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Data-focused deep-dives into NCAA conference realignment
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There is no natural home for NDSU
They’d be a geographic outlier in any of the existing FBS conferences, and their travel costs would be very high. They’d only want to move to FBS if the whole Missouri Valley Football Conference was reclassifying together.
Exit fees can fund some of this
In the short-term, you can paper over this problem by using some of the ~$27 million war chest C-USA will have from exit fees to fund scholarships/new teams/etc. in the teams moving up. It’s a desperation move, though, and the new programs will have to find a way to stand on their own financially within a couple years.
New Mexico State is almost a certainty at this point
NMSU is the only FBS program that has expressed clear interest in joining. Assuming they are willing to leave the WAC and join as an all-sports member, that gets C-USA to the minimum 6 members and allows it to limp along on "life support" for a couple years. This may be enough time for some FCS teams to get themselves ready for an FBS transition, and they can be added as they are ready.
A lot of the conversation has focused on the football members of the WAC, but I think those programs will be hesitant to leave the solid geographical footprint they are building in the WAC. By contrast, I don’t think any of the members of the Atlantic Sun have any particular affinity for that conference, and will be eager to make the jump up as soon as they are financially ready and have appropriate facilities. The ASun football members are also a solid geographical fit with WKU & MTSU.
If everything goes well, the future would look something like this:
- Short-term: C-USA adds NMSU and sputters on as a 6-member football conference. Most teams schedule games against UMass and UConn almost every year. If it can find them, C-USA may also add some non-football members or affiliate members in other sports.
- Medium-term: Over the next 5-6 years, several FCS programs from the Atlantic Sun and/or Southern Conference develop their facilities, football programs, and financial condition enough to be good candidates for FBS, and get added to C-USA.
- Long-term: By 2030ish, the WAC succeeds in its plans to move up to FBS. UTEP and NMSU leave C-USA to (re-)join the WAC. Because C-USA has added enough programs from FCS, the league is still big enough to be viable.
In my opinion, that’s pretty much the best case: You end with C-USA as a regional league focused on the Upland South (+ FIU, but what can you do), and the WAC as a regional league in Texas, the Southern Rockies, and maybe Louisiana. However, it’s also a wildly optimistic case – if they lose any more members over the next couple years, it could kill the conference and force it to dissolve before the FCS candidates are ready to step up.
Comment 3 replies, 1 rec
Marshall, Southern Miss, and Old Dominion leaving for Sun Belt is a done deal
Being reported by Dennis Dodd, among others: https://www.cbssports.com/college-football/news/conference-usa-future-in-doubt-with-four-teams-expected-to-join-sun-belt-next-week/
Old Dominion is incredibly lucky that Marshall seems to have pulled them along as a condition of joining the Sun Belt. ODU leadership also deserves credit for advocating and publicizing the C-USA+JMU+Liberty plan – it gave ODU and Marshall some negotiating leverage with the Sun Belt to get the full package of 3 teams included.
The 5 teams left behind (WKU, Middle Tennessee, La. Tech, UTEP, and FIU) are in a horrible situation – there is nowhere left for them to escape to. WKU/MTSU fans are talking about moving to the MAC, but it would add a lot of travel for MAC teams, so I think it’s unlikely the MAC actually extends them an invite.
Most likely scenario seems to be that the "rump" C-USA adds whatever FBS Independents are willing to join (New Mexico State and Liberty will be the top candidates), along with a handful of FCS teams that would like to move up to FBS.
The list of possible FCS programs will be constrained by stadium size – the NCAA has a (loosely-enforced) rule that FBS teams need to have average attendance >15,000. Many teams have gotten away with lower average attendance, but you really need a stadium that can seat at least the minimum. Many of the teams that would otherwise be good candidates have stadiums that are way too small, so they would either need to find the money to enlarge their stadiums in the very near future, or find a large off-campus venue to play at least some of their home games at.
C-USA should be able to make a compelling financial case to some of the FCS programs based on the expected exit fee revenue and the C-USA share of the College Football Playoff payout.
Assuming C-USA reloads with FBS Independents and FCS schools and continues to exist, the biggest casualty here will be the WKU and La. Tech basketball programs. They have two of the best teams in C-USA, but a conference full of former FCS programs chosen for football strength will almost inevitably be a terrible basketball conference, and the level of competition will suffer.
Yeah, WAC leadership is talking a big game about moving up to FBS within a decade, but as you mentioned there are a lot of financial roadblocks to getting there, including stadiums, scholarship costs, etc.
NMSU only fills their schedule because they are reliably terrible and are a free win. If they got good enough to be a consistent risk to upset those MW teams, then those games will stop getting scheduled. Playing a moderately good, but not great, out-of-conference team is a no-win scenario for a team with bowl ambitions – if you win you don’t get much credit, if you lose you look terrible. NMSU (and UMass & UConn) can’t afford to get good – the revenue guarantees in their schedule are only possible because they’re willing to be the Washington Generals against any team that wants an FBS win.
Delaware should be happy where they are – the northeastern orientation of CAA football is in line with where Delaware pulls students from, and schools like Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Maine almost exactly match Delaware’s institutional profile – flagship public schools in smaller northeastern states. They have a solid regional football rivalry with Villanova, and the strength of their athletic programs makes them a consistent competitor in most sports but not an obvious standout. I don’t think they will be interested in moving up.
JMU has trouble moving up. They spend a metric ton of money as a 1-AA and the stage funds their schools more the lower they are. Something that nobody brings up.
It’s not actually funding from the state, it’s funding from mandatory student athletic fees. JMU has a mandatory $2,226/year fee that every full-time student has to pay to support intercollegiate athletics. State law allows athletics programs with FCS football to be funded 70% from fees, while programs in G5 conferences can only fund 55% of their budget from fees. I wrote about this in my recent FanPost.
At the same time, Old Dominion is subject to the same constraints, and has made it work so far. ODU charges student fees on a per-credit-hour basis, but it works out to roughly $1,050/year for students taking 12 credits and $1300/year for students taking 15 credits.
I personally find JMU’s use of student fees to fund athletics very unfair and think it should be restrained regardless of whether they move to FBS. Adding $8,900 to the cost of a 4-year degree, even for students who have no particular interest in football, is insane – you can get season tickets for the Washington Football Team every year for cheaper than that.
All that being said, I think the only way JMU moves up is if they get an invite to the Sun Belt, along with a promise that ODU will be joining as well (and preferably Liberty too). C-USA is risky and unappealing, and Sun Belt is iffy without having in-state rivalries to maintain fan interest.
Comment 2 replies, 1 rec
No good options
New Mexico State seems like more of a liability than an asset at this point – what do they bring to the table other than increasing the number of schools in the conference? With the WAC resuming football, dropping to FCS and playing football in the WAC with the rest of its sports seems like clearly the right move from a competitive perspective. If things go as planned for the WAC, they’ll be back at the FBS level within the decade anyway. However, this would be pretty painful from a revenue perspective – being a punching bag that provides a more-or-less automatic FBS win for other schools is pretty profitable – just ask UConn and UMass.
Liberty is honestly too good for the remaining C-USA – why would they join a conference that looks fairly likely to explode in the near-term? If they get a Sun Belt invite, they’ll probably jump on it, but their current independent status is better than being on the C-USA sinking ship.
Similarly, no existing Sun Belt member would jump to C-USA. Sun Belt has more competitive football and a better TV deal – why would you switch? Movement is going to go in the opposite direction – the Sun Belt is going to have its pick of any of the remaining C-USA members that it’s interested in, and any program that’s invited will almost certainly accept. Current rumor is that they’ll invite Marshall and Southern Miss, but I don’t think that’s a done deal.
There are only a handful of FCS teams that have the facilities that would enable them to hit the 15,000 minimum home football attendance to move up: James Madison, University of Delaware, and Jacksonville State (see my FanPost on this). As with the options above, it’s not clear that joining C-USA would be compelling to any of them. JMU and Delaware saw how moving from the CAA to C-USA worked out for Old Dominion – vastly increased athletic expenses, very limited athletic success, and very little TV money.
It’s turning into a game of musical chairs. All 8 remaining teams would probably prefer to end up in the Sun Belt, but it’s extremely unlikely that the Sun Belt would invite more than 4 total new members, and they might choose not to invite any. If even 2 C-USA teams leave, they end up with a non-viable conference of 6 members, and no other FBS conference that really has capacity and potential interest to take them. The only saving grace is that if the conference stays together long enough to collect the exit fees, then the remaining programs will have a substantial war chest ($18 – $24 million, depending on how many teams leave, and possibly more if they leave earlier than expected).
A couple quick thoughts (I’ll do another FanPost with a deeper dive later this week):
- Going to 14 teams is going to allow the AAC to split into East and West divisions, which should bring substantial savings on travel costs. In particular, the West division is going to be within bus range for most of its games, which is a huge plus.
- North Texas: As mentioned in my most recent FanPost, North Texas bring high football attendance, a strong basketball program, and a high athletic budget compared to the rest of C-USA. Additionally, they were one of the schools that the Mountain West was floating as an expansion candidate – preemptively grabbing them helps shut the Mountain West out of the major Texas markets. North Texas also has a huge enrollment, so there’s the potential for the engaged fanbase to get really big if the program develops some success.
- Rice: Including Rice was definitely a surprise, but they do bring with them the 2nd largest athletic budget in C-USA (~$42 million, just below ODU’s $42.6 million budget). This budget and their academic profile have given them the ability to recruit strong teams for sports other than football and men’s basketball, and they’ve had a lot of success in women’s sports. They also have pretty strong home football attendance despite their low enrollment and lack of recent success. Proximity to other programs was probably decisive here – having another program within easy bus range of SMU, North Texas, UTSA, and Tulane was probably enough to push them over the edge.
- Charlotte: Including Charlotte was a significant surprise to me, because their 15,000-seat stadium is way smaller than the football attendance of existing AAC teams. If Charlotte has some success and builds a fanbase, they will have to either execute a stadium expansion in the very near future, or consider playing their home games 10 miles from campus at Bank of America Stadium, similar to their new conference-mates Temple, USF, UAB, Memphis, and UTSA. (The American: The undisputed leader in off-campus stadiums).
- ECU: East Carolina actually requested that ODU be added to their conference in the last round of realignment, so regional recruitment wasn’t their top concern back then. I think ECU understands that they will significantly benefit from having an in-state rival to play every year. ECU has a ton of alumni in the Charlotte area, so every game there will be packed with ECU fans (if Charlotte actually has any seats to sell them – see above). In any case, their more serious recruiting competition comes from UNC, Duke, and NC State.
- Memphis: The future for Memphis basketball looks bleak. Of the newly added schools, only 2 of the 6 were in the top 150 of KenPom rankings at the end of last season: North Texas at #76, and UAB at #102. Memphis has to hope that SMU, Wichita State, and North Texas continue to develop strong teams, because currently this is looking like a one-bid conference in men’s basketball, with limited opportunities for Memphis to face top-tier opponents during their in-conference schedule.
- Temple: If anything, Temple’s travel spending might actually decline a bit, since the formation of an East Division will at least make their flights shorter. I’m sure they would consider "stepping away from the AAC" if there were anywhere to go, but what conference would they join? They definitively don’t want to go back to the MAC, or return to FBS independence. Some basketball fans would probably love for them to return to the Atlantic 10, but that conference is already at 14 members, with no departures likely in the near-term. In addition, that would leave their football team homeless, with the option to either become the 3rd program since 1981 to move from FBS "down" to the FCS level, or compete as an FBS independent and basically play UConn, UMass, and New Mexico State every year.
- Tulane: If Tulane wanted more regional rivals, and an environment where they can be consistent contenders in many sports, then they could move "down" to the Sun Belt, where they would be a great fit. They would almost certainly rather have the money and TV audience that comes with AAC membership, though. Rice is a fairly similar institution, and I could see that being developed into a workable rivalry, given the existing ties between the Houston and New Orleans areas.