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Why Danny White and Mike Aresco Are Both Right About Scheduling

Follow. The. Money.

UCF A.D. Danny White embraces Shaquem Griffin after the Knights' victory over Auburn in the 2018 Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl. (Photo: Derek Warden)
UCF A.D. Danny White embraces Shaquem Griffin after the Knights’ victory over Auburn in the 2018 Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl.
Photo: Derek Warden

This scheduling feud between The American and the UCF Knights - er, UCF fans and Mike Aresco - is classic internet tribalism. Sure, there’s the public face of all this with statements that both have made that rile up the bases on social media, but both UCF and The American have their own interests at heart. Most of them align, but in this case, they don’t diverge, but separate.

Let’s examine this from both perspectives:

Why Danny White is Right

UCF A.D. Danny White is a genius, but not in the way you think.

His primary job is to make UCF Athletics money, and the way UCF does that is mostly via five key channels:

  • Donations - White’s campaign for building new facilities (LAZY RIVER Y’ALL) has amped up the big-time donations.
  • Ticket Sales - The more people show up to UCF events, the more money UCF makes.
  • Merchandise - All those fancy new uniforms, helmets, shirts, Canaveral Blue Citronaut hats - that’s all to get you to buy more UCF stuff.
  • Media Payouts - That new contract with ESPN will help more than the old contract.
  • Student Fees - This is the big thing that gives UCF administrators pause.

With UCF coming under fire from the state legislature for the accounting scandal that cost Dale Whittaker his job as president, UCF, as well as all Florida public universities, are under an increasingly harsh microscope with regard to funding. Combine that with increasing pressure from the student loan debt crisis, and universities are going to have to prepare for long-term for possible dips in funding. That crap rolls downhill.

If UCF sees a drop in enrollment, Economics 101 tells you they’ll have to reduce tuition. One way the Board of Trustees can do that is by lowering the student athletics fee. Right now, it’s $14.32 per credit hour. According to USA Today, in FY2016-17, that accounted for some 40% of UCF’s $56 million athletics budget (By the way, UCF isn’t alone - USF students pay 36% of their athletics budget).

So if UCF Athletics wants to secure its long-term financial future, it has to maximize its non-student-fee-related revenue streams. That’s why Danny White is there.

Among all of the other things he’s done, increasing ticket sales has been huge, especially for football. Again, notice the campaign that’s been in your Twitter feed:

The best way to get the paying customers in the seats is give them what they want, and what UCF fans have said they want is a winner.

UCF fans will pay for tickets to see a winner regardless of whom they play, and this year is proof of that: UCF is about to sell out Spectrum Stadium with the only non-conference games coming against Stanford and Florida A&M - hardly big-time football powers. And should UCF go 13-0 or 12-1 again, that will continue.

Danny White knows that. And his goal is to sell every seat in the stadium and maximize the amount of money he can get from those fans, and the way you do that is maximize the number of home dates - at least six and preferably seven home games a year.

One additional way UCF can control that is by winning the American Athletic Conference. Win all your conference games and you get an extra home game in the American Football Championship Game, and all the ticket revenue from it.

And then there are the New Year’s Six Bowls, whose policy regarding the Group of Five teams is to place the highest-ranked Group of Five Conference champion into one of those big-paying bowls. Win or lose, that team gets $4 million just for showing up. UCF has done that the last two years, and could do that again this coming year.

No one in UCF’s administration is going to admit this openly, but playing North Carolina and Georgia Tech is likely a much more winnable non-conference game in a given year than Florida, Alabama or Miami.

Therefore, UCF doesn’t have to schedule two-for-ones with Autonomy Five schools, not because they’re scared, but because fans will pay money for season tickets to see a team that plays and wins the most possible home games each year, in order to go to a New Year’s Six Bowl Game. And make more money.

Follow the money.

Why Mike Aresco is Right

On the other hand, American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco is not stupid. He’s got eleven and two-halves (Navy and Wichita State) mouths to feed and keep happy, and the way you do that is to make as much money as he possibly can for the conference as a whole.

The primary way the conference does that is through media revenue. The American’s new TV contract, which takes effect in July of 2020, is a step in the right direction, even if it’s not to the level that UCF fans wanted. But UCF is on the right side of the bell curve here. The rank-and-file of the league (Think the Three T’s: Tulane, Tulsa and Temple) are pretty damn happy about it, as they should be.

The new deal ties the league to ESPN, who has invested more than a billion dollars in its future. They want The American to be the best product possible so they can maximize the number of eyeballs each week watching AAC teams on TV and make that money back.

From Mike Aresco’s position, what’s best for the league as a whole is to put its marquee brands against other marquee brands in non-conference matchups that ESPN can sell to advertisers - Think Oklahoma vs. Houston. That’s the kind of game that ESPN could put on The Mothership - or perhaps even ABC - and grab some serious numbers.

Right now, UCF is the marquee football brand in The American and stands to be at least one of them for a while. And so ESPN wants UCF to be on their airwaves as much as possible.

You can pretty much bet that ESPN would salivate over, for just one example, a UCF vs. Florida matchup no matter where it’s played. UCF vs. North Carolina, however, has decidedly less panache in the eyes of the casual college football fan, let alone UCF vs. FAU.

All the proof you need for this is to look at where UCF’s first two games of 2019 are being televised:

It’s not due to ESPN or Mike Aresco being anti-UCF. It’s because ESPN has other American games they can televise that will make them more money. For example, on September 7th, the day UCF plays FAU, you have the following:

  • ABC: Cincinnati at Ohio State
  • ESPN2: Tulane at Auburn

So Aresco has a clear preference: Get UCF in as many marquee matchups as possible. Aresco said the following in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel:

“I think everyone knows that we want to continue to schedule as many [games against] Power 5 conferences as possible,” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco told the Orlando Sentinel during a phone interview Thursday following the league’s spring meetings in Irving, Texas. “Most of the membership, if not all of them except Danny [White] at this point, is open for doing two-for-ones. We’ve done some of them and obviously some of them have been high profile.”

Furthermore:

“I think people respect Danny’s opinion on this and I think they feel that scheduling is an individual concern,” Aresco explained.

“I know Danny expressed some concerns that if we did too many of these two-for-ones, it could hurt the overall conference’s scheduling ability. I understand where he’s coming from because what he’s really talking about is doing two-for-ones all over the place with schools you really shouldn’t being doing them with. But most of our membership feels in order to get some of the really marquee teams like Oklahoma, Texas, Florida, Miami and Alabama, you’ll have to do two-for-ones.”

Added emphasis mine.

He’s correct, by the way: Of course UCF would love to get Oklahoma, Florida, Alabama, et. al. into Spectrum Stadium, but they don’t want to play ball. Florida suggesting a two-for-neutral at Camping World Stadium is ridiculous on its face and UCF is right for rejecting it. So UCF has said, “Fine!”

In an interview with Chris Vannini of The Athletic, Aresco further attempted to clarify:

“I think Danny’s right. On principle, I couldn’t agree with him more. We think we’re a P6 conference. We think we’ve earned it. We’d love to be able to do one-and-ones, but we have to be realistic.“

That’s not an anti-UCF position, as some in the media have claimed. He’s merely stating what he perceives is in the best interest of the majority of schools in The American - Again, WWT3D? - namely, getting more games on the most-watched networks. In some (not all!) cases, that means scheduling two-for-ones.

What Aresco is NOT saying is that he thinks UCF should drop its home-and-home-or-bust strategy. As he clearly said above, scheduling is “an individual concern” for each school. UCF does UCF, Tulsa does Tulsa. That should be fine with everyone.

And remember: If UCF leaves The American tomorrow, Mike Aresco is still the commissioner with a job to do, and that is look out for the interests of whoever’s left.

Yet somehow this gets twisted into “Mike Aresco Thinks Danny White Should Schedule Two-for-Ones.”

Why The Two-For-One Argument Is Not An Argument At All

I hear this argument a lot: If The American is a “Power 6” conference, then why is it not acting like one in scheduling?

The American is fighting an uphill battle to begin with. Outside of the conference, nobody perceives it as a power league. In fact, according to the NCAA Rulebook itself, it isn’t. But it does occupy a space between the autonomy conferences and the rest of the non-autonomy leagues, particularly with regard to the two things that actually matter most in the national perception of a conference: revenue and on-field performance. Neither of them, however, are tied to scheduling strategy.

Case in point: Here are two college football teams’ non-conference opponents for the 2020 season. Try and guess what team is “scheduling like a power conference team”:

Team A: Eastern Washington (FCS), South Alabama (Sun Belt), New Mexico State (Independent), Florida State (ACC)

Team B: Arkansas (SEC), Kennesaw State (FCS), Kentucky (SEC), Alabama (SEC)

OK, ready?

Team A is Florida. Team B is Kent State.

Different teams have different scheduling philosophies that suit their own revenue streams. These are businesses we’re talking about, after all.

As Eric Lopez stated in our podcast, UCF is following its business model to fill its stadium with as many paying customers for as many games as it possibly can, and nab the conference title and a New Year’s Day Bowl game in the process:

South Florida, on the other hand, doesn’t have an on-campus stadium, so they pay rent at Raymond James Stadium. In order to recoup that rent, they have to attract big-name opponents:

Chances are USF will lose the overwhelming percentage of these games, but reap a massive gate in return. One can debate about the efficacy of that strategy in actually developing the football program, but that’s the calculation USF has made: Try to turn a liability - the lack of an on-campus stadium - into an asset. That’s good for their business. And, if they happen to win one or two of those games, so be it. But their fans are going to show up in a way that they wouldn’t against, say, Stony Brook, or any team in The American not named UCF.

South Florida isn’t alone here.

  • Memphis, who also plays off-campus at the Liberty Bowl, recently scheduled a two-for-one with Arkansas. Given those two schools’ proximity, that should be a sell-out, and Memphis frankly doesn’t have to care how many people are wearing red in their stadium.
  • Temple, who plays at Lincoln Financial Field, has a two-for-one with Oklahoma coming up in 2024, 2025 and 2028, with two of those games in Norman.

Given all those teams’ attendance problems, if you think clearly about their interests, you can’t blame them for trying to make money.

However, that’s not scheduling “like a loser,” or diminishing the value of the conference as a whole, when each school is trying to increase the value of its program the best way it can. That’s hot takery and should not be taken seriously.

Here’s the bottom line: It’s not UCF’s place to tell any team in The American how to schedule, nor is it The American’s place to tell UCF how to schedule. Nor should it be, either. And that’s OK. Every school in The American, from UCF and USF to Tulsa and Tulane, has the freedom and flexibility to fill out their schedule in the best possible way for each school to make money.

The best thing for Danny White and UCF to do is continue to act in their own economic interests given current circumstances, and keep selling tickets at Spectrum Stadium with an eye on conference titles and New Year’s Day bowl appearances.

And the best thing for Mike Aresco to do is to encourage all teams in The American to pursue their economic interests as best they can in order to raise the national exposure of the league as a whole.

As long as that happens, UCF will reap the benefits from the American just as much as The American reaps the benefits from having UCF.