football Edit

Understanding the American's Push for Power 6

The American Athletic Conference’s “Power 6” campaign started last November when league schools started putting “P6” stickers on their football helmets. This spring, the conference showed that the campaign was more than just marketing, publishing a strategic plan meant to “cement and enhance” the league’s status as one of the premier athletic conferences in the country. It’s almost impossible to look at any conference-related media without seeing a P6 logo or some other reminder of the American’s ambitions.

The message has been met with mixed reviews, varying from interest to skepticism. Brett McMurphy, formerly of CBS Sports and ESPN, appears to take personal offense at the idea:

I’m not sure why the American’s Power 6 campaign has McMurphy so riled up, but his points echo many that we see from other writers on the subject. These columns, while selling the American short in many ways, also miss the point behind the conference’s initiative. To understand what's happening, it’s important to remember the whole reason why schools play sports, especially football, in the first place.

Based on the media coverage that FBS football receives, the cynic might think that colleges choose to participate to make money. That isn’t true; most FBS athletic departments lose money. When a school decides to play football at the FBS level, it’s part of a larger strategic vision. Athletics, especially football, is how regional schools gain a national profile. If not for football, how many of you would have even heard of Boise State? Georgia Southern? Notre Dame is one of about 200 Catholic colleges and universities in the U.S., but its football history has made it the flagship Catholic institution and a household name. Participation in Division I athletics conveys a sense of quality and mainstream legitimacy that raises a school’s profile in the eyes of the public, and potential applicants in particular.

(That’s the reason why college presidents, not athletic directors, have been the primary drivers behind conference realignment and associated issues. Unfortunately, coverage of the topic hasn’t matched accordingly. Because most people care about the issue only as it pertains to sports, it’s sports outlets that have done the lion’s share of the coverage. Not surprisingly, they treat it as a sports issue, with higher education fundamentals being lost on most).

The so-called Power 5 conferences being granted a level of autonomy by the NCAA could be seen as the first step in a process that eventually results in the formation of a new top level of competition, akin to the split between the FBS and FCS. The primary goal of the Power 6 push, then, is to ensure that the American’s brand remains associated with that top tier, however it manifests itself.

That process could take 20-30 years if it happens at all. The Power 6 initiative, then, should be viewed through that lens; as a strategic vision with short- and long-term elements, not simply a declarative statement about today.

That is something that most critics of “P6” fail to grasp. They point out the financial disparity that exists between the American and the autonomous leagues to show that there is no way that they should be considered on the same level. This isn’t exactly breaking news; the American was already well aware of that disparity when they started with the Power 6 message. That disparity, however, is not the full story.

It is important to consider just what it is that separates the autonomous leagues from everybody else, and why they wanted autonomy in the first place. The last round of conference realignment was brought about as leagues tried to add members that would increase the values of their upcoming media rights contracts. It worked, with networks agreeing to shell out billions of dollars over the course of a decade. Conferences want this money in order to give themselves a competitive advantage, with larger recruiting budgets, more money to hire and retain top coaches, etc.

With so much money coming in, it became difficult to find ways to use it all; one can only buy so many water parks and miniature golf courses. The richest leagues wanted more flexibility in how they could spend their vast wealth in a way that further enhances their competitive advantage. Through autonomy, they could change rules to allow this money to go toward four-year scholarships, enhanced meal plans, full cost of attendance, etc., which would help to attract the best talent and further separate themselves from the competition.

While the autonomous leagues now set the rules, the American has already stated that it is committed to providing the same additional benefits, the only other conference to do so. Indeed, it is the only other league that could even entertain the idea. According to the USA Today database of athletic department revenue, listed schools in the American Athletic Conference average more than $15 million in athletic revenue per year than the next-highest league.

American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco
© Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

This is at the core of the league’s Power 6 claim. As important as it is to understand what the so-called Power 5 is, it is just as vital to understand what it isn’t. “Power 5” is an informal term. The only way those leagues’ collective status has been codified is through their autonomy, and the American is dedicated to meeting whatever commitments arise from that. In terms of competition on the field, the “Power 5” doesn’t really exist. We aren't dealing with a case where a group of schools vote to decide whether or not to allow a new member. This construct is not the same as the BCS, which was a formal, collective arrangement between the BCS leagues to ensure they have landing spots for their best teams. Spots in the Playoff are determined by a committee and not automatically awarded to league champions. Berths in the New Year’s Six bowl games are deals that were separately struck between the leagues and the bowls. There is more self-determination for conferences under the CFP framework. As unlikely as it is, it is theoretically possible for another conference to reach its own arrangement with one of the NY6 bowls when current deals expire after 2025.

That is a vital point that tends to be missed. McMurphy stated in the comments of his post that “there is no progressing toward the P5.” That simply is not true. There is nothing to stop the American or any other league from building a brand of its own that could eventually have enough appeal to attract a major bowl game and better money from television networks competing for their broadcast rights. Nobody is foolish enough to think it will happen overnight; again, this is a long-term, strategic vision. In that sense, look at how much college football has changed in the last 25 years. In 1991, there was still a Southwest Conference. The Big 12 did not exist. The Big East was created, produced national champions, and broke apart all within that span. Who knows what the next 25 years will bring? One thing is indisputable: it is better to set an aspirational goal and work towards meeting it than it is to sit back and wait for others to decide your fate.

The league doesn’t even need to match the other power conferences in every way in order to succeed, either. One of McMurphy’s main points is that on-field results don’t matter. That isn’t true. If the goal is to ensure that the conference positions itself to be part of the top tier of college athletics, then winning games helps in the court of public opinion.

The predecessors to the BCS (the Bowl Coalition and the Bowl Alliance) failed because they were sold to the public as a way to produce an undisputed national champion, but were unable to do so. The Rose Bowl wasn’t part of the arrangement, so if either the Pac 10 or Big Ten champion were ranked in the top two, there wasn't a #1 vs. #2 matchup. The system had no credibility with the public in that situation, which hurt its value. Similarly, no top tier of college athletics will have credibility with the public if it does not include a conference that shows it can win at the highest level. A product only has as much value as the public is willing to pay for it. Public perception matters, and it is driven by on-field results. The American doesn’t need to be the best. They just need to be too good to leave out, and establishing themselves as a clear middle class between the haves and have-nots will do that.

In fact, it’s already happening:

Pushing the P6 narrative is a shrewd move. Even among those that don’t think the American measures up, to entertain the question is to accept the premise that the league is at least the best of the Group of 5, which for the American is the first step.

And make no mistake, the American is the best. McMurphy parroted Conference-USA’s talking point of the absurdly specific “Group of 5 bowl records vs. G5 foes” metric, which is ridiculous; bowl games mean different things to different teams, and several teams don’t even have a head coach when they play them. In all games, the American stands head and shoulders above the rest. The league has a .677 winning percentage vs. the G5 the last two years, while the next best, the Mountain West, checks in at .543. The American has higher attendance by far. They win more games against the P5, and their success isn’t concentrated among three or four teams. In the last five years, UCF, USF, Memphis, Navy, Temple, Tulsa, Cincinnati, and Houston have all had at least one ten-win season. UCF and Houston both won major bowl games. This is a deep league with enormous potential.

In the short term, the American can use that position as college football’s clear middle class to its advantage, starting with the next league television contract. It was somewhat understandable that both NBC and ESPN low-balled the Big East/American on the current contract; they were bidding on a brand-new league with viability questions, built from the remnants of a conference that ESPN had just spent months trying to bring down. Today, the American is more established and becoming more of a name-brand product, in part from the attention that the P6 push has generated. They have a track record of highly-rated games. The next contract will also have one thing that the last one did not: Navy home games, which include a home game against Notre Dame every other year. The league is simply more valuable now, and the next contract should reflect that.

Another short-term goal for the American would be to aim for a few higher-profile bowl games for affiliation. By that, I don’t mean the current New Year’s Six. I mean the next tier of more established games with higher payouts. Take the Liberty Bowl, for example. At the moment it has tie-ins with the SEC and the Big 12, which in 2015 led to a matchup between 6-6 and 7-5 teams while the hometown Memphis Tigers were ranked in the top 25 heading into bowl season. Memphis routinely drew crowds of more than 40,000 in the same building that year; one could easily argue that they would’ve made for a more attractive matchup. What about the Sun Bowl? At the moment the game has ties to the ACC and the Pac 12. Would a game played in Texas be interested in a conference with three schools in Texas or Oklahoma? How excited is a 7-5 or 8-4 ACC team to travel to El Paso in December? Would it be better to have a championship-caliber team from the American that’s thrilled to be there?

These are attainable goals for the next 7-8 years. Difficult, but not impossible. The American’s Power 6 branding might not lead to miracle gains when the next media rights and Playoff contracts are signed, but they don’t have to for it to be considered successful. As long as the league keeps growing and separating itself from those behind it, it becomes more indispensable. And that’s the whole point.