While three of its premier programs prepare to join the Big 12, the American Athletic Conference intends to expand and reload.
An expansion suitor that comes to mind is the Charlotte 49ers.
Though the three AAC schools -- Central Florida, Houston and Cincinnati -- haven’t submitted their exit notices to the conference, all have been formally invited to the Big 12, including program school BYU. When an AAC school submits an exit notice, a 27-month exit process begins coinciding with a $10 million penalty.
Dominoes around the college football landscape began to fall following Oklahoma and Texas jumping to the SEC. Immediately following, the ACC, Big 10 and Pac-12 formed an alliance. As schools begin to make the jump from the Group of Five to Power Five, the AAC will look to poach several G5 programs that match its production in recent years.
The AAC has solidified itself as a “Power 6” conference with recent football success from Cincinnati, UCF, Houston and Memphis. All three schools departing are the only AAC football programs to finish in the AP Top 10 since the conference’s inception in 2013.
Landing in the AAC is ideal for the 49ers, but is now the right time?
The AAC’s 12-year, $1 billion television deal with ESPN signed in 2019 provides the conference $83.3 million per year, with each school receiving nearly $7 million of that annually. The deal will result in football games on ESPN’s various networks and periodically ABC. Basketball games air across ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU, but many will only be available to those subscribing to ESPN+. The current television deal states that it can be negotiated with major changes in the conference’s membership.
Conference USA’s television deal relies heavily on CBS Sports Network and Facebook’s Stadium streaming platform as the league’s primary carriers. The contract provides nearly $400,000 per member program annually, according to the Virginian Pilot. Charlotte’s football program is set for three appearances on CBS Sports Network in 2021, with the first being Charlotte’s victory over Duke in Week 1.
C-USA’s bylaws state that when a member submits an exit notice, 14 months advance notice is required, as well as two years of conference distribution. For the 2018 and 2019 seasons, the 49ers’ NCAA/Conference distribution total was $5,325,217. For reference, the 49ers’ donor contributions from 2019 totalled $5,484,455.
The AAC’s television deal is the best in the Group of 5, which would provide major boosts to the athletics programs in efforts to be competitive.
Does Charlotte fit in the AAC?
Charlotte could offer its market size in a major metropolitan area and recruiting potential to the AAC.
Television market isn’t the same attraction to major conferences that it was with the last major round of conference realignment thanks to the advent of streaming. However, for a league such as the American, the 49ers can still tout the 22nd-largest TV market in the nation, ranking ahead of potential candidates Alabama-Birmingham (45) and Texas-San Antonio (31).
Young head coach Will Healy has the football program on the rise and displayed growth in the university’s profile in terms of financial boosters. Healy landed a $1 million locker room upgrade from one donor, revamping the home of “Club Lit” with sleek LED displays and personal iPads for each locker.
Though the 49ers’ football program has made strides over the past three seasons, this is just the ninth year for the program and seventh at the FBS level. Since 2017, the 49ers haven’t finished below .500 in conference play. Healy has posted 11 wins in 21 games since joining the program in December of 2019, notching the first winning season, bowl appearance and Power 5 victory.
While football is a revenue driver, 49ers’ athletics as a whole have improved since athletic director Mike Hill took over in 2018. Hill has hired seven new head coaches, introduced a new logo for athletics and set records for the 49ers Athletic Foundation annual contributions in all three fiscal years.
The 49ers’ cross-country program made the NCAAs for the first time ever in 2020, men’s golf, men’s soccer and baseball all made the NCAA tournament, as well as women’s basketball appearing in the NIT. The men’s basketball program, nearing the fourth year under Ron Sanchez, has recorded single-digit win totals three of the past four seasons.
Local rivalries are a key piece as well. Coastal Carolina and Appalachian State have both been named as potential prospects to join East Carolina in the AAC, creating multiple matchups in a 300-mile span if selected.
While Charlotte’s 157,000 known living alumni cannot compete with North Carolina State (250,000) or North Carolina (342,000), the 49ers are more aligned with AAC programs East Carolina (190,000) and Memphis (151,900).
Academically, the 49ers are 227 nationally, according to a recent US News study, ranking ahead of only one AAC member, Memphis (249). ECU ranks 213th, and potential AAC candidates Florida Atlantic and Alabama-Birmingham come in at 277 and 148, respectively.
A hurdle for Charlotte is its stadium size and fan engagement.
Charlotte has historically struggled with fan attendance. The 49ers’ football program averaged 12,319 fans in Healy’s first season in 2019, a 5% increase following from the previous year. In two games this season (wins against Duke and Gardner-Webb), they’ve averaged 13,200 fans.
Jerry Richardson Stadium seats 15,314 and is the smallest in FBS, but expansion plans to 40,000 seats have been discussed.
University officials declined to comment for this story.