Charlotte will officially join the AAC, leaving Conference USA

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The Charlotte 49ers have been accepted to the American Athletic Conference, soon ending its tenure in Conference USA.

Charlotte, Alabama-Birmingham, Rice, Texas-San Antonio, North Texas and Florida Atlantic’s official membership was announced Thursday. The earliest that the six schools can begin play in the AAC would be the 2023-24 season, although an official date has not been announced.

“The AAC is adding schools that not only share our philosophy of competition at the highest level but have shown they’re willing to make the necessary investments to do so,” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said. “Our Power Six campaign is going to be energized. It’s not going away, and I want that to be really clear.

“We wanted schools that could embrace it (the P6 campaign),” Aresco said. “Schools that could add to their budgets and pay their coaches in our range. They would come in desiring to win championships. They’ll do much better financially in this conference, and that will help them. Attendance will be improved and donors will be excited. We always had a very short list (of potential member schools).”

Charlotte football coach Will Healy has spoken openly about expanding Jerry Richardson Stadium, which seats just over 15,314, the smallest in the FBS.

The six C-USA schools submitted applications of interest on Tuesday and received their term sheets and formal invitations on Wednesday. Charlotte must now provide C-USA with an exit notice, starting a 14-month process that will include two years of conference distribution and a coinciding fee.

With three member schools — Central Florida, Houston and Cincinnati — departing for the Big 12, the six new additions total 14 schools in the American. Navy will remain a football-only school. Wichita State is a member but does not have a football program.

“It’s exciting to be a part of,” Charlotte coach Will Healy said. “Obviously, when you’re (involved in AAC talks) you would think it’s because of having some success. These guys have had plenty of it.”

It has been just nine years since the school added football, and just seven since Charlotte made the jump to the FBS, joining C-USA. The 2019 season was the program’s first winning record (7-6) and first bowl appearance.

“People might say that Charlotte hasn’t had the kind of football success yet,” Aresco said. “Well, they’re going to have it. These schools have the resources (to be at the top of college athletics).”

The 49ers are 4-2 this season, leading C-USA’s East Division at 2-0 in conference play entering Thursday night’s game against FAU.

The AAC move provides the 49ers with a natural in-state division rival in East Carolina. They already had non-conference matchups scheduled with the Pirates in the 2023 and 2024 seasons.

“We’re thrilled to be in a league with East Carolina,” Hill said. “To have an in-state rival matters a lot. It’s really really good for both institutions. We look around the league and there are a lot of schools in this league that we’ve been colleagues with. It’s really really exciting for us.”

“When it comes to retention of coaches, we’ve often talked about the fact that I want our coaches to be coveted,” Hill continued. “Because it means we’re having success. We’re in that situation right now. There’s no doubt that their level of enthusiasm about our program and its future is exploding with this news. They recognize the level of competition, the level of exposure that we’ll receive in a league like the American is like nothing that we’ve experienced before. There’s no question that being in this league will provide us with tremendous opportunity to retain our great coaches.

Healy, 36, has had his name tied to various coaching vacancies around college football the past two years.

Healy’s contract pays $805,000 annually, which ranks 96th in the nation and eighth in C-USA. The smallest annual contract in the AAC is Southern Methodist head coach Sonny Dykes at $1.3 million.The most lucrative yearly contract in the American is Houston’s Dana Holgorsen at $4 million.

The jump from C-USA’s television contract to the AAC’s will provide a stark boost in funding for the new member programs, although those official numbers are to be determined. C-USA’s television contract distributes each program nearly 400,000 annually, the lowest of any Group of Five conference.

Aresco would not elaborate on television or conference financials but did state that “ESPN believes in the growth potential of this league. We have a long-term deal in place.” He also would not say if the six new schools would receive the same distribution as the existing institutions.

The American signed a 12-year, $1 billion television deal with ESPN in 2019, running through 2031-32. A crucial clause in the deal states that it can be negotiated with major changes in the conference’s membership. The current AAC member programs currently receive $7 million annually.

If the current ESPN deal holds, 49ers football games would be televised on ESPN’s family, including appearances on ABC. Basketball games would air across ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU, with many on the ESPN+ subscription service.

“This invite by The American not only recognizes the accomplishments of our University and athletics program to date, but it also demonstrates believe in our rising trajectory,” Charlotte Chancellor Sharon Gaber said. “We’re a university on the move, shaping what’s next for our city, region and beyond.”

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