Rice officially joins American Conference, joining 5 other C-USA schools

Sports

A Rice Owls helmet sits on the sideline during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Army, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

HOUSTONTexas (KIAH) — Rice University was officially accepted into the American Athletic Conference on Thursday, joining five other schools from Conference USA to make the jump into the new conference.

Joining Rice in the move from C-USA to the AAC are North Texas, Texas-San Antonio, Alabama-Birmingham, Charlotte and Florida Atlantic. There is no timetable on when the teams will move into the AAC.

The invitation was extended after a vote of AAC presidents on Thursday.

“We have been working diligently to position Rice as an attractive candidate when the next round of conference realignment began,” Rice athletic director Joe Karlgaard said in a statement. “Today’s invitation to join the American Athletic Conference confirms our approach and aligns with our aspirations to offer an unparalleled experience for our students.

“The commitment to athletics by our university administration has been crucial to our efforts to move forward, and we’re very grateful for their close partnership. We have strong alignment as we embark on the next chapter in the history of Rice Athletics.”

Rice has the longest history of all the six schools changing conferences, especially as a member of the Southwest Conference, which Rice joined in 1915. The Owls then joined the Western Athletic Conference after the SWC was dissolved in 1995, then joined C-USA in 2005.

Rice will join former SWC member SMU in the new AAC, but not cross-town rival Houston, who will leave the AAC for the Big 12 Conference in 2023.

“We’re thrilled to be joining the American Athletic Conference, and I am especially grateful to Joe Karlgaard for his steadfast leadership in positioning us for and seizing this opportunity,” Rice president David Leebron said. “We appreciate the strong support from Commissioner (Michael) Aresco and the university presidents. We are excited to be rejoining schools like SMU, Tulane and Tulsa in an athletics conference, to play Navy on a more regular basis and to have the opportunity to participate in athletics with all the other members of The American.

“Building on our strength in recent years, including many conference championships, membership in the The American will enable us to take the next steps in achieving our high aspirations for Rice Athletics.”

The AAC targeted schools located in big media markets and fertile recruiting territory, hoping that with better exposure and more revenue, they could develop into the next UCF.

The six new schools will join AAC holdovers East Carolina, Memphis, Navy (football only), South Florida, SMU, Temple, Tulane, Tulsa and Wichita State (which does not compete in football). The additions will give the American four members in Texas. The league office recently relocated to the Dallas area after being headquartered in Providence, Rhode Island.

“We have enhanced geographical concentration, which will especially help the conference’s men’s and women’s basketball and Olympic sports teams,” Aresco said. “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.”

The AAC is at the front end of a 10-year deal with ESPN that will pay the conference’s schools between $7 million and $8 million per year over the length of the contract. It is unclear whether the value of the deal will be impacted by the change in membership, but the contract makes the conference the wealthiest in major college football outside the Power Five.

Conference USA has floundered in recent seasons by comparison, with TV deals that have generated well under $1 million per year per school and made the league’s games tricky for its fans to find.

The most recent deal provides more consistency with CBS Sports Network as the primary cable TV home of C-USA’s games and some streaming on ESPN+.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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