Will Contraction Lead To Smart Expansion in the Sun Belt Conference?

Tobi WritesAnalyst IDecember 28, 2009

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 27: Former University of Miami coach Larry Coker is on the sidelines for ESPN as the Florida State Seminoles host the Duke Blue Devils at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 27, 2007 in Tallahassee, Florida.  FSU won 25-6. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

The Sun Belt Conference has 13 members currently, but is riding a bullet train to 11 members.  Could that be the best thing that ever happened to the conference?

The Sun Belt Conference adopted rules in 2007 that seem likely to force Denver and New Orleans out by the 2012-2013 school year.

Denver, which already has the largest athletic budget in the conference and the highest academic standards would have to add five sports to stay in beyond 2013.  It seems abundantly clear they have no intention of adding sports to remain an outlier in a weak conference.

Denver hopes to be offered an invitation to the WCC.  The WAC, MWC, and  Big Sky Conference are other conferences that Denver hopes to join and may have some hope of joining due to their strong academics.  The Summitt is another conference which may have an interest in the Pioneers.

New Orleans has been absolutely devastated by the Katrina and the current recession.  It appears that they no longer have the finances to compete at the DI level, let alone add sports to hit the new Sun Belt minimum of 15 sports.

With no other movement, that leaves the Sun Belt with a very awkward 10 all sports members and one non-football member in UALR come 2013.

UALR may be forced out (perhaps to join the Summit or MVC?) or retained.  Ultimately, it doesn't change the equation much.

The number of teams in football is the real issue.

Ten football playing members is a scheduling nightmare.  There is a reason most schools move on to 12.

Nine is usually ideal, but for a conference that has trouble generating revenue and has large travel expenses like the Sun Belt, getting to 12 all sports members could make a world of sense, as it could cut travel costs and add a revenue generating championship game.

It seems likely the Sun Belt may be waiting to see what happens between 2010 and 2012.

The NCAA has a moratorium on athletic program classification upgrades while they revise their rules.  For a conference like the Sun Belt that would need to reload with programs upgrading from the FCS, there is a logic in waiting at least until next season to find out the new upgrade rules.

And then there is the question of conference movement.

The Big Ten has made noise about expansion.  That could cause all kinds of ripples in conferences at lower levels.

The Big Ten has been myopic in considering only Notre Dame as an expansion candidate.  The rumors seem to be implying that courtship may be coming to an end.  Notre Dame may need to join or see the Big Ten (a big player in the BCS) not only take another school—removing a slot for Notre Dame—but also make the BCS loopholes for Notre Dame much much tougher.

Missouri would take an offer from the Big Ten in a heartbeat. 

Rutgers would as well, and they offer the Big Ten media relevance in the NYC media market, the nation's largest.  That alone would probably push the Big Ten TV money to most in the nation, past the SEC's TV revenue.

Regardless of what path the Big Ten takes, ripples will be felt.

The Pac 10 has long said they would likely move to 12 members if the Big 10 does.

If they raid the MWC and/or the Big 12 (say Utah and BYU or Colorado), there will be ripples that affect the Sun Belt.

Ideally, the Sun Belt may hope to only lose one or two schools.  Perhaps Troy and/or UNT to the CUSA. 

The Sun Belt may hope to add a single school in the center of their footprint—perhaps Jacksonville State?—and end up with nine for football and 10 for basketball—ideal for scheduling.

Even if a third team is raided—say FIU or FAU—the Sun Belt may hope to add 2 FCS schools known to be looking to upgrade ---Jacksonville State and Georgia Southern --- and still be at that 9/10 scheduling sweet spot.

But is that really a good place to be?

That is still a very large footprint to play every member of the conference.

The conference would still have to deal with the spectre of being a conference that expanded with FCS schools because they had to, not because they chose to.

Additionally there are some scenarios that could kill the Sun Belt.  If realignment hits trickle down to the WAC and CUSA splits, the Sun Belt could have heavy defections.  The WAC might need to look at a 12 member conference to keep travel costs under control and not lose a school like La Tech.

WAC Raid

UNT turned down the WAC before, but those were different times.  If the WAC, minus Boise, came calling again and offered UNT good terms --- say membership with a reasonable escape clause if an offer from CUSA was forthcoming  --- they might be able to land UNT.

Finances and hope for a CUSA offer played a big role in UNT turning down the WAC last time.  UNT only had about a $14-15 million athletic budget with no source of additional funding to offset the increased travel costs.

Playing in the WAC on a tight budget as a distant outlier seemed like a sure way to bleed the competitiveness out of the program.  So UNT passed. (Look at what happened to small budget school Marshall after joining CUSA.)

The new stadium vote will have UNT's athletic budget growing quickly. By 2025, UNT may have a $30 million athletic budget.  A large travel bill is no longer as daunting as it once was.

Additionally, UNT only lost out to UTEP in being TCU's replacement in CUSA over the condition of Fouts Field and their facilities.  The New Mean Green Stadium is due to be completed in time for the 2011 season and all of UNT's other facilities have been replaced.

UNT believes they will be invited into CUSA if the conference develops an opening after 2011.

That said, if the WAC makes an offer to UNT that makes better financial sense in the meantime UNT might join the WAC.

If the WAC loses Boise, they lose a lot of prestige.  Will La Tech want to stay in that eight team WAC?  What happens if they threaten to leave?  Who could the WAC land as a replacement?  The WAC would have to look at an FCS upgrade, which member power schools like Hawaii and Fresno don't want to do as it is a major esteem hit.

LA Tech might have the leverage to force the WAC to create a western six team Division.  UNT, Arky State, ULL, and maybe Larry Coker's (pictured above) UTSA team could join NMSU and La Tech to cut travel costs.

For the Mean Green that would be an esteem bump moving into a conference that might legitimately generate a BCS bid.  Attendance would be much higher with closer opponents and travel budget would be cut dramatically. 

In addition, La Tech, ULL, UNT, and Arky State have history.  They tried to start a conference together before.

UNT very well might bite on that as an interim solution until their perceived date with CUSA west.

Raids from CUSA

CUSA is currently squeezing outliers Marshall and ECU.  If no relief comes in the form of a Big East raid, there is the possibility of a CUSA split.

There is some resentment against the Western CUSA schools over the travel costs and a percieved voting block.  A peaceful divorce could be negotiated if ECU and Marshall tire of the status quo.  I would think Tulane would want to stay with the western schools and that if no Big east offer was forthcoming, Memphis and S. Miss might favor staying with Tulane and CUSA west for recruiting and TV purposes.

That potentially would have the Western CUSA schools taking the CUSA autobid.  That would leave the eastern CUSA schools no way to rebuild their conference.  I don't think if it reached a schism point that the CUSA west schools would want to hurt the eastern schools that way.

The Western CUSA schools could offer Tulane and S. Miss non-basketball memberships as part of the split as the western eight became a new SWC. (Eventually both schools would be full members.)

That would allow CUSA East to still have six members for basketball, enough to pull an autobid to the NCAA basketball tourney.  From there the Eastern CUSA schools could take say, Charlotte (former CUSA member adding football), Temple, and three schools from the Sun Belt to get back up to nine full members.

(Re-recruiting St. Louis as a non-football member would give the CUSA East 12 members in Basketball until S. Miss and Tulane become full CUSA West/new SWC members.  At that point the "new" CUSA would have 9 for football/10 for basketball.)

Those scenarios in conjunction don't leave much left of the Sun Belt.

That would probably be it for the Sun Belt,  especially if the NCAA institutes harsh new upgrade rules.

Pre-emptive Expansion

The Sun Belt could just go for it and start the expansion process now.  It could be their best option.

They could offer membership to FCS schools in the region who are seeking an FBS home now.

That would put pressure on the NCAA to come up with upgrade rules that are not overly oppressive due to the Sun Belt having pending membership offers on the books prior to the release of the rule revisions.

Adding at least two all sports schools would give the Sun Belt enough schools to have a revenue generating conference championship game.  Offering memberships to Texas State and UTSA would give the Sun Belt more TV and recruiting relevance in big markets (San Antonio and Austin).

Texas is one of the richer talent bases in the nation. Adding an annual game in the Austin/San Antonio area would open up the entire region to at minimum all of the western Sun Belt schools, if not all of the Sun Belt schools.

To me that seems like the bare minimum the Sun Belt should consider. (I am already on record as advocating much more aggressive expansion. 12 all sports members would likely prevent the league from failing outright if there is a lot of conference movement, but the Sun Belt would still likely be decimated.)

Adding Texas State and UTSA would likely please UNT's fans if not their administration by giving the Mean Green some FBS schools from Texas to play.

It could also reduce the threat of the creation of an eastern WAC division for many reasons including cutting travel costs for the western Sun Belt schools.  Schools like ULL and Arkansas State might be receptive to a WAC offer if UNT is going and La Tech is in and the Sun Belt had no Texas representation.

If UTSA and Texas State are in, there is far less pull on those two schools to consider the WAC.  The WAC might have to settle for adding a lesser FCS candidate like Lamar (looking to upgrade) or Sacramento State (a great candidate but one which would have to be coaxed into moving up).

UTSA and Texas State would be great travel partners for western Sunbelt schools.  A school could fly into San Antonio, play UTSA on Saturday, spend the night, play Texas State on Sunday and fly out.  That is actually a pretty cheap trip, in spite of the distance.

The Sun Belt should consider the old saying so favored by grandmothers, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade."

The 10/11 situation will probably need to be addressed in the near future. Starting the process now could really protect Sun Belt schools from the coming reshuffling of the FBS. 


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