As conference realignment reshaped the college sports world the past 15 years, there’s been one undeniable truth amid the chaos — no school has been a bigger loser than the University of Connecticut.
The Huskies lost their geographic relevance in basketball by leaving the Big East, as organic rivals like Providence, St. John’s and Syracuse were replaced by strangers like Tulane, East Carolina and Memphis. Passion has been replaced by apathy, as once-teeming arenas became filled with empty seats and a once-rabid fan base has turned ambivalent.
A school that’s won four national titles in men’s basketball since 1999 and 11 women’s basketball national titles has been lodged in the geographically disparate American Athletic Conference. For UConn, basketball is the only thing that’s ever really mattered. Putting together a relevant football team was essentially a vehicle to help find basketball its best showcase.
The market and common sensibilities for the future of UConn athletics appear to be changing.
A report emerged late Friday that UConn was making plans to leave the AAC and go back to the Big East.
Calls with multiple sources on Saturday morning indicated to Yahoo Sports that a deal is being finalized for UConn to return to the Big East in basketball and other sports. A source told Yahoo Sports that there are still details to be worked out and unwound, but that’s the general expectation for UConn’s future.
The expectation would be for UConn to join the Big East in 2020. The issue will be what happens with UConn’s football program, as the Big East doesn’t include football.
Sources told Yahoo Sports that the AAC will not take UConn as a football-only member. UConn has been historically bad on the field and holds little resonance off of it. Independence would likely end up as UConn’s best option.
Big East spokesman John Paquette declined comment when reached on Saturday morning. UConn athletic director David Benedict didn’t return a call, nor did administrative sources there. AAC commissioner Mike Aresco, who runs the conference UConn would be departing, didn’t return a phone call.
In other words, the wall of non-denials and silence that tends to accompany these types of events has been built. Sources indicated it’d be shocking if the move doesn’t happen.
To those in the AAC, this move comes as comes as little surprise. The biggest sign that UConn could be moving elsewhere soon was their opposition to the league’s recent television deal.
“The news isn’t catching a lot of people by surprise,” said a source within the league. “I think it’s felt imminent.”
For the AAC, the loss of UConn is not expected to impact the television deal significantly. In the contract language, the departure of just one school from the AAC wouldn’t trigger a termination of the deal from ESPN.
The AAC’s new television deal will begin in 2020-21. The “term sheet” of that AAC deal has been signed, and those provisions include membership.
In terms of exit fees, AAC bylaws say that any school which departs would be obligated to pay approximately $10 million. Historically, those numbers end up being negotiated.
For the AAC, the next likely move would be to follow the model they have with Navy as a football-only and add a school like Army or Air Force. Then they’d follow up that move and add a basketball power like they recently did with Wichita State. (VCU would be the most logical target there.)
The other option would be to add a member in all sports, but there’s no obvious candidate who could add value in both basketball and football.
UConn brought a unique value to the league in basketball with two programs with multiple championship pedigrees. But as the years went on, the arenas in Connecticut emptied and the football team atrophied into a laughing stock. As UConn watched its only neighbors like Pitt and Syracuse cash big checks in the ACC and Villanova win national titles in the Big East, the only logical move for the school was to go back all-in on basketball.
The first steps toward that began today. The biggest loser in conference realignment is attempting to change its fate.
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