Conference USA

How to make a merger or realignment work

The practical requirements for realigning or merging.

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Executing change

 How do you realign the Sun Belt and Conference USA into two more geographically aligned conferences or merge them into one conference? We discussed why here. This is a look at different paths to achieve it

 We have reached a point where television revenue for CUSA and Sun Belt is less a revenue stream and more a nuisance payment to compensate for moving game dates and times. Conference distributions should reflect that reality rather than being a pie to split however many ways. The first action should be a pool to compensate schools for weeknights and weird start times that hurt attendance.

 The simplest yet hardest way is to simply gather everyone in one place and start swapping around or use any number of draft systems where core groups of eastern and western schools fill out their roster from the member pool. The downside comes if too many objections are raised.

 An administrative merger could also work. The administrative functions of a conference could be consolidated. The 26 schools of CUSA and Sun Belt merge their operations while remaining two independent conferences. One commissioner negotiating one media contract. One staff sending out the numerous weekly releases. Consolidated operations can help the conferences in negotiating championship events. For example the league office might negotiate an agreement with New Orleans to host the Sun Belt basketball championship in 2018 and CUSA in 2019 and with Birmingham to host CUSA in 2018 and Sun Belt in 2019. Leveraging two conferences can improve bowl ties and be used to create flexible scheduling or have the conferences back each other up on existing contracts.

 An administrative merger can also be used for scheduling purposes. NCAA rules require a conference to either play a double round robin in basketball or play 14 games. Neither CUSA nor Sun Belt plays a double round robin, both have chosen to play 18 games. In basketball each conference could play a 14 game schedule to comply with NCAA rules while playing at least four games against regional teams of the other conference to fill out the schedule. North Texas would play 12 divisional games, two CUSA crossover say Marshall and ODU, then play AState, UALR, Texas State and UTA in the remaining games. AState would play 10 divisional games, and either 4, 5, or 6 Sun Belt crossover games and either 2, 3, or 4 CUSA teams depending on how the schedule adjusts to account for the difference in the number of teams.

 In football teams are required to play a round robin within their division whether it is a 5 team division like Sun Belt or 7 team division like CUSA. CUSA teams are only required to play 6 conference games and Sun Belt only four but both conferences elect to play 8 games. If they wanted to CUSA schools could play completely within their division and then replace one or both crossover games against regional Sun Belt schools to comply with the scheduling rules. For example UTSA might play everyone in CUSA West, Louisiana and Texas State, their placing in the CUSA standings would be based on divisional play alone. Meanwhile Louisiana might end up playing four divisional games, two CUSA opponents like UTSA and La. Tech and then cross over in Sun Belt play to face USA and Coastal. Their spot in the standings might be based on just divisional play or divisional play plus the two Sun Belt crossover games.

  The less logical manner but more practical path is for one conference to expand with every school that would make up a new league. For example all of CUSA East or CUSA East plus UAB join the Sun Belt and the conference is renamed, CUSA West at 7 or 6 teams has to expand and the new members basically have to come from Sun Belt or CUSA West expands to the size of a new conference and Sun Belt backfills with members from CUSA East. The downside is if the new western league ends up with a leftover or two in the east or vice versa, the membership will have to determine whether to “tough it out” or adopt minimum membership standards or expel the remaining leftovers.

 The best method requires NCAA legislation change.

 Allow for the creation of a “consolidated conference” that would retain the voting power and auto bids of the merged leagues and retain those as long as the league meets a minimum size. For example the consolidation of three leagues to retain the three autobids in basketball and three votes would have to retain 30 members the consolidation of two leagues 20 basketball members.

 In a consolidated league AD’s could make their own league schedules which used to be the norm. For example until Arkansas and South Carolina were added, SEC AD’s made their own seven game schedule out of the then 10 members a practice that remained from when the league had 13 members. As long as you schedule 8 conference games all is fine. If North Texas never wants to go east of Mississippi and they have 8 willing opponents all is fine. If Arkansas State wants to keep the App State series going and App is willing that happens as well.

 In football you could have the two highest rated schools meet to crown a single champion or have the two highest rated in the east and two in the west to meet to crown an east region and west region champ. In basketball you can be flexible with scheduling but have a tournament for the autobid in the east and one in the west. Get AAC on board and you can have three different regional tournaments.

 Why would the NCAA membership support the consolidated conference rule?

 Very simple it provides an opportunity to create stability.

 Half of the current AAC spent at least some time in the Missouri Valley Conference. Nine of the members came through CUSA at some point. Eight members of CUSA at some point were in the Sun Belt. Every member of the Mountain West was in the WAC at one point. Each round of raids has resulted in more schools being brought into Division I or being brought from FCS to FBS.

 The constant churn has taken us to the point that an AD in CUSA says the league’s financial model is no longer sustainable.

 It isn’t just G5 schools who are seeking stability. Right now if a network wants to telecast college sports the network’s administration knows they can step out of the bidding and look for a cheaper alternative.

 Right now you can get in the game by securing some rights from one of the five high resource conferences. If the Big XII can consolidate with ACC or Pac-12 that reduces the bidding opportunities to make a big splash to only four. The Big 10 owns 49% of its television network, the Pac-12 owns 100% of its network. Consolidated the two conferences could not generate revenue from their networks but in the wake of Big XII and ACC consolidation reduce the number of available properties to three.

 Consolidation would force networks to bid more than if there were five alternatives to work with.

 Will any of it happen?

 That’s the big question but based on the article from the Virginian-Pilot the athletic directors understand that they need some sort of realignment or consolidation to drive ticket sales and use their resources more effectively.

 The Sun Belt’s television contract expires after the 2019-20 basketball season. Reportedly CUSA’s agreement expires at the end of the 2017-18. The logical solution is for CUSA to extend the current deal for two more years and if no improvement is found to start looking at options.

 The group would need to secure the line-ups for the 2020 football season whether it is a realignment of CUSA and Sun Belt, a merger, consolidation, or simply wading into the bidding as two independent conferences jointly seeking a television agreement. That means it needs to moving to a conclusion no later than early 2020.

 The situation may get even more interesting. The AAC’s television contract also expires in 2019-20

 With most universities experiencing flat or declining state revenues, adjusting to the financial reality on the athletics side will become much more important.