Commentary: The case against UMass joining the AAC

  • The American Athletic Conference logo is shown before during the championship football game between Houston and Temple Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) David J. Phillip—AP

  • The American Athletic Conference logo is shown before during the championship football game between Houston and Temple Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) David J. Phillip—AP

Staff Writer
Published: 6/24/2019 8:01:05 PM

In this era of college athletics, there are few no-doubt decisions made at the administrative level.

Every choice has its benefits and its consequences, and it’s easy to miss out on the other side when you’re set in your ways. Which is why when news broke that UConn is set to join the Big East starting in 2020-21 — a fact confirmed Monday with the Big East voting to extend UConn that invitation — UMass fans felt it was obvious the school needed to accept the invitation to fill the vacancy in the American Athletic Conference if offered.

Yes, the AAC would give UMass football a home for the first time since being unceremoniously booted from the Mid-American Conference in 2015. Yes, it is easier for a football program to survive and thrive within a conference. But one program cannot be the basis for these decisions for UMass, especially with a fan base that isn’t sure if it’s a football-first or basketball-first school.

On a basic level, the improved competition and prestige that comes with joining the AAC is appealing across the board for UMass. But that comes at a cost of regional rivalries, something that is vital to the fabric of college athletics. Of course, the move would add more fuel to the rivalry with Temple, but after that, the next closest school is East Carolina, an 11-hour drive and 670ish miles away.

We saw firsthand how poorly Rutgers’ addition to the Big Ten has gone, and a lot of that has to do with the fact the Scarlet Knights were not competitive early in two of the three major sports and were regionally isolated from the rest of the conference. The latter reason is of deep concern to UMass considering the AAC is moving its headquarters to Dallas and the number of schools the conference boasts from the South and Midwest.

And there is no guarantee any of the Atlantic 10 teams would be willing to schedule UMass in basketball, either, especially if there is ill-will against the founding member for leaving the conference. Maryland has had a lot of issues scheduling ACC teams to nonconference games because of the animosity its departure created.

Then of course, there’s the monetary side of the equation. The good news is UMass likely won’t have to pay a hefty exit fee to the A-10 — Butler and Xavier forked over $2 million for giving the conference less than a year’s notice back in 2013. And the AAC’s new television deal offers each school roughly $7 million annually in revenue over 12 years starting in 2020-21.

But that money does little to cover the costs that would come with joining the AAC and being successful within the league.

In a 2014 Division I position study ordered by UMass, CarrSports Consulting looked at the potential of the Minutemen joining the league in 2017. At the time, the average AAC school spent $14.5 million more across 18 sports than UMass spent on its 21 sports. Those figures have obviously changed in the past five years as UMass has invested more into the athletics department, but that gap hasn’t shrunk too much.

Of the six AAC schools that were part of USA Today’s survey last year that looked at the financial statements from the 2016-17 school year, UMass still spent less than all of them and were more than $7 million fewer than three schools. Those three schools were Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston, which have arguably been the best programs in the conference in football and basketball in recent seasons.

The final major reason against the move to the AAC is the jump in competition, a rationale that can be hard to justify. On the one hand, coaches can perhaps recruit players who wouldn’t have listened to UMass previously and improve the roster that way. But on the other hand, it can be a hard sell for coaches if they didn’t have much success in the A-10 to pitch success in a more difficult league.

Even programs with a recent history of success in the A-10 are not ready for the jump to the AAC. Women’s lacrosse isn’t ready to compete with perennial top-10 Florida for the conference title and softball is well behind the likes of Houston, South Florida and Tulsa who consistently are in regional finals in the NCAA Tournament. That’s not to say those programs couldn’t improve and contend in the future, but the trophy case might be barren for a little bit during the transition.

It is easy to wipe away those real concerns because this move will help stabilize the football program. It is simple to focus only on the positives a move to the American would do for UMass.

But this isn’t a simple decision, this isn’t a choice without some serious potential consequences, and in reality, this move wouldn’t solve the issues at UMass. The grass might be greener in the AAC, but it isn’t as vibrant as you’d expect.

Josh Walfish can be reached at jwalfish@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @JoshWalfishDHG. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.



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