There’s been a focus in Houston lately around the Houston Cougars, their chances of jumping to the Big 12, one of college football’s power conferences. The Cougars are looking to secure their future in college athletics, and school officials doubt they have a bright future as a member of the American Athletic Conference. But while UH fans, athletes and administrators might feel otherwise, the school is in a good position, no matter what happens.
While the American Athletic Conference is relatively new, it’s rather stable when compared to some of the other non-power conferences. The conference provides lots of primetime television exposure on ESPN and its family of networks. The television money, while not as lucrative as in conferences like the Big 10 or the SEC, is decent.
This is not the case in the other non-power football conferences. Take for instance Conference USA which once was situated much as the American is now. Many of its major members, UH, Cincinnati, Memphis and Louisville, have been poached by other conferences. That has meant the loss of major television markets, meaning less conference interest and a much lower profile.
And while the American has a somewhat high-profile deal with ESPN, Conference USA just entered into new media rights deals with four different parties that result in less revenue for member schools than before. This results from C-USA's being the first of the minor conferences to renegotiate its media deals during a time of industry belt-tightening. The Big 10 might be entering into new major deals and the NFL and the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament might be selling broadcast rights for tons of dollars, but other sports and leagues have been taking major financial hits.
This lack of money could become a major problem for a conference such as C-USA, one that as a result of the departures has taken replacements from smaller conferences like the Sun Belt Conference. The conference footprint stretches from El Paso to Huntington, West Virginia, with stops in Tennessee, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia and back to Texas. It may be easy for Rice to visit North Texas and UTSA and UTEP; El Paso sending volleyball and baseball teams to places like Huntington and Murfreesboro becomes more daunting when schools are earning less television revenue to help offset travel costs.
So what’s a conference to do? One of my colleagues, Patrick Magee, who covers Southern Mississippi, suggested a couple of weeks ago the conference might need to contemplate dissolving. And if it doesn't dissolve, it might need to think about growing and adding even more schools, then splitting into divisions to cut travel costs.
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Which would be the best option for a school like Rice? The Owls aren't going to get an invite to the Big 12 or SEC anytime soon, and it will probably never be able to deliver a television audience close to what UH can. The conference is actually a good one, athletically, for Rice. It’s a good fit for baseball, and the football team has proven it can win games and make bowls when playing C-USA.
But the conference doesn’t seem to make sense for the school. And if Rice is going to have to stay in an economically disadvantaged conference, it might make sense to go smaller with a conference like Sun Belt and the Texas-Louisiana-based C-USA teams. Travel costs would lessen and that would make it easier for fans to travel to games.
True, the football schedule doesn’t look attractive, but it’s not like the current conference schedule is any better. The basketball outlook might be a bit better for Rice, though baseball might suffer a drop in competitiveness. This is speculative of course. But it’s a question the member schools of Conference USA should probably be asking because college athletics can be expensive, and a drop in media rights revenue doesn’t help that problem.
So UH and its supporters might be pushing for entry into the Big 12. But UH is in a good place at the moment. The Cougars got out of Conference USA at just the right time, and while the school might be looking to move up again, it’s in a relatively stable place while it searches for options. Rice doesn’t have those same options. And Rice might have to start figuring out how to survive in a much harder sports landscape.