Big East’s Ackerman: bringing back UConn “an opportunity that we simply couldn’t pass up”

The University of Connecticut’s (UConn) rumored return to the Big East, made official June 27, is being branded by school and conference as an overdue homecoming where the school will not only return to where it achieved some of its greatest athletic successes, but also likely gain a financial boost in the transfer.

The school will move the bulk of its athletic program from the American Athletic Conference to the Big East at an uncertain date no sooner than July 1, 2020. The exact date remains in limbo as UConn must still finalize its formal exit from the AAC.

Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman said the conference had not been eyeing any sort of expansion. The addition of the UConn now represents an 11th school in the group with no plans now to add a 12th school. But the chance to bring back UConn, an original member of the Big East from the conference’s 1979 formation until the school’s move to the AAC in 2013, was irresistible.

“The opportunity to add a member who is a national basketball brand, that’s in our geographic footprint, who has an outstanding fan base with proven support of our biggest annual event [the Big East men’s basketball tournament], and who brings the added bonus of having a deeply etched, shared history with us, intense rivalries with many of our schools,” Ackerman said. “All that taken together represented an opportunity that we simply couldn’t pass up.”

The UConn men’s basketball team won three of its four national titles as a Big East, and those four total titles are more than any other Division I men’s college team in the past two decades. The women’s basketball team, meanwhile, won eight of their 11 national titles as a Big East member, and is the most decorated women’s college basketball program ever.

Talks around adding UConn to the Big East moving quickly, starting only after the conclusion of college basketball season in early April and ramping up quickly in recent weeks. The shift will require UConn paying a minimum $10 million exit fee to the AAC and another $3.5 million entrance fee to join the Big East. 

But outgoing UConn President Susan Herbst framed the shift as an investment for the school’s currently money-losing athletic department that will be trading out conference games against schools such as the University of Central Florida, Southern Methodist and Tulsa for nearby traditional rivals such as Villanova, St. John’s, Seton Hall, and Georgetown.

She estimated UConn would save “a couple of million dollars a year” in reduced travel expenses due to the tighter geographic footprint of the Big East, and said the news of the conference shift has already prompted boosts in ticket sales and alumni donations. 

“Our donors, who are always engaged, are excited,” Herbst said. “They are re-energized like you wouldn’t believe. So through those kinds of things, more revenues, ticket sales, donors, decreased travel, we’re not worried about [the conference shift costs] at all….It’s about the long term.”

UConn will be a Big East member in 20 different sports. It is not yet known what the school will do with its football program, as the Big East does not offer football. The AAC has already said it will not keep UConn as a football-only member. Other options for UConn football include a shift to another conference or playing as an independent.

The UConn conference shift is also likely a big win for Fox Sports, which holds the Big East media rights as part of a 12-year, $500 million deal signed in 2013 and continuing through the 2024-25 season and has sublicensed some games within that to CBS. That Fox-Big East rights deal remains intact, and UConn now becomes part of that package and whatever subsequent sublicensing deals occur. It is believed the rights deal contains provisions for additional fees in the event of conference expansion.