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The Case for Miami Football to be Independent...Again

Price Of Rent Rises Nearly Nationwide Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

When others zig, you zag.

State of the U has been closely following the seismic shift that is the NCAA conference landscape as the B1G Ten and SEC steamroll towards “Super Conference” status. As explored by the SotU editors, the three obvious paths forward for the University of Miami seem to be:

  1. Stand strong with the ACC and pray it starts expanding (:cough: Notre Dame :cough:);
  2. Find its way into the B1G Ten with geographically distant, but demographically similar schools; or
  3. Find its way into the SEC with geographically close, but demographically different schools.

But perhaps there’s another path through the murky forest that is a crumbling NCAA. A path not all that unfamiliar to the U...

Football Independence: A New, but Familiar, World

For younger fans who may not recall, University of Miami football was independent until 1990 when the Hurricanes joined the Big East. That’s right. The Hurricanes’ first three national championships (1983, 1987, 1989) were earned without affiliation to any conference. The Hurricanes played out of the Big East until 2003 when Miami joined Virginia Tech in switching to the ACC.

Think of the scheduling possibilities as an independent. For starters, independent status is not for homeless, throw away football programs. Four independent programs went bowling last year (Notre Dame, BYU, Army, and Liberty). The pool of independent programs should offer a base of 5 or 6 games, at least half of which should be reasonably strong competition.

Add in an annual FCS fundraising exhibition game, and Miami will have roughly 5 to 6 more games to schedule each year. At least one or two of those would probably be a local non-major FBS school like FIU, FAU, USF, UAB, Appalachian State, etc. That leaves Miami at least four games, and tremendous freedom, to schedule old rivals (FSU, UF, Virginia Tech) or power teams outside the B1G Ten and SEC that will be starving for elite competition. Pac 12, Big 12, and ACC competitors will be looking to bolster their resume to improve their post-season desirability. Teams like Clemson, Oregon, and Baylor will need stiff non-conference competition to ensure selection in whatever playoff system is in place. Plus, Miami should still be able to snag a game or two each year from some SEC and B1G Ten teams’ non-conference schedule.

Consider this hypothetical 2024 schedule:

  • 8/31 - @ Florida (already scheduled to play Miami)
  • 9/7 - Florida A&M (already scheduled to play Miami)
  • 9/14 - Ball State (already scheduled to play Miami)
  • 9/21 - Duke (open date for Duke, needs more non-conference games)
  • 9/28 - @ BYU (open date for BYU)
  • 10/5 - OPEN
  • 10/12 - Army (open date for Army)
  • 10/19 - UMass (open date for UMass)
  • 10/26 - @ Boston College (open date for BC, needs more non-conference games)
  • 11/2 - New Mexico State (open date for NMS)
  • 11/9 - Florida State (currently plays Notre Dame, negotiate to remove)
  • 11/16 - UConn (open date for UConn)
  • 11/23 - @ Georgia (currently plays UMass, negotiate to remove)
  • 11/30 - FIU (open date for FIU)
  • 12/7 - Notre Dame (already scheduled with TBD date)

That’s a very realistic schedule highlighted by actually scheduled games against UF and Notre Dame (which could be scheduled like an ‘independent championship’ while other conferences hold their championships games), plus another hypothetical national title contender like Georgia, and a slew of anticipated bowl teams highlighted by Florida State and BYU. Fold it all together, and year in and year out you have a strong pool of competition that allows the Hurricanes to contend for a national title with an undefeated or one-loss campaign.

But What About Non-Football Sports?

I’m glad you asked, because there’s a simple solution. Call the Big East.

UConn set a precedent by returning to the Big East in 2020 in all sports except Football, which plays as an independent. The Big East has tremendous basketball pedigree, which is what mostly matters to ensure non-football revenue. There will always be a path to March Madness playing in the Big East.

The Big East demographics are also a better fit with the University of Miami than the B1G Ten, the SEC, or even the ACC. The Big East is a northeast-centered conference (where Miami has a significant alumni base) that doesn’t extend further west than Creighton in Omaha, NE. Every school, except UConn, is a private institution like Miami. Moreover, Miami’s status as a national brand would immediately command major influence in the conference’s decisions. By comparison, in the B1G Ten and the SEC, Miami would be just another big fish in a pond full of other big fish. As for the ACC, the past twenty years have made clear that the conference’s control is consolidated around Tobacco Road. Aligning Miami with the Big East should mean that it gets substantial say in that conference’s decisions.

Football Independence Offers a New, Financial Frontier

Ultimately, money talks. The whole reason that USC and UCLA joined a conference with the likes of Rutgers and Penn State is because they stand to make a boatload of money. The B1G Ten is in the midst of negotiating its next media rights deal. The B1G Ten was anticipating a 6-year media package valued at about $70m per school per year. Industry insiders predict the addition of USC and UCLA could push the final haul for each B1G Ten School up to $80-$100m annually as the conference puts the final bow on its negotiations.

Meanwhile, the SEC inked a 10-year, $3 billion deal that begins in 2024 and will result in annual distributions of about $70m per year for each SEC school.

By contrast, the ACC distributes a wimpy $36m annually to each school, and the ACC is locked into this atrocious agreement through 2036.

It’s simple math. Super Conference money ($70-$100m) > ACC money ($36m).

By aligning with the Big East, and keeping its football program as an independent, Miami would match and likely surpass its current ACC earnings. As a rough comparison, Notre Dame earns a reported $15m annually from its deal with NBC. It’s an old deal set to expire in 2025. Each Big East school earns about $5m annually in its media rights deal, also set to expire in 2025. So Miami could conservatively net $20-25m annually from a new deal with a traditional media partner (Fox, NBC, CBS, etc.) and the Big East should be able to up its contribution to at least $10-$15m annually with Miami’s addition. The baseline seems no worse than what the ACC is locked into for the next decade.

Now here’s where things get interesting - we are at the dawn of a new frontier in media streaming with the rise of online platforms such as Apple, Amazon, YouTube, and Hulu (say it with me, “Hulu has live sports!”). Apple shocked the sports world a few months ago in announcing a $2.5b package for MLS distribution rights. Apple is also reportedly in negotiations with the B1G Ten to stream some of their games. Meanwhile, Amazon will begin streaming NFL’s Thursday Night Football.

There is a tremendous opportunity here as streaming platforms look to break the ESPN, Fox, NBC, and CBS stranglehold on the American live sports market. It would not shock me in the least if Miami could negotiate an annual $40-$50m football rights package with Amazon, Apple, YouTube, Netflix, or even HBO or Showtime. This seems well within the market rate, and perfectly reasonable considering Stranger Things costs $30m per episode to produce and the various Marvel shows on Disney+ run about $25m per episode. Combine this football revenue with a share of the Big East revenue, and you’re talking SEC and B1G Ten money without having to be beholden to those conferences.

Additionally, going independent would give Miami immense freedom to distribute ancillary rights as it pleases. Imagine, as one of an infinite number of examples, Dan Le Batard’s Meadowlark Media leveraging its recent Apple TV+ partnership to start a new “Hurricanes Network” featuring Billy Corben, creator of “The U,” produced content (Corben is a frequent guest on Le Batard’s podcasts). Or perhaps entertainment brands such as Hard Rock or Carnival Cruise Lines have visions of content partnerships. And don’t forget NFTs in this crypto-crazy town. The possibilities are endless, bound only by Dan Radakovich's imagination. It's this kind of revolutionary thinking that can keep Miami pushing the limits on NIL opportunities that are critical to recruiting for the foreseeable future.

In a Shifting Landscape, Stay Flexible

Perhaps the best argument for Miami going independent is flexibility. Flexibility in scheduling, flexibility in financial opportunities, and flexibility in any long term commitments. Yes, Miami would face a stiff exit fee from the ACC, but that should be negotiable especially if Miami is going independent rather than joining a super conference. Heck, Maryland negotiated a nearly 50% reduction of the ACC’s exit fee when it left in 2014.

The bottom line is that before Miami commits to any conference, it should at least explore any and all pioneering opportunities that could be available with an independent football program.