Rice's move to American Athletic Conference part of long-term vision – Houston Chronicle

Rice athletic director Joe Karlgaard, at the introduction of new football coach Mike Bloomgren in 2017, has kept an eye on the future for the Owls, who are moving to the American Athletic Conference.
On the job a few months in early 2014, Rice athletic director Joe Karlgaard met with alumni at a fundraiser in Boston.
On the trip, Karlgaard made the 50-mile drive to Providence, R.I., to meet with Mike Aresco, commissioner of the American Athletic Conference, which had debuted a few months earlier. The informal meeting included lunch at The Capital Grille and a brief tour of the AAC offices.
Over the next eight years, Karlgaard forged relationships everywhere he could, all part of a strategic plan to position Rice for the next round of conference realignment.
“Throughout the time, I’ve tried to build the right relationships, tried to listen very well to what it is that may better position us,” Karlgaard said. “The opportunity hasn’t always presented itself like it did the last several weeks.”
Calling it a “historic new direction” for the school’s athletic department, Rice accepted an invitation to join the American Athletic Conference on Thursday.
With the addition of six schools, all from Conference USA, the AAC will become a 14-team football league as early as 2023. Two other Texas schools — UTSA and North Texas — will join Rice, along with UAB, Charlotte and Florida Atlantic to comprise a new-look AAC that will have a 10-state footprint.
The AAC was forced to find new members after three of its most successful programs — Houston, Cincinnati and Central Florida — announced Sept. 10 that they would be joining the Big 12.
In a statement, Aresco said Thursday’s announcement was a “strategic expansion that accomplishes a number of goals as we take the conference into its second decade.”
“We are adding excellent institutions that are established in major cities and have invested in competing at the highest level,” Aresco added. “We have enhanced geographical concentration, which will especially help the conference’s men’s and women’s basketball and Olympic sports teams. And we will continue to provide valuable inventory to our major media rights partner, ESPN, which will feature our members on the most prominent platforms in sports media.”
There is no timetable yet for when Rice will begin AAC play. There is a ripple effect likely to happen, beginning with the departure of Texas and Oklahoma to the Southeastern Conference and the three AAC schools — and independent BYU — to the Big 12.
“I think given the nature of this, there’s probably moves upstream that need to happen that would determine exactly when we would join the conference,” Karlgaard said.
During a Zoom call with the other five schools, Karlgaard touted Rice’s academic reputation, a more than $6 billion endowment, facility upgrades and other accomplishments.
“We think we bring a well-rounded profile,” he said.
This will be the fourth conference affiliation for Rice, a founding member of the Southwest Conference (1914-96). After the SWC’s breakup, Rice spent nine years in the Western Athletic Conference until joining Conference USA in 2005.
The move will provide an increase in revenue for Rice, which received a $500,000 annual payout in C-USA. This past year, AAC schools got about $7 million.
Karlgaard pointed to ticket sales, sponsorships and fundraising as areas where Rice should get a financial bump. The AAC’s deal with ESPN also will give Rice more national exposure.
“I think it will have a significant economic impact,” he added. “I believe our distribution will be significantly better from the American Athletic Conference than they have been — ever, no matter what conference we’ve been affiliated with.”
Aresco declined to discuss financial details and whether the new schools will receive an equal share of media rights.
“Certainly, as we bring schools in, ultimately we want them to feel that they are fully integrated into the conference and that they are full partners,” Aresco said. “Whatever we do, we’ve worked it out with the schools. We’ve worked it out very carefully. This is a considerable upgrade for them.”
With the moves, the AAC will compete as a 14-team league in football and men’s and women’s basketball, among other sports. The expansion group joins current members East Carolina, Memphis, Navy (football only), South Florida, SMU, Temple, Tulane, Tulsa and Wichita State (basketball and Olympic sports only).
By adding Rice, North Texas and UTSA, the AAC — which has relocated its headquarters to suburban Dallas — has four schools in Texas. The AAC will keep a presence in Houston after the departure of UH, and enters the San Antonio market, where UTSA is unbeaten and entered the Top 25 this week for the first time in program history.
UAB has been one of the best stories in college football, going from shutting down its football program to the opening of $200 million stadium this season. In a release, the AAC said it will have a presence in four of the top 10 and seven of the top 25 Nielsen media markets.
Aresco did not rule out eventually expanding beyond 14 schools.
“What I don’t want to do is destabilize anything at this point,” Aresco said.
Rice has made campus-wide facility upgrades in recent years, most notably the $31.5 million Brian Patterson Sports Performance Center in 2016.
Rice president David Leebron, who will retire in 2022 after 18 years, vowed to “invest more in the athletic program’s success.” At the top of the list of needed upgrades: 71-year-old Rice Stadium.
“We know our stadium needs some investment,” Leebron said. “But virtually everywhere else we have invested in major facilities and renovations. We’re in really good shape.” He added that the move to the AAC “reflects stability in what our future looks like.”
That future does not look as bright for C-USA, which is now left with eight schools: UTEP, Old Dominion, Southern Mississippi, Marshall, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee, Western Kentucky and Florida International. Earlier this month, C-USA commissioner Judy MacLeod wrote to Aresco proposing an alliance of sorts between the two leagues. Instead, the AAC raided C-USA, and the league reportedly could lose some of the remaining members to other conferences.
“We’re poised to enter the next decade now with a vision and renewed strength,” Aresco said. “Our Power Six campaign is going to be energized. It’s not going away, and I want that to be very clear.”
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Joseph Duarte has been a sports reporter for the Houston Chronicle since August 1996. He currently covers college athletics, focusing on the University of Houston. Previously, he wrote about the Houston Astros from 1998-2002, Houston Texans from 2002-05 and the Texas Longhorns from 2005-09. He came to the Houston Chronicle as part of an internship through the Sports Journalism Institute in 1995.