Some Expansion Advice

I've been watching this realignment thing closely now for a few years and I've mulled over a number of schools the Sun Belt should add as well as appropriate expansion strategies. One course seems to be the best choice to me.

Do not add any new full members just yet.

Here is the background of my thinking.

Current Alignments Are A Mess

Consider the American Athletic Conference sequence of expansion (ignoring the ill-fated western move). December 7, 2011 UCF, Houston, SMU. January 24, 2012 Navy announced football only. February 8, 2012 Memphis (described in one article as the "final" piece for Big East). November 27, 2012 Tulane all-sports and East Carolina football only. March 27, 2013 ECU added all-sports. April 2, 2013 Tulsa added all-sports. Six sets of moves concerning 8 schools over 482 days.

Now Conference USA. May 4, 2012 add UNT, FIU, UTSA, La.Tech, and Charlotte. May 17, 2012 Old Dominion joins. November 28, 2012 FAU and MTSU announced. April 1, 2013 WKU joins. Over the span of 332 days four moves involving nine schools.

The alignments of those conferences (and the Sun Belt as well) are all reactive and most likely some members now in were added because of the wants or needs of members who later departed.

Neither AAC nor CUSA lends itself to easy divisional splits. CUSA has had to send UAB to the west while AAC hasn't announced their format when Navy enters in 2015 but either Cincinnati will have to go west or they will go north/south likely sending Memphis north.

Potential Stability

The good news for AAC is they have a war chest of departure fees assuming the league isn't just passing it on to the members who were present when the others left. Their TV deal among the G5 is the best deal though MWC's is similar. The league had an extremely productive NCAA Tournament as well. While there is probably frustration over the loss of power league designation and disappointment that the TV deal ended up being less lucrative than projected, it would be hard to craft a league that would rival the financial picture, at least in the next few years.

For Conference USA, the picture isn't quite so clear.

The conference seems unlikely to be able to earn NCAA units at the pace it maintained prior to being raided. The league's distribution should decline over the next few years.

The league used to be able to receive guarantees of up to one million dollars in ticket sales from the basketball tournament but of the 19 CUSA tournaments held, only three (two in El Paso, one in Birmingham) were held at sites still in the league. None of the sites of the first eight CUSA football championship games remain in the league and most CUSA stadiums now have smaller capacity than the average attendance of those 8 games. This makes it unlikely that future CUSA championship games will produce similar revenue.

Conference USA's television package produces a reported $14 million per year but that contract expires at the end of the 2015-16 academic year. The current contract is split between CBS and Fox. Any speculation what the next deal will look like is just that, speculation.

There are however, some reasons to think Conference USA could face some challenges with the next agreement.

First, the current agreement was negotiated when seven schools now in AAC were in the conference. At the time it was negotiated CBS Sports the network had the MWC and Army. The network has scaled back its deal with the MWC and entered into an agreement to sublicense AAC content from ESPN that includes those seven departed CUSA schools. CBS did not pick up all the games it was allowed to carry of CUSA during the past year. Given that environment, you have to wonder about the interest from CBS.

Second, the Fox deal was made before Fox gained some of the content it currently holds. The network signed CUSA before FS1 and FS2 were launched but there were rumors a dedicated national network was being considered.

Fox gained national distribution rights to the Big XII and Pac-12 in 2011 for FX after being limited to regional coverage. The network partnered with ESPN for the top tier of Pac-12 in their new contract and picked up expanded Big XII rights with their renegotiation. The network picked up Big East basketball this season and has secured Major League Soccer away from NBCSN. The big mystery piece is the top tier Big Ten rights. If Fox (majority owner of Big Ten Network) wins the Big Ten outright they gain a big market advantage but it will be very costly. If they follow the plan with the Pac-12 and partner with ESPN the deal won't be as costly but will still add Big 10 games to the Fox channels. More big name content means less room for G5 conferences.

The NFL poses an added challenge. Fox primarily used CUSA games in the Thursday night window. The NFL is expanding the number of Thursday night games and moving a portion of them to CBS to simulcast with NFL Network coverage. Competing against NFL broadcasts shown on CBS on Thursday nights is an even taller challenge than the 2013 situation of a pair of name teams on ESPN and a MAC or Sun Belt team on EPNU.

ESPN would be an unlikely bidder for Conference USA. Beyond the fact the two landed in court over the last contract, ESPN is running out of room for games. To meet the obligations of the AAC contract they are sending content to CBSS. The MAC and Sun Belt have been the only leagues receptive to Tuesday and Wednesday night coverage so far while the big name conferences have moved into Thursday and are indicating interest in Friday nights.

There are other stability questions. How happy UAB is being in the west away from their more natural rivals other than fellow west member USM? With the bulk of CUSA east of the Mississippi River how likely is it that Texas cities will host the bigger conference events in the future and how accepting of that will the Texas members be if that is the case?

So What Now?

Other than adding a championship game, there is no real pressing need to get to 12 and the Big XII and ACC are supporting a proposal to eliminate the 12 team and division requirements for title games with many observers expecting easy passage for the plan meaning 12 may not be required.

Right now the Sun Belt has nine football members that are all sports members and UALR and UTA are full members don't play football. Those nine schools are equity members of the league, they share ownership in the assets of the league and can only be removed from the league by a super majority vote and following certain notice requirements ahead of the vote. New Mexico State and Idaho are members for football only and their membership is limited to the term of the contract creating their membership. They have no claim on the league's assets.

Why does equity membership matter?

There is potential for the Sun Belt to make a play at a raid down the road, if the league shows patience and things fall closer to the worst case rather than best case for C-USA, but if the league lacks room for members, there isn't much that can be done.

Sometime between now and the summer of 2016 Conference USA will sign a new TV contract. If they sign for something better or equal to now, the league is probably pretty stable. Cost to the Sun Belt is maybe no conference title game or adding another football only to get a title game. In the meantime potential expansion targets have had time to improve resources or change their view on moving to FBS.

If the CUSA financial picture deteriorates, waiting could create an opportunity for action. The Sun Belt has several opportunities in the TV contract to request a "look in" where ESPN and the Sun Belt can sit down and potentially renegotiate for more money and more games. Waiting gives the league chances to enhance its value by improving the quality of play and reputation. If CUSA members seem disgruntled, during the negotiation period the Sun Belt can ask for advice from ESPN by asking how the value would change if different schools were added.

If the Sun Belt can approach a group of schools and show them that the Sun Belt can provide them with similar TV money and coverage on ESPN with larger audiences the nature of the Sun Belt and CUSA relationship changes. If a group of schools makes the move, then we would likely see the most unusual thing that has ever happened in realignment. A raided conference successfully raiding the conference that took teams from them. For example if the Sun Belt were able to take say the Texas CUSA members, CUSA would not find Texas State, Arkansas State or Louisiana interested in going to CUSA but would probably have little trouble persuading eastern Sun Belt teams to leave or a similar situation depending on which CUSA members proved most valuable.

The two leagues would realign somewhat more geographic sensible alignments but not perfectly sensible and it is unlikely any "perfect" alignment would ever emerge because college athletics just doesn't lend itself to such nice and neat solutions.

If the league wants 12 now. Go ahead and add a football only now but keep options open for the future. It won't hurt to wait a couple years and see if circumstances change. If the situation doesn't get better, you get a better pool of potential candidates to expand with out of FCS. If the situation does improve then you get a chance to swing for the fences.