UConn chasing a championship and a conference

Photo of Brian Koonz

Before the pitch played out in Storrs and Providence, it played out on a napkin in a secret meeting.

Dave Gavitt, the basketball visionary at Providence, sat down with UConn athletic director John Toner in May 1979 and grabbed a pen.

Gavitt drew up a plan for UConn to join the new Big East Conference with St. John’s, Syracuse, Georgetown, Boston College, Seton Hall and Providence.

It was a chance to leverage some of the nation’s top TV markets to generate unprecedented exposure, influence and money. Lots and lots of money.

Toner had 72 hours to make the most important decision in the history of UConn athletics.

Toner bought in — all the way in — and UConn profited on every level. The Huskies turned into a dominant, national athletic program, most especially in men’s and women’s basketball.

As UConn and Syracuse prepare to meet in the second round of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament Monday, it’s a reminder of how far apart these two schools have grown.

The UConn women have won 11 national championships — and counting — while the Syracuse women have made exactly one appearance in the final game of the season, an 82-51 loss to the Huskies last April.

But the long-term outlook is decidedly different in Storrs.

More Information

2015 conference revenue

Forbes compiled the list below of the richest conferences based on TV contracts, football playoff and bowl money, and NCAA men’s basketball tournament shares.

Conference Member Share Total Revenue

SEC $36.8 million $515 million

Big Ten $30.8 million $431 million

Big 12 $30.2 million $302 million

Pac-12 $29.3 million $351 million

ACC $21.9 million $328 million

American $5.7 million $68 million

These days, with its bottom line hurt by the collateral damage of the Big East’s breakup in 2013, UConn is an outlier in the American Athletic Conference, a patchwork of schools scattered across 10 states with nothing in common except exclusion.

Never mind the flares of indignation and the vernacular of entitlement.

The Huskies don’t fit in one of the elite Power Five leagues — the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big 12, the Big Ten, the Southeastern Conference and the Pac-12 — despite their incessant lobbying.

Just ask the ACC, the Big Ten and the Big 12. All three have passed on UConn in recent years.

The ACC took Boston College, Miami, Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Pitt and Louisville. The Big Ten took Rutgers, Maryland and Nebraska. The Big 12, after killing its expansion plans after months of headlines, took no one in 2016, including UConn.

With each passing year, UConn falls further behind in this new world order of big-time college athletics. The Power Five conferences cash the big checks to generate the most revenue and the most muscle.

Consider: In a July 2016 analysis by Forbes that reviewed TV deals, football playoff and bowl payouts, and income from the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, UConn and the AAC were left to fight for scraps.

The SEC made the most money in 2015 — $515 million — and distributed $36.8 million to each of its members.

The Big Ten was second with $431 million in revenue and payouts of $30.8 million, followed by the Big 12 with $302 million and payouts of $30.2 million, the Pac-12 with $351 million and payouts of $29.3 million, and the ACC with $328 million and $21.9 million in payouts.

By contrast, the American made $68 million in 2015 and distributed an also-ran $5.7 million to its members, including UConn.

The acute income gap is already here.

As 27-year-old Gampel Pavilion continues to leak, the school’s communications office wrote this last June: “UConn’s Board of Trustees recently decided to delay a $10 million project to repair the iconic basketball arena’s roof, in light of the state’s ongoing fiscal concerns.”

After a year-long delay, UConn said last month it will begin work on the project in May.

“As the state of Connecticut continues to cut funding and struggle with its state budget, it puts UConn at a competitive disadvantage,” said Rick Burton, endowed professor of sport management at Syracuse’s Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics.

Conversely, with the larger payouts from the ACC — and without the shackles of a state budget deficit — Syracuse said last spring it will spend $255 million for renovations to the Carrier Dome and Archbold Gymnasium.

Richard Lapchick, endowed chair and director of the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida, doesn’t see a quick fix for the Huskies.

“Even though the Big 12 decided not to add any new members, it’s possible that could be the last big shakeup for years to come unless there is some consolidation of the power conferences,” Lapchick said.

The Power Five conferences, except for the SEC, have locked up their members into the next decade with a grant of media rights.

For example, if Clemson left the ACC for the Big 12 under the league’s current deal, the ACC would get Clemson’s home game revenue, including TV rights, through 2026-27, regardless of the Tigers’ conference affiliation.

“For schools like UConn and UCF and others in the American, I don’t see anywhere to go but the Big 12,” Lapchick said. “Given the (revenue) disparity, it’s going to get harder and harder for our schools to compete against the power conferences.”

Meanwhile, there are no secret meetings and pitches on napkins. It’s not enough to tread water in Storrs when the cash is drying up.

bkoonz@ctpost.com; @briankoonz