For over 10 years, the University of Massachusetts, an FCS sometimes-powerhouse, has pined for FBS membership. Specifically they have wanted admission into the Big East with its somewhat high academic standards, media revenue, very good reputation, and BCS membership.
For years the Big East has declined to offer UMass membership as their stadium is too small and to a much lesser degree, their other athletic facilities are not up to date or up to BE standards.
"Admit us and then we will gain the support to build a Big East appropriate 40,000 seat stadium and new facilities like UCONN did," UMass administrators and fans beg.
"Build the stadium and new facilities and then we will admit you" seems the Big East's response behind closed doors.
A very old saying comes to mind. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing year after year and expecting different results.
After years of this status quo, I think we should all be able to agree that the only way UMass will finally get to move up to FBS is if they create their own conference.
If you wait for somone else to create your opportunity, you'll never see your opportunity when it comes.
That opportune time is here for UMASS.
The viability of an eastern conference
There are a great number of schools within a reasonable travel footprint that would be capable of starting an all-sports FBS conference with UMass today. (...If the NCAA would allow it today. For the record, the NCAA's rules on upgrades currently do not. That doesn't mean UMASS should not do the legwork today. The BCS schools have pushed to have the NCAA set up rules requiring years of lead time specifically to discourage school like UMASS from moving up. That may change by 2010. We will discuss that in a minute).
An FBS conference only requires eight football playing members.
Looking at attendance numbers in FCS this season, there about 12-15 schools in that footprint that have pulled more than 15,000 per game. (15,000 has been the NCAA's soft minimum number for FBS membership for a while although there was talk of it going up to 17,000. I am not sure if that has occurred yet.)
(That is ignoring another 5 to 10 who possibly could get the money to expand their stadiums and attendance and join this crowd if there was the real potential of joining a solid and regionally sensible FBS home.)
Now most of these schools will end the season in the 13-15,000 range as average attendance, but that is a bit of a false reading. You have to consider that they aren't currently in a push to move up to FBS. The excitement of an impending status upgrade would certainly electrify a school's fan base and allow most of these 15 or so FCS schools to stay above the 15,000 threshold requirement (a very soft requirement) for upgrading.
In football terms, finding 7 more members is very doable. There are obviously more considerations than just football in building a conference and we will discuss those a little later.
Making it happen
In order for an eastern conference to form, I think a long time fence sitter has to make the decision to put all of their eggs in one basket and go all out.
That school has to be of such a stature that they act as a domino that starts the university movement.
The school has to be well respected, to have a pretty large endowment, to be a large school and preferrably a state flagship with statewide support, to have marketable athletics, to be relevant in a large TV market, to have sway with a number of universities, to be in a conference with over 12 basketball playing members --- many of whom may be dissatisfied, and finally to see a much better future for itself at the FBS level than at the FCS level.
UMass is one of the few schools to fit all the criteria, and may be the only one.
UMass has a strong basketball program and has won an FCS football title. They have an enrollment of 26,000, an functional 17,000 seat stadium that could be cheaply and easily temporarily expanded to an FBS capable 22,000 or so.
They have a state-wide following in a very populous state. Academically they are respected in BCS crowds. They have a pretty large endowment. They are the kind of school with which every sub-BCS FBS school wants to be affiliated.
They even have a regionally sensible and marketable knickname that translates well into a mascot. Really only thing that degrades the public perception of the university is the fact that they play football at the small school level and they aren't a small school.
Football Championship Subdivision
The FCS classification is set up to allow medium to small publics (say enrollments of 6-15,000 students) at the Division 1 level to play football at a cheaper cost in which shortfalls can be managed with their resources. The classification also allows DI privates (most of which have enrollments less than 6000) the chance to compete in football in cost-friendly conference travel footprints.
The NCAA has competition levels for smaller schools that allow football and other sports on even smaller budgets. Division II is designed for small publics with enrollments up to 6000 and small privates with enrollments up to 1500. Finally Divison III is for schools that want to say they have sports but don't want to give out any scholarships and would really like to avoid spending money on sports when possible.
UMASS playing at the FCS level creates a number of situations that degrades the school's credibility with sports fans and makes them look like an inferior school in sports fans' eyes.
First, there is the appearance of unbalanced competition. UMASS appears to be a bully school beating up on schools that lack the resources to compete. A school with an enrollment over 15,000 Like UMASS has a sizeable competitive advantage over the average school at the FCS level.
Additionally a school of that size competing at the FCS level in football brands itself as inferior to the schools it may consider it's peers who play at the FBS level. For UMASS, flagships Rutgers and UCONN are good examples of school UMASS may see as peers, but sports fans do not.
Football Bowl Subdivision
College football is a generally a money loser at any level. Schools play football to provide opportunities for athletes to strive to be their best and to promote their universities. In the latter regard, football for a university is like a loss leader in retail.
The question any DI football playing university needs to ask is does the limited budget and potential low cap on losses at the FCS level vs. the FBS level outweigh the potential positive promotional and financial gain of competing at the FBS level vs. the FCS level?
If UMass played at the FBS level they would attract more prospective students. Some students (even the brilliant ones) refuse to attend a school that doesn't have an FBS football program.
Getting these additional students appplying means more revenue for the school, more enthusiastic alumnis (and alumni endowments) , and just following the logic, could very well mean UMASS would be able to bring in additional top level students raising the perception of the academics at the university as well.
On the flip side, playing at the FBS level can be a money pit. For most FBS schools today, it is.
I would strongly argue that it does not have to be the case. Most FBS schools are chasing their conference mates who are spending money they don't have. If they play at the non-BCS level, they are trying to compete at the BCS level. If they play at the bottom of the BCS level they are trying to keep up with the BCS powers like Ohio State with it's 100 Million dollar annual athletic budget.
It doesn't have to be that way.
There are a small number of schools who stick to their budgets, promote their schools well to the local community, and are able to achieve modest financial success ---football programs that are not consistent large financial drains on their schools --- even at the non-BCS level. A conference of like minded schools in big media markets could use those schools as a conference model to control spending while pulling in big revenue.
Sports could be a positive revenue generator that pays for all sports teams and possibly even yeilds financial dividends.
But really the big yield would be allowing UMASS to be seen for it's academic excellence and not it's lack of something other peer schools possess and take for granted. Fixing this blemish seems very possible today.
Which schools might buy in
For a second we will forget the larger issue of the how and deal with the issue of who.
There are two general categories in football terms. There are the FCS schools with good attendance numbers I mentioned above who might be interested in upgrading, and there are regionally displaced FBS schools who might want a conference with a better footprint.
To move up with little trouble you need a well supported program (FCS attendance average of 12K or above with spikes that go over 15K), a stadium that seats at least 15K that could in short order realistically be expanded to at least 22-25k, and a sufficient enrollment to absorb financial shortfalls painlessly. With regards to absorbinf shortfalls, a minimum of 15,000 enrolled students seems about right for public schools and maybe 7,000 for private schools where their students' tuition and fee expectations are much higher.
I am going to list nine good candidates that are currently pulling in over 15,000 per home game. There are other candidates like SUNY Stony Brook, Hofstra, and a few more who have many qualities that suggest they might be good candidates to upgrade, but most lack the fan support and/or the ability to secure a useable sized stadium.
The Youngstown State Penguins: With 15,000 students and a 21,000 seat stadium, YSU dreams of MAC membership, but may not see it anytime soon. Perhaps due to their enrollment being smaller than most MAC schools, the MAC seems disinterested. The MVC as an all-sports member would be a decent home financially, but the Penguins are only wanted by the MVC for football. The attitude is not suprising. People forget that YSU won four FCS titles in the 1990s. One gets the impression that YSU has outgrown FCS but has nowhere to go at the FBS level.
The Delaware Fightin' Blue Hens: With attendance numbers regularly in the low 20K range and an enrollment of 19,000 (sufficient to absorb shortfall costs), Delaware could move to the FBS level with little trouble. They are an FCS unicorn --- the mythical regularly profitable FCS team. In the past they have expressed an interest in staying at the FCS level as they are in a good financial position (similar to Montana's position in the west). Attitudes could be changing, though, as Delaware is enlarging their stadium capacity a bit. They are an annual FCS power with an FCS football title to their name. Moving up means more expenses for Delaware and there is a real question of whether an FBS conference would take them. Joining the Big East would mean expanding their stadium to 40K and building up their facilities in all other sports -- not a cheap process. A conference that would take their stadium as it is might suit one of the penny-pinching powers of FCS just fine.
The James Madison Dukes: Bridgeforth Stadium is being enlarged to 25K. That is a strange number for a school without FBS dreams. With an enrollment of 18,000 and a good football following, JMU seems a good candidate to move up. JMU has one FCS title to their name. Their current FBS prospects are not great. They would likely be a replacement candidate for the very spread out Sunbelt Conference if someone leaves. That would likely bleed the competitiveness out of the program. They would likely be a lot more interested in an east coast conference with a smaller footprint and higher caliber member universities if one would arise.
The Liberty Flames: With over 12,000 residential students, Liberty is a pretty large private university. Founded by Jerry Falwell, Liberty ran through some financial troubles a few years back, but it is my understanding that Falwell had a life insurance policy that paid off Liberty's debts when he died. Their stadium seats 12,000 today although they drew over 15,000 for their home opener. This is a university that might really be looking to improve their visibility to help bring in new students and donors. The school also has another 38,000 students enrolled though distance learning as well as an affiliation with Falwell and is located in a very populous state (Virginia), so their alumni base and fan base is quite a bit larger than what would normally be present at a school this size.
The Old Dominion Monarchs: ODU recently renovated Foreman Field and added FCS football starting this season. The stadium seats 20,000 and in their initial season attendance has not dropped under 19K. ODU has a student enrollment of 24,000 which makes it a large public university. ODU has started play as an FCS school, but might be able to modify plans and play as an FBS school. The guidelines in this scenario do not appear to be without grey areas. Additionally the NCAA has a reclassification moritorium in place until the 2010 season specifically to look at their reclassification rules. No one knows what changes might be in store, especially as the nation has taken a very strong lean against the BCS schools and our President is both a sports fan and an avid poll watcher. In this environment, the NCAA may feel a need to be seen as less of a BCS stooge.
The Appalachian State Mountaineers: One hardly needs to introduce three-time FCS champion App. State after their upset of Michigan a few seasons ago. They draw in the high 20's in football despite having seating for only 22,000. With an enrollment of 16,000 App. State could weather a move up, but the problem is their academics are not at the level that top conferences pursue, so they have chosen to instead remain an FCS power rather than just being another faceless Sunbelt team.
The Georgia Southern Eagles: The Eagles have won the FCS national title a record six times, but are still relatively unknown outside of FCS fan circles. They play in an 18,000 seat stadium and have a university enrollment of 18,000. They are strongly investigating moving up, even though their upgrade options mirror JMU's and App. State's (ie. The Sunbelt).
The Florida A&M Rattlers: Tallahassee's other university. A one-time FCS champion, FAMU has an enrollment of 13,000 and has a stadium that seats 26,000. They were ready to jump to the FBS level a few years ago. They had revenue streams lined up and then put it off. They are probably still interested in moving up, but the Sunbelt doesn't have openings any more and there are not other FBS conferences that would have sensible travel that would want them currently.
HBCUs: What they are and why more of them are not listed as possibilites
FAMU brings to light the issue of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). FAMU is an HBCU.
There are a number of HBCUs in the region with attendance numbers that suggest they could make a go of it at the FBS level.
There are two conferences that are comprised of HBCUs in FCS, the MEAC along the southeast coast and SWAC along the Gulf of Mexico. FAMU has the bad luck of being on the fringe of both conferences, making travel much more expensive for them than their conference mates. This is likely a big reason why FAMU would publically consider leaving their HBCU FCS affiliation to play at the higher profile FBS level. If they have to pay to travel anyway, they may feel "Why not move up to a higher exposure level?"
The majority of the HBCU schools appear quite content at the FCS level, so I have not addressed them much. They draw decent numbers playing non-HBCU schools and dynamite ones playing other HBCU schools.
I think the unstated question is "Would HBCU schools in general draw better playing non-HBCU opposition from a higher level?" I think the consensus among the member universitities is that they would not and as such there is little talk of upgrading.
FAMU appears to have looked at that dynamic and decided that their fans are football fans first, not HBCU football fans first. That hardly seems suprising in football crazy Florida.
(Oddly one of the most pronounced examples of the HBCU attendance phenomenon is an FCS school not in the 2 HBCU conferences. Tennessee State is not a member of either HBCU conference but if you look at their attendence, they probably should be. They show a staggering HBCU game attendances vs. underwhelming non-HBCU game attendences.)
The SUNY Buffalo Bulls: One of the newer members of the MAC, Buffalo has found their niche in football and basketball at the FBS level in the MAC. Still, they dream of the Big East. It is not likely to happen in the next 20 years. Buffalo is a great academic university with a relatively large endowment and is the right size with an enrollment of 28,000, but they have facility issues and financial competition issues in football with the NFL. UB expanded their stadium to 30,000 a few years back, but in doing so created an absolute nightmare of a stadium. It looks pretty and new to the non-football fan, but it is laid out totally incorrectly for building fan turnout. The stadium suppresses turnout like UNT's Fout's field, but is too nice to make it politically palitable to suggest tearing down big chunks of it and rebuilding. And the Bills suck up the fall football fan's dollars in Buffalo, leaving little for the Bulls. Almost all college teams in what I have named NFL Killzones tend to fare poorly at the gate. Barring an NFL Bills relocation, the Bulls aren't going to draw well and if they don't draw well, they aren't moving up. Barring the arrival of a new regional conference, the Bulls are stuck in the MAC for a very long time. They might be very interested if a poor man's Big East arose.
The Army Black Knights: A former football playing member of CUSA, Army might consider a similar arrangement with a new eastern conference. Air Force's arrangement with the MWC could be mirrored or Army could seek football-only membership (more likely). Army could likely compete fairly well in a conference where half the teams are upgrading from FCS. Army is a great draw on the road.
The Temple Owls: The Owls, with a large enrollment and a huge alumni base situated in a major city (Philadelphia), are potentially a big-time media draw. Since being booted out of the Big East, the Owls have been in no man's land. They are the ultimate outlier in a MAC Conference where the competition is generally considered very marginal. Being an outlier means they pay more than their competition just to travel to the games. Those higher costs tend to bleed the competitiveness out of conference outliers. The schools' biggest problem by far is that they lack a much needed on or near campus stadium. They play in the cavernous 69000 seat Lincoln Financial Field, which makes the Owl fans who attend the game notice their lack of numbers and not want to come back. They probably draw half to a third of what they could draw with a more appropriate sized on or near campus stadium. Lincoln is a good stadium to use when hosting Penn State, but it is a useless luxury beyond that. Even playing at Penn's Franklin filed might be better for Temple. Having closer opponents who might travel some fans would be a godsend for Temple. I think they would love to be in a poor man's Big East as a football member and if UMass were in for all sports, Temple would likely be in as well.
The Navy Midshipmen: A similar situation to Army's. A good draw, well respected, and a welcome conference mate, especially as a football-only member.
The Marshall Thundering Herd: I think Marshall, the two-time FCS champion and poster child for successful FCS upgrades, realizes joining CUSA was a mistake. They have a stadium that seats 38,000, but only have an enrollment of 16,000 to makeup shortfalls. Their athletic budget is very small for CUSA and the travel budget is enormous. They are bleeding the money that used to make their program so strong in the MAC. Still I think a return to the MAC would be a major blow to the reputation of the university. It would be an admission that they could not compete in CUSA, even if other legitmate factors are working against them. A move to a new east coast conference would solve the travel cost issue and mask the underlying embarrassing economic factors.
The UNC Charlotte 49ers: The 49ers (enrollment 22,000) joined the A10 when CUSA went to all sports. Now UNCC is adding FBS football. Where will they play? Is it possible that CUSA will pull them in? Is it possible that CUSA will softly boot Marshall to add UNCC? It seems likely that UNCC may have to look at the very unpleasant possibility of playing as a football independent. They may want to look at this new conference as well.
The East Carolina Pirates: I think ECU is myopic about the Big East, but at the end of the day the academics, endowment, market, and prestige are not there to get them in barring some new pressure within the BE creating a desire to expand. ECU has to look at the fall of Marshall and realize the same dynamic could potentially drag down their program --- although not to the same degree, as they have a much larger student body to bear shortages. They have an enrollment of 28K and a stadium that seats 43K. I think they would stay in CUSA rather than take a risk on a new eastern conference.
The UCF Knights: UCF is one of the largest universities in the country with an enrollment of 51,000 and a large stadium that seats 45,000 located in a very nice market in Orlando (#19 in the US and rising). I think they would likely stay in CUSA even if ECU and Marshall left as they have the student body to bear the travel costs even if gas goes to $6 a gallon. Now if CUSA splits in half... Well, that's a whole 'nother story.
The Troy Trojans: Troy has quickly leveraged their large student body (28K) into strong FBS fan support and financials to establish themselves as the cream of the Sunbelt Conference. With their 30,000-seat stadium and proximity to school like JMU, Charlotte, FAMU and others mentioned, they could be a candidate to jump conference. They really have nothing left to prove in the Sunbelt. I think it is a lot more likely they end up in the same conference as UAB than an eastern conference though.
FIU and FAU are still works in progress, but could join this list as well as they are very large public universities in the Miami DMA that are building large stadiums.
Recruiting schools to join UMASS
Having deal with the who, now let's deal with the how.
The only way recruiting becomes a possibility is if UMass is prepared to walk away from the Atlantic 10 and put their full sports membership on the table. I think they'd have to commit to getting the conference off the ground to a point where they are playing in the playoffs in football and basketball in both money sports --- plus say 5 years.
How long becoming playoff eligible would take depends on the new rules for upgrading that the NCAA adopts.
Getting the conference to the playoffs could be an instant thing (A small grace period may be implimented. "Everyone who is ready can reclassify in 2010 then we apply the new rules in 2011"), a short period like 3-5 years (the smaller FBS schools and the public creates enough pressure on the NCAA that they buckle and reduce the red tape), or a long period like 10-15 years (if the BCS schools continue to use the NCAA like a hand puppet). We really don't know what the NCAA's new classification rules will be when the moritorium ends.
If the first instance is the case, UMASS needs to be ready to go.
Whatever the rules are, UMass basketball has to be the lure to attract members.
The NCAA's 5/6/7 rule for conferences earning automatic bids to March Madness...and why it matters in a FBS football discussion.
There are two sports that generate revenue for DI schools nationwide --- football and basketball.
Schools want both athletic revenue streams, but they are very hesitant to sacrifice a guaranteed share of NCAA basketball tourney money as a member of a conference with an automatic basketball tourney bid to join a startup football conference that doesn't have one.
To have an FBS football conference that can play in bowl games, the NCAA rules are pretty simple. You have to have 8 football playing FBS members who play together for 2 years. (The rules are mostly the same for every other sport except basketball.)
For a conference to get an automatic bid to the NCAA Basketball tournament, their conference has to contain 6 core members of Division I who have played together for 5 years joined by a 7th core member school which is not required to have a prior affiliation with the other schools.
(Core membership means you have satisfied the NCAA's --- really the BCS schools' --- time requirements for being a member of Division I and qualifying to share the money. 95% of all schools at the FBS, FCS, and I-AAA level are core members of Division I. All schools mentioned in this article are core members.)
The hard part is obviously getting 6 members who have played together for 5 years to leave an existing conference.
(This rule was put in place to control how many non-BCS teams make the NCAA baskeball tourney. Each time a team wins in the toruney they take home another one of the 65 shares of the total March Madness TV money pool. By limiting the number of non-BCS schools who make the field, the BCS schools effectively maintain tight control over how much basketball revenue the non-BCS conference can take home. The fewer eligible conferences that arise, the fewer automatic bids for conference champions and the more at large bids available --- which the BCS conferences dominate.)
For UMASS to be able to pull members from other FCS and FBS conferences they need to satisfy the criteria to "merit" an automatic bid to the basketball tourney.
Getting that automatic bid
The Atlantic 10 expanded to a curious 14 teams a few years ago.
The number is very curious as 10 is perfect for a basketball conference as it allows each school to play each other in an 18 game schedule. 14 is just a really odd number for a basketball conference.
I think they may have done it to protect themselves from the possibility of a Temple/UMass-led 6 team defection.
If UMass announces they are leaving the A10 to go play FBS football, I think it is highly likely Temple would see it as a godsend and immediately promise to join. The MAC would always be there for Temple if nothing materializes and their basketball program is strong enough to find a good home even if the A10 would not accept them back following a failed attempt to build a conference.
Charlotte didn't join the A10 to be affilliated with Dunesque or Fordam; they joined to be with the name basketball programs that defined the A10 and provide their markets --- the large publics like UMASS and Temple --- and to share the conference TV revenue. With UNCC's need for a football home, they would likely give a tenative approval to follow Temple.
That gives you Boston, Philadelphia, and Charlotte --- three very good native TV markets. Boston and Philadelphia alone are two of the US's top 7 DMAs.
Rhode Island, as the last remaining public in the A10, would probably want in even if it may be a few years before they could afford to expand their stadium to a size that would allow a jump to FBS. They would want in to protect their option of moving up to FBS at their leisure.
George Washington is a very large private school with no football aspirations, but as a non-denominational school with no religious affiliations, there is no higher calling for them to stay in the A10. They'd probably go with the publics to chase the better revenue and increased media exposure that FBS brings. That would give the conference 3 of the US's top 9 markets ---all with large local alumni-bases living in those DMAs.
Getting the 6th member could be contentious if not handled properly. Adding Fordham (New York City market) would really hurt the financial viability of the Atlantic 10, potentially creating further unplanned defections and alienating friendly A10 members. Additionally as the A10 is at it's core a collection of Catholic private schools, it would create further bad blood to seduce a Catholic private school to leave for financial reasons.
A less contentious get would be Richmond.
Richmond is a well endowed, non-sectarian, and highly respected private. They would be of much greater value to an FBS eastern conference than they are to the A10. They would likely sign on as a sixth non-sports member. Richmond is a tiny private that is something of an outlier in the A10, but would be much better situated in this conference.
This arrangement gives Richmond a chance to have their cake and eat it too. They'd have less in travel costs. They'd be one of the better basketball programs in this conference. They'd get the better exposure FBS conferences receive and they could continue to be an FCS football power, playing as a football-only member of the CAA.
That would give UMass six conference mates who have played together for five years. Adding any of the previously listed "candidate schools" would give the 7th core member to satisfy the NCAA's criteria for retaining an automatic basketball tourney berth.
(The NCAA does state they are not currently looking to add new slots to the tourney, but when similar situations have arisen in the past, they have added the slot in short order to avoid lawsuits. With the proposed eastern conference having met the NCAA/BCS's obnoxious criteria, it seems highly unlikely the NCAA would suddenly grow a spine and risk fighting it out in court.)
This schism would also leave an intact and still strong 8 member A10. The A10 schools would have basketball powers St. Louis, St. Joe's, Dayton, & Xavier that they could leverage against a lot of good markets --- NYC, Philadelphia, Pittsburg, Cincinati, and St. Louis. The A10 could add 2 more catholic private schools --- Detroit Mercy (adding the Detroit DMA) and Loyola Chicago (adding Chicago DMA) jump to mind --- to get back to an easy to schedule and stable 10 team league with a much more sensible footprint.
This kind of split could lead to much lower costs and added bonuses like tight scheduling alliances between both of the resulting conferences that could be lucrative.
General dissatisfaction in the A10
One thing that should not be overlooked is the fact that expansion has not been an outright success for the A10. While the TV revenue is good, it is split 14 ways. Additionally, the conference has an enormous footprint driving up everyone's travel costs.
14 teams does not allow easy scheduling for basketball like 10 did. A lot of rivalry games are lost.
Finally, a lot of programs have lost stature being in the A10. St. Louis and Charlotte have not made the NCAA tourney since joining. They used to be annual participants.
I believe they lost the rivalries with powers Louisville and Memphis that excited their fan bases and now have to put more money into travel than their opponents do, creating a drain on revenue that used to be used for recruiting and general improvement of the programs. Plus the travel likely wears on the players a bit.
Whatever the reasons, the teams look less talented and seem to look more like bubble teams most of the time. This hurts because it seems like the A10 bubble schools seem to knock each other out of the NCAA tourney.
Unlike the Big East, where in conference games seem to help the stature of the member teams as the conference is so strong at the top--- especially last year --- in the A10, it seems like expansion has hurt the member schools by making it strong in the middle.
The 12 member A10 had 3 teams make the tourney in 2001, 1 team in 2002, 3 in 2003, 4 teams in 2004, and 1 in 2005. The now 14 team A10 had only 2 members make the field in 2006 & 2007 and 3 members in 2008 & 2009.
The loss of a tourney slot is potentially a big loss of revenue for the conference as teams make more money with each win.
3 teams in the tourney out of 14 is not great. The 14 teams may feel they could likely split into 2 conferences and get at least 2 teams into the tourney each year from each conference. And they might be right to think that.
The A10 would likely get Xavier and Dayton in with St. Louis and St. Joe's as annual bubble teams. The Eastern Conference would likely send Temple and George Washington with Richmond, UMASS, Rhode Island, and Charlotte as sometimes bubble teams.
Adding football members
At this point, UMass's 6 member basketball eastern conference would have 3 football playing members with a possible 4th down the road in Rhode Island.
If landing full members of the neccessary caliber appears difficult, UMASS could likely recruit Army and Navy as football-only members. Army would give the conference a presence just outside of the New York City DMA.
With both academies' national appeal and the lack of other FBS schools in NYC, New York City would almost certainly be considered a native DMA of this conference.
Both academies draw well at home and on the road. For smaller schools a game against an academy may add as much as 6000-12,000+ fans to the gate attendence.
FBS schools play 6 home games a year. A game against Army could add 1000-2000 to an east coast member's average home attendance each season with Navy doing the same the following season.
Additionally both Academies drew well at home which would drag up the conference's average attendance numbers, which would help the national perception of the conference from day 1. (We will futher investigate how conference attendence might play out in a minute.)
Marshall would likely kill to get in for the lower travel costs and big TV potential. This would create an impression that the conference is at least a peer of CUSA, so if played it right to the media, admitting Marshall could have a lot of value from a credibility perspective. Additionally, Marshall is a pretty good road draw in the area.
Buffalo and Delaware would make good 7th and 8th football members. They are close by, keeping travel cost reasonable. Both are high stature academic schools with good athletic programs.
Youngstown State could move up to be a 9th member or a replacement for Delaware if the Hens are content to remain at the FCS level. YSU adds some value with their football past and the fact that Buffalo and Youngstown could be travel partners.
If Delaware declines the conference could either go with Rhode Island as football team #9 or even better, could add a Virgina school --- either JMU or ODU --- creating an 9 team conference for football and a 10 team conference for basketball --- ideal for scheduling.
This scenario really works well for UMASS in that there are a lot of other schools who can fill the football slots if any of the teams suggested above decline.
Any limitations the NCAA can put on the football conference to attempt to stop the formation of a new conference are again somewhat irrelevant. Most of the schools involved are despirate for affiliation with high caliber, regionally sensible members af the FBS level.
Even if the NCAA institutes even harsher guidelines on upgrading when the moritorium ends, making UMASS, Delaware, and YSU's upgrades to FBS take longer, all of the schools are going to want to schedule each other to save money, which is the real bottom line.
Really, all UMASS has to do is get the basketball members, which if done done with respect and in a transparent manner may actually be done with the A10's blessing.
It seems hard to imagine the religious privates taking umbrage with longtime loyal programs UMass and Temple for trying to make their athletic programs stable and secure--- especially if every care is taken to leave the A10 in good shape and to work with them on scheduling, tounaments, and whatnot.
An FBS future
Once UMASS is playing at the FBS level, it seems very likely that more funding sources will become available. Fans and alumi who might consider the school's athletics to be trivial today and not worth their donations, could quickly re-evaluate that opinion if the school played at the FBS level.
Politicians would feel renewed pressure to not allow UCONN to one up UMASS as they would then be at the same level of competition. Rather than avoiding the issue, politicians would flock to be seen as the pol who lead the charge to stand up for the state's pride.
UMASS would likely see a stadium built that was slightly larger than UCONN's in fairly short order. Shortly thereafter an invite would likely come from the Big East.
Perhaps UMASS would chose to accept it. Perhaps they would decline, choosing instead to patiently tap the resources of their conference's markets. Maybe they could build their conference to a position where it could raid the Big East of its eastern football teams a decade or so down the road.
Even if UMASS chooses to leave the new conference when that invitation from the BE comes, at that point they would have created a conference that would help Marshall and Temple not bleed to death, would help Buffalo grow beyond the MAC, and would allow other FCS universities in the northeast that are just as stumped as UMASS today like state flagships Stony Brook, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and so many others a chance to evolve into FBS universities and claim the increased prestige that classification delivers.
In short, UMASS will have been a leader among universities in its region, taking up the role once championed by Joe Paterno and later abandoned by Penn State as being too difficult.
UMASS would be the heavyweight trailblazer among universities in its region, no different than what the University of Michigan, The University of Texas, and the University of Southern California are in theirs.
I emplore the university to take up the challenge.
UMASS needs to make their own way, not wait for an invitation from the Big East that may never come. Hopefully students, alumni, and fans will sieze upon this idea and light a fire under that portion of UMASS's leadership that favors waiting for Godot.