Expansion Project Vol I
Expansion Project Vol II
Every fan base points to its successes, especially in expansion pitches. Most will talk about bowl wins or conference championships over the past decade, heck you can’t even go two sentences in a conversation about BYU without someone mentioning a football championship 32 years ago. However, none of them have the recent success in a major sport like the University of Connecticut (UConn).
Since the turn of the millennium the Husky’s have won four national titles in men’s basketball, two of them in the past five years. Additionally, the women’s basketball program has won eleven national championships since 1995, including each of the past four years. Women’s basketball doesn’t really move the needle in expansion discussions, but if you’re looking for basketball cache you will be hard pressed to find a better candidate than UConn.
But do they stack up in every other category? Let’s review.
Ranking in the top half of the FBS, UConn definitely brings a recognizable brand to the table within their candidacy. They rank 51st overall and, even though they are lower than the Big 12 average, they would still be ranked ninth in the conference if they joined.
With enrollment at 30,500 they’d be forth in the Big 12, just edging out Oklahoma and West Virginia by a couple hundred students. This gives them a solid fan base to work with, emboldened by the basketball success mentioned earlier.
Their licensing figures are also impressive, topping the AAC. They’d be last in the Big 12, but only by a rounding error, and their score fits in much more closely to the Big 12 schools than the AAC. Comparing them to some of their conference mates, they make more in licensing than Memphis and Houston, combined.
When it comes to brand, UConn is the cream of the non-Power Five crop, leading all expansion candidates with their score.
If there is any area that seems to not make any sense for the Big 12, it is the location of the University of Connecticut. Their scoring reflects this as they are solidly in the lower half of the FBS schools.
UConn is about 530 miles north east of Morgantown, which is closer than many expansion candidates, but is 1,330 miles away from the geographic center of the Big 12. Ironically, that is not as bad as most of the western schools, like BYU, who are considerably farther away from both.
If travel is going to be an issue, however, at least it is an issue towards some major markets. Residing in the Hartford/New Haven DMA, UConn is located in the 30th largest DMA in the country with 945,000, which on its own is bigger than Kansas City, Salt Lake City, or Cincinnati. They are also located 140 miles east of New York City, the top DMA in the country with 7.4 million households, which is just the next DMA over. While I think it would be naïve to say they pull that DMA, they are definitely within striking distance to gain some of those viewers. And while that may feel closer, they are only 90 miles from Boston, which is the 8th largest market in the US with 2.4 million households, and 50 miles from Providence, which is the 51st market in the US at 603,000 households, or about the size of New Orleans. That means that within a 150 mile circle of the university you have approximately 11.4 million households.
The Huskies will not draw all of these people, not even close. However it is far more people within a small area than nearly every other expansion candidate. The issue is that while basketball may get on TVs in New York City, no one tunes into the football team, which is what the Big 12 needs. There is so much competition for eyeballs in that part of the world that it is very difficult to make a dent. Additionally, unlike the Big Ten who already had giant alumni bases in the metroplex from Boston to DC, the Big 12’s alumni, save West Virginia, are not centered in those areas. This means that while it would be interesting to see Texas play UConn in the Meadowlands, or UConn against Kanas at Madison Square Garden, there will not be a depth of local support in the area to justify it happening often.
While UConn’s brand is definitely sizable and their licensing larger than any other non-Power Five school, there are still significant concerns within their finances.
Overall revenue is good. At around $70-75 million they are on par with the bottom of the Big 12. With a bit more in a media deal and they’d be at $85 million without much work.
The downside is that $75 million is a bit deceptive as nearly 40% of it comes from subsidies. This is not a one year anomaly either, as this trend has been evident in the past few years. Millions are being spent in Storrs per year just to keep up with the Joneses. Like many of the schools in this situation, that means the university is caught in a dilemma should they move to the Power Five; does the increased revenue reduce subsidies or increase revenue? It can’t do both. If they are looking for it to be a lifeline to reduce the amount the university needs to support the athletic department, then the overall revenues will still be far below the Big 12 average.
A lot of this issue with UConn’s finances is likely directly related to its football team, which is unfortunate since football is what is driving expansion. Looking at their attendance numbers, UConn resides right around the FBS average, but far below the Big 12 and Power Five average.
This isn’t the fault of the basketball programs as the women’s team draws more than the Big 12 average. It’s the football team that averages around 28,000 fans per game. That is the opposite of what you’re looking to find when adding to a football conference. As I mentioned in the Houston analysis, Iowa State still averaged 56,000 fans per game in a season where they only won three games and their revenues are near the bottom of the Big 12 (though they also don’t rely heavily on subsidies).
Outside the massive markets surrounding UConn, the largest intangible the school has going for it is that it is one of the few state schools still left on the board, specifically a state school pointing in the direction the Big 12 is looking. The fact that they have strong academics and research expenditures that resemble Oklahoma and Florida State should not be discounted either.
Additionally, in a very unique situation for the University of Connecticut, ESPN headquarters is located on the other side of Hartford, a mere 15 miles further west than their football stadium. This and the tax breaks the state has provided ESPN ensures UConn always receives media attention, especially in sports it excels. While this assists UConn and could make it easier to set up “Made for TV” events that UConn hosts with ESPN within the conference, I am still not convinced that featuring a school from 1,400 miles away is going to invigorate the Northeast Metroplex.
On the negative side the largest knock on UConn is it is a basketball school. And not like Kansas, UNC or Kentucky, UConn just started playing football in the FBS in 2002. While the school has been playing football for 119 years, it has next to no “big time football” history to bring to the table. This is a major concern for a conference that is trying to elevate its presence in the College Football Playoffs.
After taking into consideration all the positives and negatives discussed, we start to get a clear picture of the value UConn brings the Big 12.
Due to its strong basketball brand, UConn still resides in the top half of both the FBS and ACC. This is a solid score and keeps UConn worthy of consideration. If their brand was built on football success they would have likely been gobbled up by the ACC and Big Ten years ago, like Penn State. Unfortunately for UConn football is driving this train and basketball championships may not be enough to justify the distance nor the attempt to gain a foothold in the New York market.
Distance will likely be the deciding factor on if to make the reach over several states or not. Seeing UConn make either #11 or #12 seems a stretch, even with them being a state school. Their best chance may be if the Big 12 stretches east to gain markets for a possible network and they end up either #13 or #14. Like the conversation on BYU, if UConn was located in the Midwest (or if they were a football power) they’d be gone already.
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