Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The conference realignment carousel, and a dire situation for C-USA

Last summer, once Texas and Oklahoma announced their plan to leave the Big XII for the SEC, another round of realignment musical chairs was inevitable. The Big XII backfilled by taking Houston and two other schools from the American Athletic Conference. Now it's the American's turn, and they're poaching a handful of schools from Conference USA: 

Six schools -- Florida Atlantic, Charlotte, North Texas, UTSA, Rice and UAB -- have accepted invitations to join the American Athletic Conference, the league announced Thursday.

No date has been set for the schools to join the conference, but a source told ESPN that the earliest they could join would be the 2023-24 season.

"I think they will definitely take great advantage of the exposure and the platforms that are going to be provided by this conference," AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said of the additions. "So we look forward, down the road, and we're not certain when they're going to come in yet. That's still to be decided."

Once all the announced realignment shuffles out, the additions would give the American 14 teams in football and basketball. Aresco conceded that growing to 14 was a way for a conference that has become a feeder league for the Power 5 to be prepared for future poaching.

While nobody's going to confuse any of these additions for marquee programs, the American clearly hopes that their locations in major media markets - Miami/Fort Lauderdale, Charlotte, the DFW Metroplex, San Antonio, Houston and Birmingham - will allow the conference to retain at least some of its TV contract value once the Cougars, Cincinnati and Central Florida depart.

Aside from maintaining the conference's presence in the Houston area, the inclusion of Rice gives the other three private schools in the American - Tulane, SMU and Tulsa - as well as service academy Navy another "peer institution" they they feel comfortable competing against. I'm also happy that the Mean Green got the call up, but they need to earn this promotion by turning their struggling football program around. (I'm somewhat surprised, in fact, that SMU agreed to the addition of a North Texas program that competes with it for recruits and media bandwidth in the Metroplex.)

Normally, one would expect the next domino to fall to be the Sun Belt, which would get raided by C-USA. But in fact the opposite is happening:  

Southern Miss has joined the Sun Belt Conference and will enter the league as a full member no later than July 1, 2023, the league announced Tuesday.

The addition gives the Sun Belt 11 football-playing members (Little Rock and Texas-Arlington are also in the league).

"This is a big day for our conference," Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill said in a prepared statement. "Southern Miss brings a host of strengths to our conference. They are competitive across all of their sports, have a strong brand and are supported by a great fan base. The electric atmosphere surrounding their games is a tradition we are proud to now be a part of."

Sources say the Sun Belt also is close to adding Marshall, Old Dominion and James Madison, which would increase the football membership to 14.

Marshall and Old Dominion are also members of C-USA. Why is the Sun Belt also taking a bite out of C-USA, rather than the other way around? 

One reason is on-field success: a few years ago Conference USA may have been perceived as a stronger conference than the Sun Belt, but thanks to recent success from programs such as Coastal Carolina, Appalachian State and Louisiana-Lafayette, the Sun Belt has overtaken Conference USA in terms of prestige. This appears to be the result of a deliberate strategy on the Sun Belt's part: while other conferences focused on media markets, they focused on competitive programs: 

“At the end of the day it probably doesn’t make a difference if they are in a major metropolitan area or if they are inside the Sun Belt footprint,” former Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson told the Daily News-Record this week. “Those teams still have to deliver, particularly on the football field.”

Benson, who retired from his Sun Belt post in 2019 and moved into the world of college sports consulting, put the SBC on its current path during the 2012-13 realignment saga. Conference USA snagged programs in big cities while the Sun Belt looked for passionate fan bases and on-field success.

Fast forward to present day, the Sun Belt could make a case for best Group of Five football league while Conference USA fights for its very existence. That makes it all the more strange the American Athletic Conference chose to follow the C-USA model. The American responded to losing Cincinnati, Houston and Central Florida to the Big 12 by adding UT San Antonio, UAB, Florida Atlantic, Rice, Charlotte and North Texas.

To be sure, there is some grousing that the American did not invite any current Sun Belt teams to join. If I had to guess why this is the case, it probably has to do with television network politics: ESPN is the main broadcast partner for both the American and the Sun Belt, while C-USA's main broadcast partner is CBS Sports. ESPN probably told the American to leave the Sun Belt alone and go after a competitor's property instead.

In any case, the end result of the American's and the Sun Belt's predations is that C-USA will be left with five far-flung members - UTEP, Louisiana Tech, Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee State, and Florida International - once these moves occur. This makes the conference too small, per NCAA rules, to receive automatic bids to tournaments, and leaves the conference's future in doubt

Conference USA's options are slim. They could add FBS independents like New Mexico State (which has had exactly four winning seasons in the last 30 years, but would be a travel partner for UTEP), or they could entice current Football Championship Subdivision programs, such as Missouri State, to make the move up to FBS. According to Indiana sportswriter Todd Aaron Golden, this marks the "desperation phase" of realignment

C-USA is clinging for life. There aren't many FBS options left for them. When this happens, the fertile fields desperate conferences go to are to the FCS Division, where they try to hook the latest sucker into thinking there's a pot of football gold at the end of the rainbow. 

Golden argues that there is no pot of gold for FCS schools that move up to FBS: whatever revenues schools like Missouri State might gain from being an FBS school will be more than offset by higher salaries, more scholarship requirements, and more travel costs. But that hasn't stopped schools from making the transition in the past, and that's what might save Conference USA.

CFN's Pete Fiutak offers his thoughts on the American's expansion, while Awful Announcing ponders the future of Conference USA. For anybody who is having trouble keeping track of all this collegiate reshuffling, ESPN has a handy realignment tracker.

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