A Look at Potential Sun Belt Expansion

Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson is making the media rounds to promote the conference basketball tournament but these days no one is letting a conference commissioner near a microphone without asking about realignment.

Benson has stayed on message in his visits with media. He believes the league needs to get to 12 full members and 12 football members and needs a member to alleviate the travel for Appalachian State, meaning the new team should come from the east.

The important thing to remember is this is not a commissioner decision. A conference commissioner can provide information, he can make the case for adding or not adding a school but he has no vote in the matter and one of the presidents or chancellors must introduce the motion to expand.

The presidents and chancellors of the 11 full members will make the decision to expand or not, they will determine which schools if any should be investigated to see if they are a fit, and they will make the decision to extend an invitation or not.

Nine of the 11 full members will have to vote in favor of extending an invitation. By custom, if a school does receive nine or 10 votes, there will likely be a second vote taken to give the dissenters a chance to change their vote so the decision can later be revealed to be unanimous.

While the presidents and chancellors will meet in New Orleans at the Sun Belt Tournament, it is unlikely that a formal vote to extend an invitation will be taken.

The more likely route will be either for the matter to be discussed and if a consensus of nine or more schools is reached about a target or targets they will authorize the commissioner or the conference president to contact the institution's president and inform them that if they were to apply an invitation will be extended or they may not reach a consensus and appoint a committee to evaluate target institutions and that evaluation will include determining whether an invitation will be accepted if extended.

The Sun Belt will hold Spring meetings the week before Memorial Day but if an agreeable institution that will accept an invitation is identified the formal vote to extend an invitation may be taken by teleconference prior to that date so the new member can attend.

Will the Sun Belt expand this spring?

I think there are several factors that determine the outcome to that question.

The first will be how critical the Appalachian State travel situation is thought to be and whether the target school is so proximate to Boone, NC that both schools can be reached on a single flight.

The second is the potential impact on the national TV deal. The current contract with ESPN provides for several "look ins" to determine if the contract should be renegotiated. The Sun Belt has not exercised its option for a "look in" even though the time for the first one has already come up. Presumably the decision was made to not exercise that right until a championship game could be made part of the negotiation. The championship game can be marketed independent of the ESPN deal and that fact would in theory provide some leverage to increase revenue and more importantly to increase exposures.

The third is the potential impact on the regional TV deal. The ESPN contract provides that regional games cannot be telecast head-to-head against ESPN Sun Belt telecasts and limits the distribution of those games to states with a Sun Belt school and states bordering those states. With the departure of Western Kentucky, Sun Belt regional games can no longer be distributed on a regular TV package in Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio or West Virginia. With the addition of NMSU and Idaho, football can now be distributed in the new states of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. A school like Eastern Kentucky would restore access to the states lost. Missouri State would open up Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois. A school in Virginia such as James Madison or Liberty would permit distribution in West Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.

Commissioner Benson had set as a priority upon taking the job of improving the regional television deal financially and in reach. Comcast/Charter Sports SE and Cox Sports Television do not permit satellite providers or IPTV providers like AT&T or Verizon to carry the channel limiting availability. Adding a Virginia school would open the possibility of being carried on MASN the sports networked owned by the Orioles and Nationals or Comcast Sports Mid-Atlantic. Both channels permit distribution by multiple providers. Likewise Fox Sports Midwest could become a possibility with Missouri State since their coverage area lacks any local FBS teams that can be distributed by Fox in football, again setting the stage for distribution via sports package subscriptions on satellite and IPTV. Finally the answer depends on the interest of target schools.

If the schools the Sun Belt are interested in are not prepared to move or not interested in moving, nothing will happen.

See Sun Belt Expansion Possibilities for a discussion of possible schools.