Connecticut’s impending departure from the American Athletic Conference means the AAC might be seeking a new member.
It will be surprising if the Charlotte 49ers and Appalachian State aren’t among the league’s suitors.
It’s unclear what the AAC will do after, according to news reports over the weekend, UConn announces later this week that it’s returning to the Big East in all sports but football. Will the AAC even want to replace UConn and instead remain at 11 members? Will it add one school for football only and another for just basketball? Will it try to add a high-profile football independent like Brigham Young?
Or will it go after a school at another of the NCAA’s “Group of 5” conferences, of which Charlotte (Conference USA) and Appalachian State (Sun Belt) are members?
Thanks to the recent success of football programs like Central Florida, Houston and Memphis, the AAC has separated itself from other Group of 5 leagues in the national conversation, even fancying itself as a sixth “Power 5” league. The league’s basketball profile has also spiked.
So landing in the AAC might be an attractive move for the 49ers and Mountaineers. But there are downsides for both.
The AAC’s television deal, signed earlier this year, reportedly gives each school about $7 million per year. That’s significantly more than recent deals signed by C-USA (a multiplatform deal worth $400,000 per school, according to the Virginian Pilot) and the Sun Belt (with ESPN, worth $300,000-$400,000 per school, according to the Sports Business Journal).
That kind of money would be a boon for either Charlotte or Appalachian’s athletic budgets, which would need substantial boosts to be competitive in the AAC. An average AAC budget is about $50 million, significantly higher than what Charlotte (about $34 million) or Appalachian (about $35 million) have now.
The addition of either Charlotte or Appalachian would also provide an in-state, conference rival for East Carolina, an AAC member since 2014.
Charlotte would bring its market size and considerable potential to the AAC.
The 49ers sit in a major metropolitan area with the 23rd-largest television market in the country. That kind of profile is always going to be attractive to a college sports conference. The TV market size is considerably larger than that of other C-USA schools that might also be potentially interested in joining the AAC — Alabama-Birmingham (43rd) or Old Dominion (the Norfolk, Va., area is ranked 44th).
The 49ers’ athletic facilities are already outstanding and ready to be improved. Football’s Richardson Stadium, although now the smallest in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision at 15,314 seats, can be expanded to about 40,000. A $40 million athletic facilities master plan will soon be released, as well.
Charlotte would also bring nationally prominent programs such as men’s soccer, men’s golf and track and field to a new conference.
Yet taking on Charlotte would likely be a significant leap of faith for the AAC. The 49ers’ football program is entering its seventh season and just its fifth on the FBS level. Although Charlotte improved from one victory in 2017 to five last season, moving to the AAC under new coach Will Healy might be an arduous jump not dissimilar to the one it recently made from the Football Championship Subdivision to C-USA.
Charlotte’s once-proud men’s basketball program — which has had two consecutive single-digit victory seasons — is also trying to find its footing under second-year coach Ron Sanchez.
Fan support is an issue for the 49ers. Football attendance last season averaged 11,711, fourth-lowest among the NCAA’s 130 FBS schools. Basketball attendance has declined steadily over the past several seasons. Last season’s average of 3,696 was among the lowest in Halton Arena history.
Charlotte has a new, forward-thinking athletics director in Mike Hill. Might he be considering that this isn’t the right time for yet another conference move for the 49ers? Would it be worth waiting for another — inevitable — round of conference realignment in the next few years, when Charlotte’s football and basketball situations might be better positioned for a league like the AAC?
“We’re grateful to have a home in C-USA and won’t speculate on conference rumors,” Hill said in a text message to the Observer.
Appalachian State’s case
The case for Appalachian and the AAC is much more simple and straightforward.
The Mountaineers would bring one of the stronger brands in all of college football to the league. And in these times in college athletics, football is king.
Appalachian has played in and won a bowl game every year since moving to the FBS from the FCS’s Southern Conference in 2015. The Mountaineers have won the Sun Belt title three consecutive seasons.
A move to the AAC would mean the Mountaineers would have to once again boost its football program, something it has already shown it can do from its seamless transition from FCS to FBS.
But Appalachian is truly a “football school.” There wouldn’t be much added value to the AAC from the Mountaineers’ other sports, at least on a national scale.
And the Boone market — although drawing some from the Charlotte, Triad and Tennessee’s Tri-Cities areas — is negligible. It’s worth noting that Appalachian’s pursuit of Conference USA membership in 2015 was turned down in large part because of that.