Notebook: AAC's thoughts on CFP expansion, Cincinnati considers market sizes and SEC reportedly eyeing women's basketball challenge with ACC over Big 12

'Sounds like SEC is wanting to eliminate future Big 12-SEC wbb challenges and instead create one with ACC. Marginalization.'

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In June, I reported how the American Athletic Conference’s (AAC) Board of Directors wrote a letter to the Power 5 conferences to request a meeting to discuss the AAC’s inclusion, which was the conference’s latest push for a “Power 6” status.

Not much has happened since then, just the bombshell that the University of Oklahoma and University of Texas were eyeing a move to the SEC (a story broken by a reporter based out of Houston who primarily covers Texas A&M), and the two Big 12 schools have since gone through the proper order of operations for the transition to the SEC become official – notifying the Big 12 of their intention not to renew their grant of media rights when they expire, then formally asking for SEC membership and receiving official invitations to join the conference for the 2025-26 academic year, etc.

Oklahoma and Texas’ moves to the SEC could trigger an even larger round of conference realignment, potentially reshaping the current notion of the Power 5. While the dominoes could fall in a way that potentially affects numerous conferences, the potential impacts are especially interesting for the Big 12 and the AAC.

Both conferences could theoretically attempt to poach some of the other conference’s members.

Here are a few emails of note related to the AAC that I obtained through public records requests that could be useful when analyzing potential conference realignment and the proposed College Football Playoff expansion. There’s also news in today’s newsletter about another potential move by the SEC that could come at the expense of the Big 12, although it certainly wouldn’t be as significant as the additions of Oklahoma and Texas.

If you’re on the go, you can listen to the audio component of this week’s newsletter on Soundcloud (roughly seven minutes long).

AAC’s Aresco in June: ‘There was an expectation that consensus on an expansion plan might be reached’

AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco sent the conference’s presidents, chancellors and athletic directors an email on June 18, after the College Football Playoff management committee met in Chicago to review the 12-team playoff proposal that was developed by a four-person working group. “Please keep the contents of this communication strictly confidential,” Aresco wrote.

“There was an expectation that consensus on an expansion plan might be reached, but that was not the case,” Areso wrote of the CFP meetings in Chicago.

Consensus could be even harder to reach in light of Oklahoma and Texas’ plans to join the SEC in four years – a monumental acquisition of new members that was presumably put in motion as SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey and Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby were working together as two of the four members of the working group that was secretly creating the 12-team playoff proposal.

Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff recently told The Athletic:

“It creates some concern about the way the 12-team proposal was constructed, with a limited number of folks in the room and imperfect information between the people who were in the room. The proper process is: Everybody who has a say should have a say, and everybody should be operating with the same information.”

Was a rankings threshold discussed regarding the automatic qualifiers in the proposed 12-team playoff?

In his email, Aresco wrote, “Among the issues discussed: the basic 12-team structure with six AQs and six at-larges (an issue is whether to have a threshold ranking to be an AQ, which I opposed).”

On average, since the AAC added a conference championship game for the 2015 season, the AAC’s conference champion has had an average ranking of 14.5 in the final College Football Playoff rankings, which means a theoretical rankings threshold could potentially limit the AAC’s playoff berths and seeds in years when it doesn’t have an undefeated conference champion, à la UCF or Cincinnati:

  • 2015: No. 18 Houston

  • 2016: No. 24 Temple

  • 2017: No. 12 UCF

  • 2018: No. 8 UCF

  • 2019: No. 17 Memphis

  • 2020: No. 8 Cincinnati

If a theoretical rankings threshold was in place – No. 12? No. 15? No. 20? – there’s no guarantee that a conference champion from a conference such as the AAC would meet the threshold every year, especially if there’s an upset in the conference championship game.

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The AAC supports bowl games for the quarterfinals and semifinals

One of the topics discussed at the CFP management committee meeting in Chicago was whether the quarterfinal matchups or semifinals should be held in bowl games or on college campuses. “Strong support for bowls,” Aresco wrote, a potential outcome that could benefit the AAC’s current membership since its potential playoff teams would be more likely to play on the road if they advanced that far in the playoff, based on the past College Football Playoff rankings.

Other topics that were discussed in Chicago include how teams No. 5 through No. 12 would be seeded, how teams would be assigned to specific bowls, the impact on “downstream” bowls and the structure of the regular season if there’s playoff expansion.

According to Aresco’s email, revenue distribution wasn’t discussed at the CFP management committee meetings in Chicago. It was important enough that he underlined “not.”

Based on the College Football Playoff’s calculations for the 2020-21 season, the Power 5 conferences each received a base amount of roughly $57 million, while the Group of Five conferences received a total of roughly $83 million, which, if shared equally, would equate to roughly $16.6 million per conference, or roughly 3.5 times less than what each Power 5 conference received.

For reference, the University of Cincinnati’s athletic department reported just shy of $82 million in revenue during the 2020 fiscal year, which was only greater than two of the 52 public Power 5 schools – Washington State ($74.7 million) and Oregon State ($72.4 million). The Power 5 average was more than $125 million.

While the Big 12 will retain its Autonomy 5 status even after the departures of Oklahoma and Texas – Autonomy 5 is the official name of the Power 5 within the NCAA’s governance structure and a classification that comes with additional voting rights – a new playoff format could lead to a new revenue distribution model, one that could provide additional incentives for the AAC to try to add members that could compete for playoff berths in a 12-team playoff, such as Oklahoma State or TCU.

“I do think we can be an aggressor,” an AAC source told The Athletic, and Bowlsby, the Big 12’s commissioner, sent ESPN a cease-and-desist letter, alleging, “I am aware that ESPN has also been actively engaged in discussions with at least one other conference regarding that conference inducing additional Members of the Big 12 Conference to leave the Big 12 Conference.” Multiple media outlets reported the AAC is the unnamed conference in the allegations.

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Cincinnati could be a prime candidate to backfill the Big 12. Here is one factor its leadership considered prior to the current realignment landscape

Roughly every two weeks, leaders in the University of Cincinnati’s athletic department have a meeting to discuss big-picture topics, and for a university whose Group of Five football program finished at No. 8 in the final College Football Playoff rankings last season, despite its 9-0 record, the umbrella of big-picture topics could include items such as conference membership and potential realignment.

In February – prior to any official news about proposed College Football Playoff expansion or conference realignment – a man named Bob Favorite sent University of Cincinnati Director of Athletics John Cunningham an email, which was obtained by Out of Bounds and contained the rankings of more than 100 market sizes. The email was a follow-up to a conversation the two men had at a Cincinnati women’s basketball game, when Favorite had admittedly incorrectly said that the Cincinnati market, plus that of Dayton, Ohio, represented the largest media market for a non-Power 5 school.

The University of Cincinnati magazine featured a short profile on a couple named Bob and Phyllis Favorite, whom the magazine noted, “financially support their colleges, Bearcats Athletics (UCATS and the football program’s 1200 Club) and the UC Alumni Association, of which Phyllis is a member of the Board of Governors.”

“I went on the internet and found the 2021 Nielsen Designated Market Area (DMA) Rankings, hoping those are the correct rankings of media market size when looking at potential households of sports viewers,” Bob Favorite wrote. “The attachment to this message is a pdf of the top 102 DMAs. Why stop at 102? It took that many DMAs to get to the DMA for East Carolina University, the smallest AAC-related DMA. I highlighted the AAC-associated DMAs plus Dayton in yellow. I added the sizes of the Cincinnati and Dayton DMAs and inserted a line in the table for that combined DMA highlighted in red.

“Sure enough, there are 5 DMAs in which AAC universities are located in the top 20 DMAs. Cincinnati alone is 2021’s 36th largest DMA and Dayton is the 65th largest. The good news for me is that when these are added, the combined DMA is just outside the top 20.”

Speaking as a Cincinnati native, it was certainly, uh, a decision to combine Cincinnati and Dayton into one media market. For reference, Minnesota’s Twin Cities – Minneapolis and St. Paul – are separated by roughly 10 miles, and the DFW area features two major cities – Dallas and Ft. Worth – that are separated by a little over 30 miles. The distance between Cincinnati and Dayton is greater than both of those distances combined.

“Four universities frequently mentioned for ‘promotion’ to the P5 are UC, UCF, BYU, and Boise [State],” Favorite continued. “UCF is in the 17th largest market, UC (adding Dayton) would be in the 21st largest DMA, BYU (ignoring its nationwide appeal) is in the 30th/31st DMA, and Boise is in the 101st/100th ranked DMA. (The rankings after the slashes are adjusted for the combination of Cincinnati and Dayton.)”

“Cannot tell you how much I appreciate this detailed analysis,” Cunningham responded. “We have a meeting every two weeks to track big picture items like this. I have added this to our agenda to discuss and review.”

The decisions made during the last major round of conference realignment were largely informed by cable television subscribers and the expansion of conferences’ geographical footprints, which is why the Big Ten added Maryland and Rutgers, as it made a push for the New York City and Washington, D.C. media markets.

Roughly a decade later, that thinking is arguably outdated. The SEC’s future additions of Oklahoma and Texas appear to be about adding high-profile, national brands, rather than chasing large swaths of geography and the cable subscribers who live there, per se. But market sizes could still find their way into pitch decks over the next few years as conferences backchannel with potential new members and consultants. How effective that approach would be in the current round of conference realignment is another discussion.

At the very least, the email represents communication between a donor and the athletic director of a university whose football program is among the most successful programs outside of the Power 5, and Cunningham, the AD, acknowledged that an analysis of market sizes was appreciated and would be discussed by the department’s leadership.

If nothing else, it’s an interesting window into the position in which Cincinnati and its fellow aspirational Group of Five peers find themselves.

And Cincinnati’s consideration of market sizes may not be unique, even if it’s arguably more fitting of the last round of conference realignment.

In the AAC’s Board of Directors’ letter to the Power 5, one of the six subsections was titled, “National media exposure and revenue,” and the first sentence read, “We are in the fourth, fifth and eighth largest television markets - Philadelphia, Dallas and Houston.”

And who knows, by the end of the current round of conference realignment, maybe the Power 5 as we know it is unrecognizable, or no longer exists.

Is the SEC eyeing a women’s basketball challenge with the ACC over the Big 12?

Through a public records request, I obtained an email that probably makes more sense now, thanks to recent events in the larger context of college athletics, compared to when it was sent. Last month, University of Texas Executive Sr. Associate AD/Chief of Staff Christine Plonsky wrote to Texas Director of Athletics Chris Del Conte and women’s basketball coach Vic Schaefer, “Sounds like SEC is wanting to eliminate future Big 12-SEC wbb challenges and instead create one with ACC. Marginalization.”

Plonsky sent that email on July 16 – five days before the Houston Chronicle broke the news about Oklahoma and Texas’ interest in joining the SEC.

When Del Conte asked Plonsky when the SEC wanted to end its women’s basketball series with the Big 12, Plonsky wrote back, “This coming year will be final year for B12-SeC.”

An SEC spokesperson said the 2021-22 season is the last year of the current agreement for the women’s basketball challenge with the Big 12 but that no decisions have been made at this time.

A Big 12 spokesperson said he’s not aware of anything being officially communicated regarding the future of the challenge. An ESPN spokesperson declined to comment.

The women’s basketball SEC/Big 12 Challenge started in 2014 and ESPN televises games in the Challenge through its television contracts with the two conferences, including 2020 matchups such as Texas-Texas A&M (ESPN) and Arkansas-Baylor (ESPN2). Other matchups aired on the SEC Network or ESPN+.

ESPN owns both the ACC Network and SEC Network.

Any decisions made regarding the women’s challenge wouldn’t necessarily affect the men’s challenge and it’s expected that the men’s challenge will continue.

It’s hard not to view the SEC’s reported interest in ending its annual women’s basketball challenge with the Big 12 in favor of one with the ACC as a potential corollary to Oklahoma and Texas joining the SEC. Not only did the SEC extend invitations to the two Big 12 members with the biggest brands but the SEC is also reportedly going to end (or perhaps technically, not renew) its annual women’s basketball series with the Big 12 in favor of one with another Power 5 conference – coincidentally or not, a conference that also has an ESPN-owned conference network.

It remains to be seen whether the SEC’s reported interest in moving on from the SEC/Big 12 Challenge in women’s basketball is directly tied to Oklahoma and Texas’ defections from Big 12 or if it’s simply part of a larger strategy by the SEC that includes exerting greater control over the composition of its membership, its future scheduling and its media rights.

In the words of Texas Chief of Staff Plonsky, whose employer has since agreed to leave the Big 12 for the SEC: “Marginalization.”

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In case you missed the last newsletter

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“Tim Day, an Iowa State professor of molecular pharmacology who serves as the university’s faculty athletics representative, added, ‘Yeah, I think the NCAA will see this as an institutional staff member lining a deal up for a student-athlete. If we go in this direction, we might need to make a clearer separation – such as not having staff people on both payrolls.’”

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