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Mike Aresco Isn't Crazy. He’s Actually Refreshingly Honest About His "Power 6" Conference

Yes, many laugh at the #AMERICANPOW6R branding. But it's not intended to show equality: just separation.

Collin Sherwin

NEWPORT, RI: The American Conference stayed amazingly on #brand at the league's annual media days this week. And that #brand was two unbelievably ubiquitous words: "Power 6."

It was on golf balls. It was on every credential. It was on podium backdrops and reflected lights and even the helmet given as a gift to broadcast legend and Master of Ceremonies Verne Lundquist.

But with the more than $30 million gap between what AAC schools receive per institution in media rights from the five conferences in front of them, not to mention the lack of an automatic bid for the conference champion to the New Year's Six bowls, on its face it can sound ridiculous.

But that's until you hear the realism and reasoning from conference commissioner Mike Aresco. This isn't about being an equal partner with the Big 10 or SEC. At least not yet. It's about establishing that you're closer to the top than the bottom.

"To be honest with you about this the whole Power 5 was irritating me to no end," said Aresco while standing front of the league's championship football trophy, where he answered all of five (5) questions in 20 minutes due to the length and depth of his answers. "I knew that was gonna be a huge obstacle for us and what we wanted to achieve as a conference."

He’s a former television executive and general counsel for the University of Connecticut, one of the school’s he now represents. He then transitioned to a new Bristol, Connecticut startup cable station called ESPN, and spent nearly 25 years working in programming there and at CBS Sports. He’s friendly and familiar with not only his staff, but basically all of the coaches and media in attendance. He asks about wives and children, and despite his rushed docket of interviews from just about every outlet in attendance, he’s behind schedule a good portion of the day while checking in with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances alike.

"That very first year, we win the Fiesta Bowl against Baylor right, UCF. We have a national champion in men’s basketball, we have a national champion in women’s basketball, we have excellent Olympic sports. We have some teams that almost go to the College World Series. I said ‘you know this is already a very promising strong conference.’

“We probably haven’t done enough to say we’re in the Power group, but the more I thought about it there’s no admittance to this, no one admits you to it. It’s not like the autonomy group where you’ve gotta get legislative support and you’ve gotta somehow find a way in because it’s a quasi-official group in the NCAA. I said you know this is gonna be up to the public and the media to determine whether they think we’re a Power 5."

"So a few years ago we thought about, why not Power 6?"

It took a few years for implementation of the campaign because of the uncertainty during last year’s potential conference realignment. With basically every member institution publicly letting their interest in the Big XII be known, it would have been an awkward time to attempt a narrative change. But with things looking more settled (for now), the conference decided to strike and make its case.

"We’ve won 19 P5 and Notre Dame games the last two years," he said. "We have won national championships in (men's) basketball and women’s basketball. We have Olympic champions. One of our Olympic golfers just won the John Deere, Bryson Dechambeau of SMU. We’re paying Cost of Attendance, we’re in big markets, we’ve got our attendance average up to 33,000."

"We’re starting to look much more like the P5 than the G5."

But that doesn't hide the facts on the ground, and Aresco is realistic about those as well. He knows the league’s lineup of bowls isn’t good enough at present, and now even worse with the folding of the conference-owned Miami Beach Bowl after just three editions. He also knows that a guaranteed spot in a New-Year’s-6-or-whatever-that-becomes is critical to making P6 more tenable.

“It’s really critical we create the perception that we are a P6 so when (the CFP Playoff) either gets renegotiated or an extension is negotiated, and that’ll happen before the 12 years are up (the ESPN contract ends in 2025), that we’ve gotta get in it. That we’ve got to have a contract bowl. By then we’ve got to prove that we deserve it.”

“Our best team is going to struggle to be on New Year’s Day only because our league is so good. You know they’re going to lose some games, and unfortunately someone in another league that might not be as strong as ours might slip through undefeated or with one loss.”

“Last year, we had a couple teams that were probably as good as anybody in the Group of Five. We were 20-2 against those conferences during the season last year.”

You can tell he’s ready for the P5: he’s making the SEC’s annual argument already.

“So absolutely we need that. We know we can’t get it right away. We’re trying to play an upper-tier Big 10 or Pac-12 team so we can at least have a quasi-kind of contract bowl. I don’t know if in the next cycle we’ll be able to do that.”

With the schools less available, he knows the route to that respectability is via scheduling as tough as possible in out-of-conference play.

“We’ve averaged 26 games against the P5 the last four or five years. Now this year we’ve got fewer, but next year we’ll go back probably over 20. And we’ve gotta keep challenging ourselves. But that’s not an easy thing to do. You know, you’re not gonna win ‘em all. And somebody said to me ‘this P6 campaign has to continue even if you don’t win them all.’ Absolutely! The schools are proving they can play at that level.”

These are all reasonable goals, but the biggest divider between the haves and have-nots is the revenue gap, with the P5 distributing at least $30 million annually to each member school.

The American? $2.5 million. And the current media rights deal doesn’t expire until June of 2020.

“We’ll {probably) have sit downs with ESPN in ‘18. Now I have to be careful because it’s not going to be a negotiation per se, I don’t think (head of ESPN) John Skipper would appreciate with my saying it’s going to be a negotiation. It’s not.”

“We have to generate a lot more money. We know we do, we just have to. Again, we’re not looking at the type of money the Big 10 makes, or the SEC or the ACC but we don’t have to have that kind of revenue, but we need a lot more than we have.”

And that includes thinking outside the box. It’s very possible The American is the first major sports league to go off the board when it comes to what have traditionally been television rights. The rest of the P5 are locked into contracts that expire much further down the road, so the AAC could be the test case.

“We’ve talked to Silicon Valley. I went out there a couple months ago we talked to people at Facebook, we talked to people at Twitter. I talked to people at Google and they knew our conference there was real interest down the road.” He’s also got meetings upcoming with streaming services, likely Netflix, Hulu, and others. And being ahead of the curve for where media rights are going is a good place for the league to be a pioneer.

#AmericanPow6r isn’t based on being an equal partner of the leagues currently at the table, but showing that his is far ahead of the four below them. And that’s a very fair argument.

“You know, first of all, I think you would all agree that JetBlue and Southwest Airlines are considered major carriers now. Maybe they weren’t 10 years ago, 20 years ago, OK? But they’re not like Delta. They’re not like United, they’re not like American. They don’t have to be. They’re still perceived as a major carrier. The Big East wasn’t the Big 10, 10 years ago, 20 years ago. The Big East wasn’t the SEC. But it still was BCS 6. Why can’t we be? We don’t have to be the Big 10. We don’t have to be the SEC.”

But they are the American Conference, one of the six best football conferences in America. You can argue with the branding, because #AMERICANPOW6R is one brutal hashtag, but you can’t argue with the results. If there were 11 FBS conferences instead of 10, there’s zero question the AAC would be the median.

Aresco knows his job performance is tied to two, and only two, thresholds: increasing the revenue on the media rights deal, and getting a permanent seat at the table with the autonomy leagues. If he can manage to do that, his merry band of misfit schools just might be able to stick together.

And then it might be a “Power 6” outside of Newport, too.