Hey Sun Belt Conference, Expand Or Die

Tobi WritesAnalyst IOctober 21, 2009

OK, so maybe a more accurate headline would be, "Expand or Stagnate" or "Expand or Wilt," but those are not nearly as attention-getting and I need your attention. 

This is important. 

You need to expand as soon as possible after the FBS upgrade moratorium is lifted.

It may seem like things are going great for the conference and the conference has finally turned the corner.  After all, the conference has had enough teams to play a full schedule for a couple years now.

You guys have the numbers to push out Denver and to not sweat over the possible loss of New Orleans over budgetary concerns.  South Alabama will start league football play in 2013.

Things look great...but really they aren't.

How many of your schools are happy being in the Sunbelt?


Who is happy?

No one in the conference is happy with the travel. Every football playing school plays body bag games to cover the travel shortfalls, and still, most of the programs struggle to stay within budget.

Middle Tennessee State and Western Kentucky would likely prefer being in the MAC.  Their travel costs would be significantly less and, as I understand it, there were some talks along those lines at one point.

Louisiana Layfatte has a world of distaste for Louisiana Monroe over the "University of Louisiana" name and would love to be in a different conference if it made sense.

With their team's football dominance, Troy fans probably feel like they have already outgrown the Sun Belt, and they likely dream of affiliation with schools like UAB in Conference USA.  South Alabama would also love to be in the same conference as UAB and Southern Miss.

Florida International and Florida Atlantic would jump at the chance to be in the same conference as Central Florida.  Both schools have enormous enrollments and alumni bases and are potential TV draws in Miami.  Additionally, both schools' stadium issues will be resolved soon.  If either program becomes one of the stronger ones in the Sun Belt, it could easily be recruited by C-USA.

Arkansas Little Rock and New Orleans probably wonder when they will be forced out for football playing members.  They may jump to another conference to protect themselves from that scenario.

Even lowly North Texas can see the light at the end of the tunnel. 

UNT fans don't care for the Sun Belt.  The conference is viewed as strictly a way station by UNT fans.

It is plainly clear in the attendance numbers for the last five years, with occasional exceptions for season openers and the like, UNT draws 17,000 for almost any conference opponent, just like it does for most out of conference opponents, but draws 22-30,000 for any opponent from Texas.  

I think you could argue that UNT fans generally like Arky State and ULL, but the rest of the Sun Belt doesn't draw crowds in Denton.

UNT's new 30,000 stadium, the nation's first LEED (green) stadium is scheduled to be completed in time for the 2011 season and it appears it could be the key to escaping the Sun Belt.

It is the last piece of a decade-long effort by the UNT athletic director to upgrade all of the university's sports facilities. UNT turned down WAC membership over travel costs that would have devastated its athletic budget at the time, bleeding competitiveness out of the program, and apparently only lost out to UTEP to become the 12th member of C-USA because of out-of-date and inadequate facilities.

The UNT student referendum to fund half of the stadium costs also created a $10 per credit hour fee that can be raised each year without going through another student referendum.   The state caps student athletic fees at public schools at $20. 

With essentially a $3 athletic fee, UNT's reported athletic budget was $15.8M in 2007. UNT has an enrollment of 34,000. At $10 per credit hour, each full-time student would be contributing another $210 per year for a total increase to the athletic budget of a little over $7 million dollars annually, to about $23 million.  

UNT will have by far the largest athletic budget in the conference when the fee goes into effect in 2011.

It is likely that by 2025-2030 the fee will reach the state maximum. Ignoring UNT's growth curve, that would add another $10.2M to the athletic budget bringing UNT's budget to $33M.  Today a $33M athletic budget would exceed the budgets of every school in C-USA and would trail only TCU's budget in the Mountain West. 

It would probably be the second largest athletic budget outside of the BCS.  With those numbers in mind one can see why UNT and its fans feel it is only a matter of time before the Mean Green are in C-USA or even the MWC.

Arkansas State is probably somewhat happy with the conference today, but would be a lot less so if any combination of WKU, MTSU, ULL, and/or UNT left.

ULM may be the only school that is truly happy in the Sun Belt.  With an enrollment of 8,000 and an athletic budget of $7M, in a tiny media market, it has no legitimate dreams of moving up to another conference.  The Sun Belt is a godsend to them.


When next the dominoes drop

The Big East has eight football playing members; nine teams is an ideal number for football scheduling.  Having 12 teams allows for a revenue-generating conference title game and split scheduling to cut travel costs.

The MWC has nine members, but might go to 10 or 12 if the conference thinks such a move would increase its strength measurement that is used to evaluate conferences for potential inclusion in the BCS.

The WAC has nine members, but could add more to allow split scheduling to cut travel costs, prevent potential defections, or add more to protect itself from a raid by the MWC.  With UNT's future larger athletic budget, it is possible UNT could change its mind on WAC membership.

The MAC has 13 members and could decide to split into two conferences, although there has not been any printed discussion of that possibility.  It could pull some Sun Belt members with its small travel footprint.

What happens when the next realignment of FBS schools occurs?

What happens if the Big East pulls in East Carolina as a football-only member?

What happens if CUSA West and East split?

What happens if an Eastern Conference emerges?

The answer to all of these is likely the same: someone raids the Sun Belt and the Sun Belt is forced to rebuild with an FCS upgrade school, wiping out any perceived progress by the conference.


Sun Belt Progress is an illusion

Despite the fact that perhaps as much as half of the nation's high school talent hotbeds are in the Sun Belt footprint, the Sun Belt is annually the weakest conference at the FBS level.

The combination of high travel costs associated with the large conference footprint that effectively mandates bodybag games and small athletic budgets suck the competitiveness out of every school in the conference.

The member schools play nice and talk about the conference getting better, but almost all of them would jump to another conference in a heartbeat.

Any school that improves will get taken by a higher profile conference and the Sun Belt will have to go through the same FCS upgrade pains it is going through with Western Kentucky currently to replace a school.

As long as the Sun Belt remains the only conference that is admitting FCS schools, nothing will ever change about the way it is perceived.


Time to change the status quo

It is time to acknowledge that the Sun Belt, as configured, is not anyone's ideal home. 

It is time to stop trying to run it as if it was the MWC a conference with an ideal number of teams, where the members feel they are a higher caliber than potential applicants.

There is no difference in the caliber of program between ULL and FCS member Jacksonville State. There is no difference between Troy and FCS power Appalachian State.

Your teams pull so few fans that only small bowls consider your teams.  Bowl games outside of your region don't want Sun Belt schools at all.

You are the worst conference in FBS.  The difference between your schools and FCS schools is far, far less that the difference between your schools and BCS schools.

The perception among other FBS conferences is the only reason you exist is to provide replacement schools when conferences realign.

The NCAA tourney has rarely admitted more than the automatic qualifier out of your conference.

Once you accept those facts, the reasons to expand outweigh the reasons not to expand.


Expand for security

If you wait until conferences raid the Sun Belt, the perception is that whatever team you added was a desperation add.  If you can get ahead of the curve, the loss of a team or two would not impact the conference much at all.


Expand with the idea of a conference split in the near future

Lamar, UTSA, and Texas State want to move up to the FBS level, as do Jacksonville State and South Georgia.  Sam Houston State was advised to move up by paid consultants.

Invite them all.

Come to terms with Denver to retain that school.  Denver has the conference's largest athletic budget and is in a good media market.  A smaller competitive footprint could entice them to stay.  The academic prestige of the university could help retain potential western schools in the future.

Finally, try to steal New Mexico State from the WAC.  WAC travel is brutal for that school and it has a well developed basketball program something important to UNT, ULL, Arky State, UALR, and Lamar.

Consider the distances from NMSU to:

Utah State 700+ Miles
LA Tech 900+ Miles
Fresno State 900+ Miles
San Jose 1100 Miles
Nevada 1200+ Miles
Boise State 1500 Miles
Idaho 1500+ Miles

Whereas the Sun Belt as is offers little attraction to NMSU, a split Sun Belt could offer NMSU rich Texas recruiting and as much as a 15-30 percent cost reduction in travel.

And the Sun Belt stealing a school from the higher stature WAC sends a message to the fans that the Sun Belt is improving.


Two projected large divisions in the Sun Belt, circa 2015

Lone Star Division

Denver (bb only)
New Mexico State
North Texas
UT - San Antonio
Texas State
Sam Houston State
UALR (bb only)
Arkansas State
UL- Lafayette

Sunbelt Division

New Orleans (bb only)
UL- Monroe
Western Kentucky
Middle Tennessee State
South Alabama
Jacksonville State
Georgia Southern
Florida Atlantic
Florida International


Are the negatives of a large expansion really that bad?

Most of the negatives that are frequently stated as reasons for a conference not to expand just don't apply as much to the Sun Belt. 

"Our bowl revenue per team will decrease!"  --- You don't have enough good teams now to generate much bowl revenue. 

"Our championship game revenue will be split among more teams!"  --- Yes, it would, but your travel costs could be quite a bit less, making up the shortfall.

"Our tourney money will be split between more teams!"  --- If you have 20 basketball playing members, the odds are you will get at least two teams into the tourney most years, if not three.  That number of teams simply creates far too much pressure on the selection committee to not snub your teams.  You are getting one in most years now with 13 members. You do the math.

"That large of a conference is just too hard to manage!" --- Not really.  I am advising that you run this like two conferences. I understand that the Summit Conference management is the same group that has worked its butt off to build the Great West.  If they can run a conference and work to build another against tremendous odds, you should be able to do this if you decide to.


A formal West/East split into two conferences

As soon as you can, you'd want to split into two conferences for the added benefits it would offer. 

UL-Monroe would go with the eastern schools to allow Louisiana Tech to join the western schools.  

Louisiana Tech has a $12M dollar athletic budget with little to no means of changing that status quo. 

They play in the WAC with its ridiculously unwieldy footprint.  Travel was a constant drain on its programs before the economic crises. LA Tech building a top level program in most sports in the WAC seems highly unlikely. 

A regionally friendly conference would allow LA Tech to put a lot more of its money into improvements to raise competitiveness in football and basketball.

The loss of NMSU to a Texas conference would make LA Tech's closest conference game over 1200 miles away.  That would be a tough sell to (or by) any university president.

LA Tech should have left the WAC years ago, but does not want to rejoin the Sun Belt over issues with its replacement in the conference, UL-Monroe.  There is an issue of prestige there.

LA Tech considers itself Louisiana's No. 2 school.  Previous affiliation with ULL and New Orleans was fine (and future affiliation would probably be fine) because both schools are in entirely different regions and were perceived to be a notch below LA Tech athletically and academically.

ULM on the other hand is a half an hour away from Tech and is located in a bigger city.  ULM cuts into LA Tech's recruiting. Getting into the same conference as ULM would be removing one of the last recruiting edges that Louisiana Tech has over ULM.

A guarantee that ULM will never be in the same conference as LA Tech is probably all that it would take to add the Bulldogs and the Lady Techsters.  Especially if Boise is recruited by the Mountain West Conference in a bid for BCS status.

Finally, Louisiana Tech has a history with ULL, UNT, Lamar, and Arkansas State.   They tried forming their own conference years ago but the loss of an automatic bid did in their efforts.

All of these factors could combine to entice LA Tech to join until such a day as a C-USA bid becomes available to the school.


Two conference synergy

With the Sun Belt and the new Texas Conference sharing management and bordering each other, it seems likely that a number of bowl arrangements could emerge.

Now most bowls don't want to commit to the Sun Belt, largely because of the big footprint.   The bowls do not want to commit to, say, the third school in the Sunbelt because Sun Belt schools draw poorly and the third-best school could be ridiculously far from the bowl, making travelling fans even more unlikely.

Having two conferences with much smaller footprints would make for more traveling fans and would built up meaningful rivalries.  Both factors would spur home attendance at all member schools, making them more attractive to bowl games.  Additionally the regional clarification would help the bowls feel comfortable that they could draw the fan base from one of the member schools.

The states of New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama all contain bowl games (or good sites for bowl games) that could find more value in a second, third, or even down the line a fourth place team in either resulting conference.

The New Orleans Bowl could match the No. 1 or No. 2 of the Sunbelt vs. the No. 1 or No. 2 of the Texas Conference (instead of the CUSA No. 4).  This potential match-up of champions in a football-crazy city and fun travel destination could quickly grow in popularity and payouts.  A match-up of champions alone could do a lot to repair the reputation of the Sun Belt teams.

In the event of a near-BCS bowl miss by a Texas Conference UNT team, the Cotton Bowl might vastly prefer that team over certain SEC schools.

The New Mexico Bowl might prefer a Texas Conference team over what would at that point be a western only WAC No. 2.

The Papa Johns Bowl might be more inclined to consider using a top Sun Belt team as an alternate if the western schools were no longer in the Sun Belt.  The Auto Zone Liberty Bowl might as well.

Considering its location, the GMAC bowl would probably take the Sunbelt No. 2 vs. the Texas Conference No. 2 over what it currently has.

Shreveport's Independence Bowl might also look at a team from either conference if it is nearby, like La. Tech, ULM, Arkansas State, or Lamar.

In some years, the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth might be more interested in certain Texas conference teams as an option to the Pac 10 No. 6 or a distant C-USA team.

The Texas Bowl might have a lot of interest in a Texas Conference team as an option to a distant Big 12 No. 8 team or a distant CUSA No. 7.

Likewise the Valero Alamo Bowl might want the option of replacing the Big 10's No. 4 team with UTSA or Texas State if either has a 10 win season.  The Brut Sun Bowl might want the same option if NMSU has a great year.  Or any of the Florida Bowls if FAU and FIU emerge.

Expansion just creates so many more options than the Sun Belt currently has.


Team Retention

Travel costs and the lack of postseason money are the main issues that have teams looking for a way out of the Sun Belt.

Expansion and a split could largely erase both factors within 10 year.

The Sunbelt Conference can either continue to be spare parts for every other conference or step up and build a conference (or two) worth caring about.


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