The prospect of Air Force and Navy being in the same football conference seems to be dead, for now.
Several reports over the last week indicated that the Falcons — and Colorado State — were on the verge of leaving the Mountain West Conference to join the American Athletic Conference. Brett McMurphy of the Action Network reported the potential move on Tuesday, saying it would “likely” be done next week. He was backed up in that report by Matt Norlander of CBS Sports, who added that a Mountain West source told him: “The biggest problem right now is no one has any faith in Craig Thompson as commissioner and there is growing concern about the league.” Matt Brown of Extra Points chimed in too, saying he’d heard “the same thing” about the Falcons and Rams bolting from the MWC, and he’s be “very surprised” if they didn’t join the AAC.
But something — apparently — shifted over the last few days. Much of those same reporters, and other credible journalists covering college football, are saying the opposite.
Colorado State and Air Force aren’t going anywhere. The news was first reported by Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports.
So, for now, the idea of Air Force vs. Navy being a conference affair (and an out-of-conference slot opening up on both team’s schedules) is off the table.
Sources: Air Force and Colorado State will also be staying in the Mountain West. They had been heavily courted and considered the AAC, along with Boise State and San Diego State. All four schools will remain in the Mountain West.— Pete Thamel (@PeteThamel) October 1, 2021
Sources to add to @PeteThamel rpt: Colorado State and Air Force responded to some forceful internal pushback over leaving the Mountain West, and ultimately the pair became too uncomfortable leaving the MW for the AAC if it wasn’t going to be four-way exodus with Boise and SDSU.— Matt Norlander (@MattNorlander) October 1, 2021
I really thought Air Force was off to the AAC, but the Mountain West is staying together. Geography matters, in this case.— Adam Rittenberg (@ESPNRittenberg) October 1, 2021
Air Force & Colorado State remaining in Mountain West & will not join AAC, sources told @ActionNetworkHQ. 1st report by Yahoo. Air Force wanted move to AAC because of bigger markets, source said, but duo will stay keeping league intact. Huge for MW’s future moving forward— Brett McMurphy (@Brett_McMurphy) October 1, 2021
Staring contest ends with the MWC staying in tact. Ultimately those schools needed to believe the AAC television deal was going to stay in tact to make that move. https://t.co/1wfLXnAM36— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) October 1, 2021
The flurry of reports Friday morning fall in line with some details in a story penned by Brent Briggeman at the Gazette in Colorado Springs on Wednesday, that the folks bankrolling Air Force athletics were not all in agreement about a move to the AAC. One source told Briggeman: “... several big donors are vehemently against the move.”
Air Force and Colorado State were targeted by the American Athletic Conference to help it fill the future void left by UCF, Cincinnati and Houston, who are going to the Big 12 along with independent BYU. This trickle-down of realignment was kick-started earlier this year by Texas and Oklahoma revealing their move to the SEC.
A shift to the AAC could be enticing for other Group of 5 members because of its television contract with ESPN, which pays about $6 million per school. This is about double what most Mountain West schools make with its broadcast partners. Even with increased travel costs, Air Force and Colorado State would make more money. However, there is a clause in the AAC television contract that allows ESPN to change the terms of the deal if membership changes. If that were to happen and the cash was cut, Air Force and Colorado State could be making essentially a lateral move for the about the same money in TV revenue, and way more expensive travel costs to go with it. Sending your volleyball team to Laramie, Wyoming from Colorado Springs is a lot cheaper than sending them to Tampa, Greenville or Philadelphia.
What’s this mean for the American?
This is no doubt a not-so-great look for the AAC, but it’s not a death sentence. There are — and will be — plenty of other schools willing to join the conference. Those options just might not be as enticing as Colorado State or Air Force.
It seems likely that UAB is going to leave CUSA and join the American at some point, and another CUSA school might too, like UTSA, Charlotte, Marshall, Old Dominion or North Texas.
Unfortunately for the AAC, if it’s dead-set on expanding, it seems like CUSA schools might be its only option. Mountain West schools have seemingly turned down invitations, and all signs point to the Sun Belt standing pat too. The Sun Belt has grown in quality over the past few years, churning out programs that consistently compete with —and sometimes beat — Power 5 schools, such as Louisiana, Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina. The league also has a real regional footprint and allows many of these teams to bus to away games, something the AAC can’t offer as it stretches from Philadelphia down to Tampa and west to Dallas. Simply put, these schools might value those regional rivalries, partnerships and low mileage bills more than a move to the AAC. And they might believe that, as a football conference, the Sun Belt is moving past the AAC.
The door to Mountain West schools might open again for the AAC if the Big 12 chooses to expand again. The Big 12 would likely target Boise State, and the Broncos leaving the MWC would significantly impact the conference’s value. If and when that happens, Air Force and its friends might look for a way out again.