UNT to American

North Texas president Neal Smatresk, left, and athletic director Wren Baker speak to the media during a press conference shortly after the school announced it is joining the American Athletic Conference on Thursday at Apogee Stadium.

The University of North Texas accepted an invitation to join the American Athletic Conference on Thursday morning, a move school officials characterized as a dramatic upgrade for their athletics program.

The American included UNT in a six-school expansion that will give the Irving-based league 14 teams in most sports. All six additions are currently members of Conference USA.

The University of Texas at San Antonio, Rice University, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Florida Atlantic University and University of North Carolina at Charlotte are all making the move with UNT.

Southern Methodist University, University of Memphis, East Carolina University, Temple University, University of Tulsa, University of South Florida, United States Naval Academy and Tulane University are already members of what will be a league centered in the Southwest. Navy is a football-only member of the American, while Wichita State University competes in the league in basketball and Olympic sports.

“This move means so much for the university, not just in terms of moving into a conference that is clearly prestigious, but also in terms of the reputation it will help create for us on a national level,” UNT President Neal Smatresk said during the school’s press conference announcing the move. “You think about the television exposure and the media attention we will gain.”

“What I’ll tell you is that this move reflects what’s happening on the academic side of the university,” he said. “We are a growing university that is the fourth largest in the state. Our programs are expanding, our research is booming, and athletics is helping us lead the charge to becoming a nationally prominent major university.”

The American was viewed as a higher-level league than C-USA before the latest round of realignment. The American will look much different after it lost the University of Houston, University of Cincinnati and University of Central Florida to the Big 12, but there is little doubt the league still represents an upgrade for UNT.

UNT has long wanted to elevate its profile in Texas and especially the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Joining the American will immediately provide added exposure.

UNT will be in the same conference as longtime rival SMU and is making the move to the American with two of its Texas rivals from C-USA in major markets. Rice is in Houston, while UTSA is in San Antonio.

“Its not that our growth potential would have been stymied had we not got this opportunity, but this certainly lifts that ceiling even higher,” UNT Athletic Director Wren Baker said. “We’ll have a chance to continue to recruit better and to retain student-athletes and coaches and staff.”

“When we have those achievements that we’ve had, whether its Hope Trautwein’s perfect game, a bracket-busting win in the NCAA tournament or a fake fair catch play that goes for a touchdown against an SEC team, those will be spotlighted on a bigger and brighter stage because of the television opportunities with the American.”

Smatresk and Baker spent the last few weeks selling what the school has to offer as a new wave of conference realignment kicked off.

Those efforts paid off when UNT accepted its invitation to the American. The league has yet to determine when its new members will become a part of the conference, but it could come in the 2023-24 school year.

American commissioner Mike Aresco said the league looked at the possibility of expanding by anywhere from two to six schools before it arrived at its plan to add six schools.

“As that process played out, it became clear that we had a great opportunity to shape the long-term future by adding schools that not only share our philosophy of competing at the highest level, but also showed that they’re willing to make the necessary investments to do so,” Aresco said.

Being included in that group of schools could end up being a financial boon for UNT’s athletics program.

American schools currently receive about $7 million per school annually in media rights revenue, far and away more than the $500,000 C-USA schools receive.

UNT will receive a higher payout in the American than it did in C-USA. The question is how much higher. The American’s media rights revenue is expected to decline significantly after the league lost three of its highest profile schools in the latest round of realignment that was set off when the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Oklahoma left the Big 12 for the SEC.

The Big 12 responded by grabbing Brigham Young University in addition to the three American schools. The loss of Houston, Cincinnati and UCF is expected to reduce what the American can garner in a television deal.

Aresco couldn’t provide an exact figure on what the American’s schools will receive but expressed confidence in the league’s ability to negotiate a beneficial package.

“ESPN believes in the growth potential of this league,” Aresco said. “They have been a superb partner. I’m confident that we will be supported.”

No matter what the American’s media deal looks like, UNT officials and coaches are thrilled with the move. Several spoke privately over the last few weeks about their excitement over what the American would offer UNT as a whole and their programs on an individual basis.

UNT gradually improved its realignment resume since it moved from the Sun Belt to C-USA in 2013. The school opened a $13.6 million soccer/track and field stadium and a $16 million indoor football practice facility in 2019.

UNT also recently opened a $3 million golf practice facility.

The school’s programs have also improved competitively over the last few years, adding to what UNT had to sell. UNT’s mens basketball team won its first NCAA tournament game in March when it upset Purdue University. The school’s football team has struggled during a 1-5 start this season but has played in bowl games in four of the last five years.

Baker acknowledged that UNT has some work to do to prepare for its move to the American and is ready to tackle that challenge.

“We want that,” Baker said. “We look at what we aspire to be and what our potential and ceiling is.”

Baker emphasized to UNT’s boosters and supporters over the last few years that the school’s efforts to improve its athletics program would move it into position should an opportunity to join a better league present itself.

UNT has boosted its budget by close to $10 million since 2016 and capitalized after the American declined overtures this fall from C-USA about realigning on a regional basis. C-USA officials, including commissioner Judy MacLeod, sent a letter to their counterparts in the American asking them to join in their efforts to move to a regional alignment.

The American raided C-USA instead just more than a week later after a quick expansion process. All six C-USA teams that left the league for the American applied for membership, were considered and accepted in a matter of days.

A new era in the history of UNT’s athletics program was ushered in with the American’s announcement, one that is expected to have significant financial and competitive benefits for the school.

“This will help build the spirit and culture of this school,” Smatresk said. “That is really important. This is a school when I first got here [in 2014] a lot of people didn’t know where it was or what North Texas was. You can bet they know now.”

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.