EDITORS NOTE: This topic has recently resurfaced with the study brought out from Old Dominion. While I personally will choose to believe this was primarily a study used to justify the shut-down of wrestling, it has brought geographic realignment – a worthwhile pursuit in my book – back to the table.
Here’s my thoughts, updated and tweaked for the current climate.
Also, sorry about the maps. The interactive maps won’t show unless you have a MapHub account, but I’ve hyperlinked the images if you’d like to look around with them.
There have been numerous articles talking about how the Group of Five athletics programs have to find any and all ways of bridging the gap between themselves and Power Five programs.
One way that is often discussed but never seen put into real action all that often is saving money via geography. The Sun Belt has somewhat leaned into that angle, as they utilized 2018 as the year they start tightening their conference footprint by fully adding Coastal Carolina (on the heels of Georgia Southern and Appalachian State) and shipping out Idaho and New Mexico State.
This means that the longest possible trip for any school in the conference is from San Marcos to Myrtle Beach. Granted, 1,300 miles is no small trip, but considering where things were, that’s major progress.
Up through the summer of 2016, the westernmost program (Idaho) had to go a minimum of 1,300 miles for every conference matchup, and the easternmost program (Appalachian State) had to go at least 1,300 miles for three different road trips (Texas State, NMSU and Idaho). Now, Texas State heading to App State or CCU (or vice versa) is the only time anyone has to travel more than 1,100 miles.
The Sports Business Journal (November 2016), Patrick Magee of the Sun Herald (June 2017) and Harry Minium of the Virginia Pilot (April 2017) each proposed twenty-something team super conferences with varying flavors of subdivision and rationality mixed in for insanity’s sake.
We can automatically toss out all of these super conference twists because they create new problems without solving any existing ones.
In these super conferences, you have the same number of schools all in one conference. One thing this would mean is a merging of media rights – and an additional 17% decrease in media rights revenue for current CUSA schools, assuming that when the renegotiation happens they don’t get crippled again. The only way you avoid that is by having the NCAA enact a rule change that allows this to not happen – good luck with that.
There are probably enough post-season slots in both football and basketball that the individual number of teams that participate shouldn’t change drastically, but all of the post-season money that gets paid out by conference is getting paid out to one less conference with twice as many members.
My two-year-old cousin can explain that one if necessary. Add in the mere possibility of diminished NCAA Tournament units, and there is a negative percent chance enough school administrators agree to pursue it.
Let’s focus instead on the initial idea the SBJ tossed out, which is to simply split the 24 teams into eastern and western portions. It makes good sense, but the trick then becomes exactly how to best split these teams and Alabama is right at the heart of it (as it should be, I suppose).
I definitely don’t agree with the article’s idea of dropping Louisiana-Monroe. As much as they have struggled, I don’t think it will get bad enough for ULM to drop out of the Sun Belt or FBS, and this type of realignment could help them.
I also am unsure what the actual odds are of James Madison joining the fray. Maybe they’re cool with joining the CUSA name versus the Sun Belt name and a conference that is more East Coast-based, as travel west of the Mississippi was one of their main issues with the Sun Belt. Nothing is certain, though.
So let’s look at a few different options for geographical realignment. For simplicity’s sake, the western conferences (and southern conference) are the Sun Belt, and the eastern (and northern) conferences are Conference USA:
OPTION 1: ALABAMA GOES EAST
East: ODU, UNCC, App St, Ga So, Ga St, MTSU, WKU, FAU, FIU, CCU, UAB, USA, Troy, Marshall
West: Ark St, USM, La Tech, ULL, ULM, Tex St, UTSA, UTEP, Rice, UNT
You can see a distinct drop in travel across the board. UTEP out West and FAU/FIU in the East are still the ones who suffer most in this arrangement, but even they see a boost in their travel budget by not having to cross the Alabama state line. UTEP’s longest trip is to Hattiesburg to face Southern Miss, while FAU’s longest trek is to play Marshall in Huntington.
This also preserves every rivalry except UAB’s with Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech, though you’ll get a wide variety of opinions on how strong/relevant those rivalries really are.
Option 2: Alabama Splits On the Gulf
East: ODU, UNCC, App St, Ga So, Ga St, MTSU, WKU, FAU, FIU, CCU, Marshall, JMU
West: Ark St, USM, La Tech, ULL, ULM, Tex St, UTSA, UTEP, Rice, UNT, UAB, USA, Troy, NMSU
This one requires some addition for the math to balance out.
We kicked around all of the different permutations of shifting Alabama schools West, whether that were one, two or three teams moving across and which combinations seemed best, and we decided that only moving South Alabama over to the Sun Belt was the most logical choice. That still requires bringing NMSU and JMU into the fold to bring is to an even 14 and 12 members.
No, not Liberty. We’ve discussed this.
We’re banking on JMU being happy that they get to play former FCS stud programs like Georgia Southern, Appalachian State, and Coastal Carolina, and that they don’t ever go any further west that Nashville.
Both conferences can benefit from this, but CUSA perhaps a bit more so. They get to add James Madison and create a Virginia-North Carolina-centric powerhouse full of sweet rivalries (JMU/ODU, App St./Georgia Southern, Georgia Southern/Georgia State, WKU/MTSU, and so on) with room for more.
The Sun Belt may not gain a ton, but they now have a conference full of programs with much closer geographic ties, and it’s at least much easier to care about NMSU/UTEP than it is to care about Texas State/Coastal Carolina or ULM/Georgia State.
The longest trip in CUSA continues to be FAU-Marshall, while in the Sun Belt it becomes NMSU-South Alabama (about 150 miles further than UTEP-Southern Miss).
Option 3: North/South division at I-20, because why not
North: Ark State, MTSU, WKU, UAB, ODU, UNCC, App State, CCU, Ga St, Ga So, Marshall, JMU
South: UNT, UTEP, UTSA, Rice, Tx State, ULL, ULM, La Tech, USM, USA, Troy, FAU, FIU, NMSU
This one I included just for fun, but it is extremely unlikely to happen simply because the North Division benefits a lot more than the South Division in this scenario.
First, the travel is lopsided. The longest trip in the North is Arkansas State going a little under 1,000 miles to Old Dominion, while FAU and FIU in the South have to travel at least 750 miles for every single divisional game except against each other.
Second, the North gets to preserve any and all football and basketball rivalries between Marshall, WKU, MTSU and UAB, as well as the best Sun Belt rivalries between Georgia Southern, Georgia State and App State. The South gets UTEP/NMSU and a bunch of other, younger “trying to be” rivalries (USA/Troy, FAU/FIU, etc).
There’s just too many things wrong with this scenario, especially compared to the other two options. We can throw this one in the trash.
Ok, so now what?
Time will tell exactly how much savings such shifts will generate for the conference and its members, but clearly, the Sun Belt considers those savings worth pursuing. When I spoke with New Mexico State athletic director Mario Moccia back in 2017, he was in agreement and feels that whatever the next shift in realignment is, it will likely be of a geographic nature.
Moccia also pointed out that it’s tricky because you’re dealing with so many egos, rivalries, and dollars, among other factors.
“Geography has always been [New Mexico State’s] Achilles’ heel, but it’s being brought up more and more, it’s just who is going to champion that? It seems great in a textbook, but who will be the person who really leads that organization?”
In this case, I think The Conference On the Right (we can quibble about names later) stands to benefit a lot more from this realignment. Half it’s membership would be brand new FCS programs, and that plus the fairly close-knit and ACC-ish geographic footprint provides some obvious branding opportunities on top of the laundry list of rivalries they keep or acquire.
Because of that (and as we just mentioned, there are egos that we have to pretend to care about here) I think the odds of such a realignment are relatively low, even if it might be prudent in both the short and long term.
If The Conference On the Left could look past any sort of “little brother complex” and stick with enjoying a continued tight geographic footprint over lamenting the loss of the FCS programs they just added, there are definite benefits that can’t be ignored.
So what do you say, does this need to happen sooner than later?