. In what sort of sane universe would a public university’s single-year loss of $41 million on sports be tolerated, or even happen at all? The glamourous fog of college sports makes it all possible.
That brings us back to the conference swap. Right now, UConn and the Big East are declaring the move a big win for both themselves and basketball fans, with UConn finally returning to the conference where the men’s basketball teams were so triumphant back in the day. The big idea is that going back to a conference where there are more rivalries and shorter travel times will make UConn basketball better, energize fans, and help close the athletics budget gap.
Unfortunately, there’s a cost.
UConn has to pay $17 million to leave its current conference, and will also have to pay a $3.5 million entry fee into the Big East. The move, therefore, comes with a $20.5 million price tag, to be spread out over the next seven years.
The other trouble is that the money from television contracts will initially be lower in the Big East than it was in the American Athletic Conference, which is where the Huskies are now. Why is this the case?
It’s complicated, just like everything else having to do with college sports.
The thing is, UConn isn’t returning to the Big East so much as joining another version of it. The original Big East Conference split in 2013 when seven private colleges with a basketball focus broke away to form a new conference. They got the rights to the name “Big East” and the right to hold their basketball tournament at Madison Square Garden. The other schools were left out in the cold and decided to form a new conference with more of a football focus. UConn, as we all know, has lately been unbelievably bad at football, but there’s tons of cash to be made from TV deals when football is involved. That’s how we got to where we are.
The name “Big East” is still a powerful draw. Sure, a lot of the old rivalries aren’t necessarily there anymore, and the sad little football program is going to have to go independent, but the idea of playing in the Big East will probably help UConn attract better basketball recruits. If the team gets better, so does attendance.
UConn is hoping that shorter distances and increased attendance at conference games will help offset at least some of the massive sports deficit, but the entrance and exit fees and the drop in TV revenue would seem to offset that, certainly in the short run.
It has also been reported that UConn may see revenue growth in a few years based on new TV contract opportunities through the Big East. At the moment, though, there’s just a lot of uncertainty.
If this is a plan to get the athletics program out of deficit, it seems to be based on wishful thinking more than anything.
So, congrats UConn basketball fans. You’re back in a good conference again, sort of, and all of the money the athletics program is losing will be taken care of somehow. Maybe.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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