By RALPH D. RUSSO
The Associated Press
NEW YORK — UConn football is on the road to independence and the American Athletic Conference is not feeling any pressure to replace the Huskies when they leave for the Big East.
The University of Connecticut is set to announce later this week that it will be leaving the AAC and rejoining the Big East, which does not sponsor football, in 2020.
The likely path for the Huskies’ football program is to be unaffiliated with a conference. That can be a scary proposition in the current landscape of college sports. Filling out a schedule and making ends meet financially without playing in a league can be tricky if not daunting — unless you are Notre Dame.
Still, it is a better alternative for UConn than dropping out of the highest level of Division I football. The Huskies are better positioned to make FBS independence work than some of the other schools that have gone that route recently.
The other current FBS independents are Army, BYU, New Mexico State, Liberty and Massachusetts, which is in the same region as UConn and has been going it alone since 2015.
UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford said while he would prefer Minutemen football to play in a conference, independence in FBS was an obvious choice over scaling back to second-tier FCS and finding a conference.
“For us it was never a consideration of dropping down,” Bamford said.
Bamford said competing in FCS brings down expenses tied to the number of scholarships, but it also is a drain on revenue and makes it more difficult to draw fans and donors.
The American’s new media rights deal will pay its members almost $7 million per year, starting in the 2020-21 academic year. The previous deal paid about $2 million. The Big East is in the middle of a deal with Fox that pays members more than $4 million annually.
Usually, when schools switch conferences they receive less than a full share of revenue for the first few years. UConn is also likely to be on the hook for upward of $10 million in exit fees to the American.
The Big East’s revenue distribution from the Fox deal, along with the millions the conference regularly pays to its members from the NCAA basketball tournament performance fund, should help break UConn’s financial fall.
On the scheduling side, UConn will have to fill eight more dates per season.
“Can you get enough games as an independent? And not just games, but games where you’re not putting your football program in peril … Anybody can go get six buy games if they want to go get six buy games, but getting games against similar peer institutions,” Bamford said.
Buy games, those one-off road games schools play against power programs such as Alabama and Ohio State, are a way to generate revenue and the money is much better in FBS than FCS.
Bamford said UMass can receive payouts of up to $1.7 million to play road football games with no return game. The going rate for FCS schools is $350,000 to $450,000.
UConn already has a buy game scheduled with Clemson for 2021 worth $1.2 million.
UConn probably won’t need to overexpose its team to buy games. The Huskies already have locked in home-and-home series through 2025 against Illinois, Indiana, Duke, Purdue, Boston College and North Carolina State.
If UConn dropped down to FCS, those deals would go away.
Dave Brown, the former ESPN executive whose Gridiron software is used by most Division I schools to find future nonconference opponents, said UConn is likely to remain an attractive opponent for some Power Five schools.
The Huskies play at Rentschler Field, a 15-year-old, $91 million stadium in East Hartford that seats 40,000 and is easily accessible to an airport. There are also teams in the region such as UMass, Army, Temple, Navy, Rutgers and Syracuse that could view UConn as a sensible road trip.
“Do I think teams generally would like to stay close to home? Sure,” Brown said. “If I don’t have to fly somewhere, great. If all my fans, players’ families, recruits, if they can drive to the game, great.”
UConn AD David Benedict’s biggest problem will be filling that 2020 schedule when the Huskies suddenly have eight open dates. Brown said there are currently no FBS teams with open dates in that season. What UConn will need to do, he explained, is convince schools that are playing each other to instead play the Huskies.
As for the AAC’s next move, speculation about what school could replace UConn was rampant as soon as news of the Huskies’ departure leaked last weekend. But the conference might very well stand pat with 11 football members. The league’s television contract doesn’t change with the loss of one school.
“Whoever it is has got to bring value and I don’t know who’s out there that does,” Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk said. “Is there anyone that can enhance the situation?”
The conference has long been interested in bringing in Army as a football-only member. BYU and its national following has appeal.
But neither of those schools has wanted to join in the past. Barring a change of heart in West Point, New York, or Provo, Utah, the AAC could scrap its divisions, continue to play eight conference games and match the top two teams in the standings in its football championship game.
All while divvying up the revenue UConn leaves behind among the remaining members.