What Does the New AAC Media Rights Deal Mean for Each Group of Five Conference?

You probably have heard by now that the American Athletic Conference struck a deal a bit early with ESPN that is for 12 years and $1 billion, which averages out to about $6.94 million per school per year in revenue. It’s not for all of the conference’s sports content, but a heavy majority of it.

I thought it would be good to take a few minutes to talk about what this means for each Group of Five conference, as they are definitely impacted very differently by this deal. Plus some other thoughts, because I can.

The MAC and the Sun Belt

I group these two together because at least in this arena, the Mid-American and the Sun Belt are more like each other than anything else.

The MAC is currently in Year Five of their 13-year, $124 million deal with ESPN that runs through the 2026-27 school year and pays each school a little over $800,000 a year at this point.

The Sun Belt agreed a year ago to a deal that now runs a year further than that, through 2027-28. The math isn’t publicly available, but we know each school is gettign at least $125,000 a year from that deal.

These conferences both linked themselves up with ESPN full-bore for the foreseeable future, and are in the same boat which means such deals will be minimally impacted by the one the AAC just signed.

The Mountain West

This deal likely means two things for the Mountain West. First, their next deal should be a reasonably similar jump in revenue. Second, we’ll find out just how perception has shifted in terms of media rights-holders’ valuing of the MWC relative to the AAC.

Back in 2013, the Mountain West and the recently-formed American both signed seven-year deals, with the Mountain West deal valued at roughly $116 million and the AAC deal coming in around $126 million.

From a purely mathematical standpoint, the 460% increase in the value of the AAC deal would suggest that a similar perception of the MWC (either relative to 2013 MWC or relative to 2019 AAC) should result in an annual value in the neighborhood of $76.5 million per year or $918 million over the life of a 12-year deal like The American’s.

Of course, there are a bunch of “if”s in that paragraph. If the Mountain West wants to commit a similarly heavy portion of their eggs to the ESPN basket, and if they are valued similarly, then they should get that kind of annual value (for however long a commitment they’d like to make).

Maybe Craig Thompson and his member schools see a jump in revenue of that size as worth such a dense partnership with the Worldwide Leader; maybe they get an equally rich deal without needing to commit that heavily to ESPN, or for that length of time. Or maybe they don’t, but they value future flexibility over maximizing revenue.

We’ll find out sometime this year, I’m sure.

The American

Mo’ money, mo’ problems?

I guess we’ll find out.

This most definitely means that the work that commissioner Mike Aresco and the member institutions have done in marketing paid off when it mattered most.

All of the chatter about “P6” or about UCF’s (valid) National Champion claims is by and large just white noise now, as each member institution will be taking almost an additional $5 million per year into the budget.

Other things have mattered as well, to varying degrees:

  • The residual Big East basketball success (Cinci, plus a little UConn and Temple)
  • The additions of Navy and Wichita State to stabilize scheduling
  • The financial investment (and payoff) by Houston and Tilman Fertitta

This also allows the AAC to not have to worry too much if any sort of realignment occurs. If membership changes, that’s not the end of the world because this rights deal is already done, so barring a drastic shift in membership that causes ESPN to demand a renegotiation, there’s a good bit of cost certainty here.

Conference USA

So remember when CUSA renegotiated their media rights deal a couple of years ago? Turns out that was more indicative of the conference’s perceived value than the actual media rights landscape.

This is, of course, unfortunate for the conference.

Right now, their deal is for a rough total of $400,000 per school per year, which works out to about $5.6 million per year and $28 million over the five-year life of the deal.

This is absolutely anemic compared to any conference other than the Sun Belt, and it makes one wonder what the offer from ESPN would have been for a setup similar to the MAC or SBC.

Again, money isn’t everything, but I now have to wonder if Conference USA did some combination of the following:

  • overvaluing flexibility + overestimating potential revenue
  • undervaluing of the schools that left for the AAC + overvaluing the schools that replaced them
  • overestimating the deal that they could get from someone other than ESPN.

There are still four years left on this deal, which is better than still being locked in for a decade-plus, but that doesn’t make the future much brighter for this lot.

Their next negotiation is unlikely to improve in terms of revenue unless the success and profile of the current membership improves, the membership improves via turnover, or the amount of revenue improves via giving all rights to one rights-holder (that rhymes with shmorldwide shmeader).

Fans of Group of Five Conferences

Not all good things, unfortunately. AAC fans now know exactly where to find all their content, just like fans of the MAC or Sun Belt. Perhaps this is the moment that persuades the MWC and CUSA to do the same.

The catch, of course, is that as ESPN gains more rights (especially as part of deals that move most of the content they acquire onto ESPN+), the cost of ESPN+ is naturally going to go up.

This would be ok, except that some of the content (especially the *best* content) will remain on linear networks, which means that you’ll still need multiple sources and your overall cost will continue to rise.

Granted, I personally have YouTubeTV and ESPN+, and the cost of either could see a good bump and still be well below what I was wasting on DirecTV, but I’d rather it cost what it costs now.

This deal is a win for the AAC that should produce a similar win for the Mountain West, and should have Conference USA very concerned about it’s future viability as a conference that can afford to remain together at the FBS level.

It’s mixed for fans who like ESPN and/or simplicity of access, but who dislike seeing the cost of sports creeping back up.

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