American Athletic Conference requested meeting with Power 5 to discuss the American's inclusion

Andy Wittry

In an eight-page letter I obtained that was dated May 7, 2021, the members of the American Athletic Conference’s Board of Directors wrote to the Autonomy 5 (A5) conferences – the official name of the Power 5 – to request a meeting to discuss the American’s inclusion in the A5, a meeting that the American requested would include the chairs of the A5 conferences, American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco, select members of the American’s Board of Directors and the board’s chair – a role that University of Cincinnati President Neville Pinto is taking over from the outgoing chair, University of Memphis President Dr. David Rudd.

“We are writing to continue our advocacy and to enlist your support for the inclusion of the American Athletic Conference (the ‘American’) in the autonomy group of conferences,” wrote the members of the American’s Board of Directors, each of whom signed the letter, in the letter’s opening sentence. To cite the merits of their inclusion, the American’s Board of Directors then referenced the conference’s achievements during the last academic year: Houston’s Final Four appearance in the 2021 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, Cincinnati’s Peach Bowl appearance last season, Memphis’ recent NIT title in men’s basketball, UCF and USF’s appearances in the latest NCAA women’s basketball tournament and the conference-record 19 football players from the American who were selected in the 2021 NFL Draft.

“All are manifestations of the American’s depth and recognized success over the past decade,” the letter stated. A copy of the letter is available at the bottom of this newsletter.

Syracuse University Chancellor Kent Syverud, TCU Chancellor Victor Boschini, University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto, Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro and University of Oregon President Michael Schill each received a copy of the letter, as did each of the Power 5 conference commissioners, plus Aresco. I contacted every Power 5 conference, the American, and the Power 5 presidents and chancellors who were listed as recipients of the letter to offer each of them the opportunity to comment.

A University of Oregon spokesperson deferred comment to the Pac-12. Representatives from the Pac-12 and the University of Kentucky declined to comment.

“Since the American was reinvented in 2013, it has maintained a laser focus on its autonomy group (‘A5’) and Power 5 (‘P6’) goals,” the letter stated. “A primary concern with the current governance and competitive structure is that it unreasonably excludes conferences outside the current autonomous group that have comparable goals and attributes. We will illustrate in this letter that the American, by virtue of a broad range of benchmarks – alignment of goals, strength of membership, commitment to student-athletes, national media exposure, and objective track record of success on the playing field (including criteria that governed the former Bowl Championship Series (‘BCS’) – fits the profile of an autonomy and power conference and meets any reasonable standard for inclusion.”

In 2014, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors adopted a DI model that gave the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC the ability to create legislation for themselves in specific areas.

“In a different world, all Football Bowl Subdivision (‘FBS’) conferences would be treated and labeled the same, but once the A5 sought and achieved separation, it became incumbent on our conference to gain membership in that group,” the letter from the American’s Board of Directors stated. “It is the heritage of our schools and our competitive future.”

The American’s push to join the ranks of the Power 5 is nothing new. As part of a conference-sponsored “Power 6” campaign during Aresco’s tenure, the American’s football teams have worn “P6” helmet decals, its administrators and TV and bowl partners have golfed with “P6”-branded golf balls and the conference’s official press releases have evaluated the collective strength of its teams’ football schedules by counting how many “Power 6” opponents are on the schedule. The letter also cited the American’s presence in powerful markets – Philadelphia, Dallas and Houston, which rank as the fourth, fifth and eighth-largest TV markets in the country, respectively.

The conference’s football-specific Twitter account includes the hashtag #AmericanPow6r in its bio and football is arguably the biggest driving force behind the American’s push.

“Because autonomy status is closely linked to football success, our record demands that we have equal footing to that enjoyed by the A5 conferences in the CFP structure, and access to a contract bowl or to a CFP automatic bid, should that be the future template, would play a critical role,” the letter stated. “On multiple occasions, the American has had outstanding undefeated or one-loss football teams that could have seriously competed in the college football playoff but were denied that opportunity. The CFP system will clearly continue to lack credibility if the American does not have access like that of A5 conferences. It is unreasonable for a conference as strong as the American to be excluded from the automatic bid access that the A5 conferences enjoy.

“A Group of Five (‘G5’) automatic bid to an expanded playoff will not satisfy this concern, as the American has separated itself from the other G5 conferences, is competing at the highest level, and each year will be as worthy of a playoff bid as a similarly-situated A5 team. The Cincinnati experience this year, as well as the UCF experience in 2017 and 2018, resonated nationally and focused attention on the unfairness and unreasonableness of the current system.”

Despite finishing with a 9-0 record after winning the American last season, Cincinnati was ranked No. 8 in the final College Football Playoff rankings. In the 2017 season, undefeated UCF was ranked No. 12 on selection day and when the Knights were 12-0 again the next season, they were ranked No. 8 in the final CFP rankings – the same final-rankings ceiling that Cincinnati hit last season.

However, while larger concerns about the American’s legislative powers, revenue and its place in the hierarchy of Division I athletics may still exist in the future, the Board of Directors’ specific concern about its teams competing in the future for one automatic bid to the playoff that’s explicitly reserved for a Group of Five team will likely soon be crossed off the list.

On Thursday, a subgroup of the College Football Playoff management committee presented a proposal for a 12-team playoff that would feature the six highest-ranked conference champions, plus the next six highest-ranked teams in the CFP selection committee’s rankings. The top four teams would each receive a bye and the four first-round games would played on the home field of the higher-ranked team.

If the proposal is enacted, it wouldn’t guarantee that every Power 5 conference champion would receive an automatic bid and it opens the door for multiple Group of Five conference champions to potentially earn an automatic bid in the same season. While acknowledging the unique nature of the 2020 college football season, in the final College Football Playoff rankings last season, American champion Cincinnati was ranked No. 8 and Sun Belt co-champion Coastal Carolina was ranked No. 12, as the two Group of Five conference champions were ranked higher than Mountain West champion San Jose State (No. 22) and Pac-12 champion Oregon (No. 25).

It’s not a surprise then that Aresco supports the proposed expansion, saying Thursday, "Maybe this is the start of us finally getting rid of this G5 label. It’s all FBS."

“Relegated to G5 status when the CFP was established nine years ago, the American has never belonged in that group,” the American’s letter to the Power 5 stated. “Although this letter and its message are not focused on that group, the fact that the American has separated itself completely from the other conferences makes it abundantly clear that the American belongs in the autonomy group. The evidence of the vast gap between the American and the other G5 conferences is compelling.”

The American compared its 19 NFL draft picks and two first-rounders in 2021 to the 15 players that the other four Group of Five conferences had selected, combined, along with stats about its New Year’s Day bowl games and AP top-10 finishes compared to its Group of Five peers.

“These facts are not offered to disparage the other G5 conferences,” the letter stated. “They are offered as powerful evidence that the American does not belong in the G5 and instead belongs in the A5 Group.”

That evidence, as the American’s Board of Directors called it, was in one of six subsections of the letter, which were labeled:

  • Alignment with autonomy goals
  • Strength of membership
  • Commitment to student-athletes
  • National media exposure and revenue
  • Performance on the playing field and court
  • Separation from the G5

In addition to the legislative autonomy of the Power 5 and the benefits related to perception, the College Football Playoff’s revenue distribution was scheduled to send $66 million to each Power 5 conference last season, while the Group of Five conferences would split $90 million total, according to Sportico. Given the proposed expansion to the College Football Playoff, plus the possible addition of another conference or two to the FBS ranks during the lifetime of the next CFP deal – say, maybe a potentially sleeker version of the WAC? – the CFP’s total revenue, if not also the distribution model itself, will change in the near future.

In the conclusion of the letter, the American’s Board of Directors wrote, “We trust that you will agree that the American has earned and deserves your support as the official sixth autonomy conference, and that you will also support a rotating contract bowl or an automatic CFP bid for the American if, in fact, the CFP expands with automatic bids as part of the formula. The American stands ready to assume its former place in the top tier by becoming a member of the autonomy group, where it can make a more significant and valuable contribution to college athletics at the highest level.

“To this end, we respectfully request a meeting between our board chair, selected board members and our commissioner, and the chairs of the A5 group to discuss the American’s inclusion.”

Based on Thursday’s proposal for College Football Playoff expansion, the American will likely soon be included in the College Football Playoff. But the American has also formally expressed its desire to be included in more – specifically, the Power 5.

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I publish original, enterprise reporting about college athletics that focuses on off-the-field topics, such as name, image and likeness rights and the financial side of athletics, from a public records and data-based reporting lens. My work has been published by Sports Illustrated, Sporting News, Stadium,, the IndyStar and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Chicago, IL

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