The American Athletic Conference sees itself as one of the major power conferences of college sports. It’s not, of course. There are only five power conferences. But a conference has to dream. And dreaming of being a power conference is not a bad thing. Especially for the American, which is the one best positioned to make the jump to power status.
But it’s hard to see how Friday’s much-ballyhooed move of adding Wichita State to the conference does that much to improve the conference’s overall standing. It helps Wichita State, of course, by giving the school a better conference and better competition for its men’s basketball team, a perennial NCAA Tournament seed that has struggled with seeding because of the weakness of its previous conference. But Wichita State does not have a football team, and in college sports, power is defined by football.
“It's just a matter of time before this becomes one of the best basketball conferences in the country,” American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco said on a Friday conference call.
Yet the big television money doesn’t come from basketball, but from football. And while the AAC has flirted with football success the past several seasons — as when UH made one of the New Year's bowls two seasons ago — it has not offered up evidence that it can deliver that type of success every year, especially since two of the better programs over the past several seasons, Houston and Memphis, have yet to prove that they can sustain a high level of success.
There are also no traditional football powers in the conference, so there are no schools that are guaranteed to deliver large TV ratings year in and year out, even though the conference has schools like Houston and SMU that play in large television markets. So the addition of Wichita State, a mid-major basketball power with no football program, adds absolutely nothing to the football TV equation, and definitely adds nothing to the need to increase the conference’s football reputation or footprint.
There is no argument that the addition of Wichita State improves the basketball reputation of the conference. Wichita State has been a mid-major power for many years now. The Shockers reached the Final Four back in 2013. It’s one of those schools that the major programs hate facing in the NCAA Tournament. And in a conference that has been struggling with national relevance in basketball as UConn has started to struggle, it’s especially a good move, particularly with the rumors that UConn has been looking to bolt for the Big East.
“You're bringing in a brand name, a national name,” Houston Cougars head coach Kelvin Sampson told reporters on Friday. “The fact that they're going to come in as a top 10 team in the nation automatically gets our conference in the national discussion.”
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But what happens to that brand if the rest of the conference continues to stagnate? Cincinnati annually fields an NCAA team. But Temple, UConn and Memphis have been on downward swings recently. There’s no evidence SMU knows how to sustain success with a basketball program. Houston and UCF have improved, but both seem stuck at NIT levels of success, and the less said about the rest of the conference’s basketball teams the better.
So the American Athletic Conference bills itself as a major player in college sports. It just made an effort to improve the status of its basketball programs, but as of now it’s just a short-term fix that is dependent on the rest of the conference teams stepping up their games to achieve the level of success of the new member. Meanwhile it did absolutely nothing to better itself in football.
“In two years, we'll be among the best conferences in the country,” Aresco told the media last month. “I'm totally convinced.”
The optimism is nice. But besides the short-term boost for basketball that comes from adding Wichita State, there’s really nothing that indicates the American is on the verge of joining the ranks of the true power conferences.