Bearcats Enter The Brave New World Of The American Athletic Conference

Joe Murphy

Upon its creation the American Athletic Conference was much maligned as an inferior league in a college sports landscape that is increasingly tilting in the favor of the schools in the biggest and most powerful conferences. For one year those concerns faded to the background a bit. Central Florida made a run to the BCS and upset the heavily favored Baylor Bears in the Fiesta bowl. UConn won another women's national championship in basketball while the men did the same behind Shabazz Naipier. Not a bad return for a league in its first season and in transition.

The majority of that transition will take place today. This is the day where Louisville and Rutgers officially depart (for the ACC and Big 10 respectively) and the AAC welcomes three newcomers; East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa. Understandably this change will not be greeted with hosannas from the remaining members of the AAC. Losing Rutgers is a very "meah" occasion, for all of the hype and abundant potential the Scarlet Knights were a perennial underachiever, in basically every sport. But there is no sugar coating the loss of Louisville. The Cardinals brought credibility to the league in a host of different sports. As much as it is unpleasant to admit, that is in and of itself an indisputable fact. The Cardinals boast one of the best run and most profitable athletic departments in the country, and they are leaving. That's the bad news.

The good news is that their departure leaves a massive vacuum within the grander power structure of the AAC and that the Bearcats are in a great position to fill it. It could be argued that the Bearcats football program has been among the most consistent in the country since entering the Big East for the 2005 season. Mick Cronin has brought the Basketball program back from the ashes of de facto probation and is one of the best young coaches in the country. He is also strongly committed to the Bearcats after agreeing to a 7 year deal. That deal almost certainly has language about the newly solvent athletic department committing to addressing the arena situation, be it through playing at US Bank or a renovated Fifth Third Arena. Recruiting for both revenue sports has picked up tremendously in the past few years.

What's most interesting about what has happened the past few years is that all of this positive momentum has been building as everything about them has fallen apart. The conference they joined in 2005 has disintegrated around them. The comfortable and privileged existence that was the whole point of jumping ship from the old C-USA has crumbled away with it. No longer are the Bearcats competing with their conference mates for BCS and NCAA tournament berths. Actually the picture hasn't changed much in basketball, the Bearcats are still on the right side of the red line. The AAC got four teams into the NCAA tournament this year, and will probably continue to be a multiple bid league for the foreseeable future. Its in football that the picture has changed.

The competition now is not just down the road in the form of Louisville, West Virginia or Pitt. The competition is now in Boise, Idaho and San Diego; its in Provo, Utah and Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The Bearcats will now be competing for a national prize, the single guaranteed spot in the access bowls, and the competition will be national. Yes some of the fiercest contests will be among AAC schools, UC and UCF in particular. But the measuring stick for everyone is no longer local, its national. The same goes for the schools in every other non Power 5 league in the country. Chalk this up as one ripple effect from the seismic event that was the SEC grabbing Arkansas and South Carolina in 1991. The long effect of that has been to take what was once a strictly regional sport and make it a national one. That process continues today.

Here is the concept that should ultimately guide Bearcats fans through this transition; the Cincinnati Bearcats circa 2014 are better positioned to thrive in the new environment they are entering than they were circa 2005. (please pardon me the indulgence of quoting myself)

The transition was an expensive one. It wasn't just getting the Football and Basketball programs up to a Big East standard, it was getting every program up to a Big East standard, which obviously necessitated a large outlay of cash, cash that had no chance to be recouped in the span of a year, and it wasn't.

In 2014 there is no need to ramp up spending to compete with richer more well off competition. Now the Bearcats, along with UConn, are setting the revenue curve for the conference. Both UC and UConn had around 60 million dollars in expenses set against against revenues north of 60 million.* There is not a huge difference in terms of absolute rank between UConn and Cincinnati and the rest of the conference. UConn is 48th in revenue, and Cincinnati is 51st followed by Memphis (56th), USF (57th), Houston (60th) and UCF (61st). But there is a huge gap when it comes to the actual numbers. Those four schools really lag behind UC and UConn each taking in 46 million or less. That obviously gives the Bearcats a better chance to maintain the high levels of performance that have become the norm.

*These numbers are for the fiscal year ending 2013, which means june of last year. There is a one year lag between the schools reporting their numbers and those numbers being made public.

That is ultimately what this is all about, and why Bearcats shouldn't be viewing our new conference home with such disdain. The AAC transitioning to its new state gives the Bearcats a chance to stake a claim as the dominant program on the playing fields and at the box office. At some point the realignment carousel will begin spinning again. There is too much TV money at stake for it not to. The University of Cincinnati has to be ready for it when it does.

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