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AAC's Mike Aresco: "I think this is the way we had to go as a conference."
Posted: March 27, 2019 -- 5:15 p.m. CDT
Earlier today, the American Athletic Conference Commissioner and ESPN announced that The American and ESPN have reached agreement on a 12-year media rights extension beginning in 2020-21. ESPN has been the Conference's principal media rights holder for football, men's and women's basketball and Olympic sports since the league's reconstitution in 2013-14. Financial terms of the contract, which will run through 2031-32, were not disclosed. However, according to the Michael Smith and John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal, the deal is reportedly worth $1B.
With the new agreement, The American will have a stronger and more extensive presence on ESPN’s primary TV networks – ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU. More than 135 conference-controlled games will air annually on the networks, and more than 1,650 events will be telecast throughout the duration of the contract. Among the annual events, the football championship game, all rounds of the men's basketball championship, and multiple rounds of the women's basketball championship, will be on ESPN TV networks.
The Conference will also be a valuable part of ESPN+, ESPN’s industry-leading direct-to-consumer sports streaming service. At least 1,000 American events will be featured on the platform beginning in 2022-23 and in each subsequent year of the contract. In the first two years, 1,250 events (500 in 2020-21 and 750 in 2021-22) will be distributed on ESPN+.
AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco spoke with me and answered a few questions about the deal; the benefits he sees in having games on ESPN+; growing pains with the transition to ESPN+; and, rumors pertaining to schools outside The American considering hiring current AAC men's basketball coaches; and more.
HRR: Are there any concerns with any negative feedback from fans who don't want to adapt (subscribe) to ESPN+ or new technology?
Aresco: It's one of those things; and, I don't want to appear insensitive to those concerns; so, you always take them seriously; but, I really do believe that this deal will be a home run for the conference in all respects.
I think people will embrace ESPN+. It's relatively easy to get access to it. It's relatively inexpensive when you think about it: $4.99 a month. It's available everywhere. High quality productions. And, there will be sports on it that you just wouldn't be able to see anywhere else.
So, I'm hoping that people embrace it. It is the Digital Age. Direct-to-consumer is the way things are moving.
The other thing about this deal is we are getting more coverage - more guaranteed coverage of our games on the ESPN primary channels -- ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU; and, then, ABC for football. We're getting more coverage than we got. We're getting more guaranteed games; so, we're getting more of the primary networks' coverage; and, yet, now, we're also part of the digital future. You really need to be a part of that. This is the way, I think, consumers are going to get sports.
There are some networks that we've had programming on were only available in half or less than half of the country. Now, no matter where you are, you can get ESPN+.
Granted, there will be some growing pains; and, there will be some people who have some trouble maybe with the technology. But, I think we can help; ESPN can help explain to people how to get it to our fans.
But, I think this is the way we had to go as a conference. Also, we needed to generate a headline deal - a deal that was a game changer - which I think we did. And, that's all part of this, too. ESPN+ is an important part of what Disney and ESPN are doing. That enabled us to have a presence there; and, to generate a higher rights fee than we probably would have gotten otherwise.
HRR: How will the branding of AAC be handled on ESPN+?
Aresco: I think you're, essentially, going to have a branded American Digital Network on ESPN+. You'll have a section of it that's devoted to The American. You'll have the ability to have alerts for American programming. You'll have the ability to have that portion of the ESPN+ app devoted to our digital offering. It's almost like having our own network. Our own digital network on ESPN+.
We're going to have some prominent promotion. I think the branding is going to help us. For fans who want to find our programming, they can program their app to make sure that all our games come up. Anything that has anything to do with The American, they'll get an alert. I think it's going to be good in that regard.
HRR: Will the people at the American Digital Network transition to ESPN+ and, with the conference moving to Texas (Frisco) soon, how will it tie together?
Aresco: Our digital network will go on ESPN+; so, it will blend in. We'll be producing those events. They'll now be on ESPN+ rather the our digital network; so, those people will continue to do what they do.
As far as the office move, that's something that just makes sense because we're so far from all of our schools now. The geographical composition of this conference has changed dramatically over the last six years. We're no longer based in the northeast like the old Big East was. (Currently), Our office is in Providence (Rhode Island) which is about as far from all our schools as you can get. It's a great place to live. It's a nice community; and, we have a nice office here. But, we think, ultimately, we need to be closer to our schools. We want them to visit us. We want to be able to visit them. In addition, when you have a school in the marketplace, people come in: ADs, coaches, Presidents, staff - they come in and you can say 'Let's go down to the arena. Let's go to the football stadium and say hello.' And, that, you can't do in Providence now because Providence College is in the Big East. They're not in our conference; so, nobody is coming to visit the Dunkin Donuts Center where you can say hello. That's going to change. Obviously, when you have a team in Dallas.
HRR: What are your thoughts on the rumors that other schools are trying to hire current AAC men's basketball head coaches?
Aresco: I saw that. I saw Arkansas might have some interest in Kelvin (Houston's Kelvin Sampson). Although, it's just a report. Then, I saw that Vanderbilt might have some interest in (UCF's) Johnny Dawkins.
I've learned not to be concerned about that. Just like when people ask me 'Well, do you worry about realignment down the road?' I say, 'No. I don't lose any sleep over it all.' If it happens, it happens.
If a coach goes, a coach goes. He'll have his or her personal reasons. I hope they don't leave.
I think Kelvin is extremely happy at Houston. I think Houston is a great job. I think Houston is a destination job. I think he's got a tremendous situation there - a brand new arena; a program now that's going to continue to be relevant; and, the same thing - Johnny's done remarkable things at UCF. What he did this weekend (versus Duke in 2nd round of NCAA Tournament) was phenomenal. It's a shame they didn't win. But, what a statement. And, I think he likes it there. He likes the athletic director, Danny White. Just as I think Chris Pezman, the AD, is a great guy at Houston.
I think coaches want a certain level of comfort and a place where their families are comfortable. I think Kelvin and Johnny have that.
Now, I have no idea if, ultimately, they'll took another job. Maybe the P5 schools can offer more money; but, I think they're happy where they are.
We'll see. We've had an easier time keeping basketball coaches than football coaches. That's where it gets dicey because they, typically, make a lot more money. In the P5, they have probably better bowl access where the (NCAA) Tournament is the Tournament. You make it. You make it. No matter what conference you play; and, we're a good conference. In basketball, we are viewed as a Power 7. In football, we're still struggling with that - even though, we're really good in football. In football, we don't get the respect we deserve. In basketball, we're starting to get the respect. We've got a lot of pedigree. A lot of blue bloods in basketball.
But, in the end, you just want a fair shot. I think we're going to continue to build those programs; and, that'll help us retain coaches and a whole bunch of other things.
HRR: What are your thoughts on Houston in the Sweet 16 facing Kentucky and what are your thoughts on Wichita State being in the Final Four in the NIT?
Aresco: We haven't had a Sweet 16 team since 2014 when UConn and Louisville went from our conference. We came really close last year. We should have won both of those games in the second round; but, we didn't. This year, we should have won both of them; but, at least, Houston did make it. They're the first school we've make the Sweet 16 since 2014; and, that's held our conference back a bit. We've had a lot of bad luck in Tournaments. We've lost a lot of close games that we probably could have won.
The fact that we finally broke through and got a Sweet 16 team; and, a team that has a chance to go further, is really big for the conference. It really is. And, we needed that.
You get judged by how many teams you're sending to the NCAA Tournament but also how well they do. They have to advance; and, we needed that. We needed Houston to win. We almost had two. We came within a hair of getting two; and, it probably would have been the biggest upset in years.
HRR: And, what are your thoughts on Wichita State's reaching the Final 4 of the NIT?
Aresco: I'm thrilled. They beat Indiana (last night). They're going to Madison Square Garden. It's a great building block. The NIT has been a spawning ground for teams that really are going to do well the final year in the NCAA Tournament.
Teams that have won the NIT, have often gone to do great things in the (NCAA) Tournament. UConn is a great example.
The NIT gives you valuable experience. You get to play in Madison Square Garden. And, winning is nice. The kids always feel pride in winning something.
Here are a few details about the new agreement:
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