TAMPA — As its fourth full year of existence winds down, the American Athletic Conference — home to USF — finds itself not necessarily at a crossroads but a pit stop.
Tenaciously, commissioner Mike Aresco has poured in the fuel: a blend of sound bites and strategic plans. He has put a hashtag on the hood. He even beefed up the figurative suspension (adding Wichita State).
Now, he and his crew are trying to push their narrative onto the collegiate straightaway, hoping for the engine to turn over. Hoping for some traction.
Hoping enough horsepower exists to produce, well, power. At least enough to trade proverbial paint with the Michigans and Miamis.
Is there room at the front of the pack for a sixth power conference?
"I think (a Power Six) is attainable," Aresco told Sports Illustrated. "I really do."
Others aren't so sure.
"It's Mike's job, and it's an admirable stance," said Matt Hayes, senior national college football writer for Bleacher Report. "But the reality is none of the AAC (schools) have the financial wherewithal to not only compete at that level — but to sustain."
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In the current collegiate structure, the AAC is widely considered the class of the Group of Five conferences that includes the Mountain West, Sun Belt, Conference USA and Mid-American (MAC). When the Big 12 was considering expansion last year, no fewer than seven AAC schools were reported as finalists.
This past year, it was the only Group of Five league to win a bowl game against a Power Five foe (USF over South Carolina in Birmingham Bowl), put more than one team in the NCAA men's basketball tournament, and record a win against a football team ranked in the top five of the final AP poll (Houston over Oklahoma).
Last month, it had more players taken in the NFL draft (15) than the Big 12 (14). Average attendance for AAC football games last season was 31,611, which ranked — fittingly enough — sixth among all Division I-A conferences.
"I think on the field we're a lot closer than people give us credit for as a conference," UCF athletic director Danny White said.
USF counterpart Mark Harlan agrees: "I like to think that the data is starting to suggest that we've got a lot of things to offer," he said.
Few are questioning that viability. In a sense, the AAC is top sirloin: flavorful and wholly satisfying. But still a cut below the prime rib known as the Power Five (Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12, SEC, ACC, with Notre Dame tossed in).
"I think the American Athletic Conference is stuck in what some of their coaches have called the 'Group of One,' " Sporting News national college football writer Bill Bender said, "because it doesn't quite fit a power conference profile, but it doesn't quite fit — to me — the Sun Belt or MAC-type profile."
Octavio Jones | Times
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Each Power Five league has a lucrative TV deal paying its respective schools upward of $30 million or more annually. Each has a tie-in to the most prestigious bowls.
Collectively, the quintet has legislative autonomy (granted by the NCAA board of directors in 2014) to write its own rules on issues such as recruiting and cost-of-attendance stipends.
And while the AAC has attempted valiantly to keep up, adopting the Power Five's legislation and remaining somewhat competitive on the field, some believe the chasm is simply too expansive — especially from a financial standpoint — for USF and its current peers to bridge.
"The Power Five isn't based on on-the-field success," former ESPN national college football reporter Brett McMurphy said. "It's based on revenue from College Football Playoff and conference media rights."
The AAC's current media rights deals with ESPN and CBS, which expire in full in 2020, pay a fraction (estimated at around $3.5 million per school) of the Power Five's TV contracts. That revenue disparity forces AAC schools to gain monetary ground elsewhere.
At USF, student fees account for the greatest percentage (34 percent) of its athletic department revenue, according to data published in its 2016-17 booster club membership guide. A CBS Sports story last fall reported Houston's revenue from student fees increased from $4.4 million in 2012 to $7.3 million three years later.
Five AAC schools (including USF) gave subsidies in excess of $20 million to their respective athletic departments in 2014-15, according to a USA Today athletic revenue database.
Meantime, Power Five programs — wallowing in revenue from TV and generally larger in-person audiences — fortify their recruiting budgets, enrich their coaching staffs and add multi-million-dollar amenities to their palatial athletic facilities.
In the past two years alone, four AAC coaches — Memphis' Justin Fuente, USF's Willie Taggart, Temple's Matt Rhule and Houston's Tom Herman — have departed for Power Five gigs.
"This is nothing against the AAC, it's the reality of the gap between the Power Five and the Group of Five," McMurphy said. "I'd say the same thing if the Mountain West, Conference USA or any other Group of Five league made the same Power Six claim."
Loren Elliott | Times
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Aresco and his constituents forge onward with nary a flinch, boldly brandishing their own hashtag (#AmericanPow6r) and convinced the value of their product has increased greatly since the conference's formation.
"I think everybody that knows college athletics realizes our current (media-rights) deal, we're drastically undervalued," White said.
Within the next year or so, Aresco is expected to start negotiating a new deal, which will be paramount to his Power Six push. As cord-cutting trends upward among millennials, Aresco has indicated he's open to exploring digital-content providers (i.e. Netflix, Amazon) to more broadly showcase his product and increase the deal's value.
"We'll get a better TV deal. That's going to be key," he told Sports Illustrated.
"We've got the '17-'18, '18-'19 and '19-'20 seasons left to go, but we'll negotiate well before that. I think our guys have done more with less already."
But even if the TV pot increases, what about attendance revenue? The AAC's average football attendance last season (31,611) was far shy of the lowest Power Five average (ACC at 49,734). Then there's the legislative maneuvering involved with being formally accepted into the power-conference structure.
Would the Power Five want to cut in another full partner?
"Do we hit an unknown line that would suggest, 'Okay, now they have enough capital that they can make decisions,' " Harlan said.
"And truth be told, we've adopted every single proposal that the Power Five has adopted. It's a combination of just really telling the world that we believe that in four years we've done a lot of really good things."
Let the power play commence.
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.