Following CUSA online, a discerning fan will encounter a lot of realignment talk to wade through. This pandemic has exacerbated the issue, given the desperation and speculation rampant. Commisioner Judy MacLeod talked with Sports Illustrated (the zombie version that still publishes) about some of the challenges and the ideas that were bandied about.
We talked about even just playing within divisions, then having the two division winners play for the championship. Some of the non-conference games are really important to our schools (guarantee games). Another possibility: if things get crazy, do we need to play other schools that are close to us from other conferences, others within our footprint? Some of that maybe we should have been doing a long time ago, be a lot smarter. This gives us a chance to reset a little bit.
That linked piece sees the Mountain West wonder aloud what they will do with the schedule because they are “an airplane league”. As MacLeod’s quote indicates, the current crisis has the leadership thinking about past mistakes. Over in the Sun Belt, the UL athletic director has been firing off hot sports opinions about conference realignment that involves merging the Sun Belt and CUSA. As if the presence of Middle, Western, North Texas, and the FI/AUs were not enough evidence that a merger had already happened.
The league as it is constructed was always a marriage of convenience. The league has always been one in flux but the big realignment in 2013-14 was really just the final piece in the grander consolidation of the “power” 5 schools. The Big Ten, Big Twelve, and Pac Twelve had been chasing the SEC’s model for about a decade, and realigned themselves to be most attractive to the television partners.
For CUSA, the thinking was — according to some rumors and second hand stories — that CUSA thought it could preserve its decent television deal by absorbing Louisiana Tech, ODU, North Texas, UTSA, et al while losing UH, SMU, Memphis, and others. That was not the case. The subsequent deal was poor for everyone involved and disappointing, to say the least.
Let us pause here and take stock. The league made strategic decisions when recruiting membership with the goal of maximizing television revenue at the risk of higher travel costs. It was a big swing and a miss. One prevailing complaint from fans is that travel from the extreme ends of the league is difficult — El Paso to Florida anyone? No? How about Charlotte to San Antonio? No?
The league has tried to mitigate the issue by scheduling the basketball tournament in a centralized travel hub close to headquarters and designing schedules that make it easier to do road trips through areas and grouping opponents. The latest complaints from the UL AD Haggard are not revelations but admissions of the kind of thinking among the various conference leadership:
“I think what it’s time for is for sports leaders to come together and recognize that it doesn’t make good economic sense to put teams on airplanes and fly over schools that you can drive to to compete against,” Maggard said. “That’s the ultimate change that needs to happen in my opinion.
The Big Ten has a nice television deal that makes the travel from Wisconsin to Maryland easier for the budget man to stomach. CUSA does not have that. If you were pointing out that it was a sprawling league that did not have clear ties other than “no one else would take us” then congratulations, you have done the minimum analysis.
That said, there is no reason to “merge” the two leagues into a super conference for any reason at all. If Old Dominion and UTSA do not have cultural, geographical, or historic ties, what sense does it make to add Appalachian State to that mix for the Roadrunners? Yet another school that is missing the same links? Splitting the mega conference into divisions — the suggestion that proponents think would mitigate the travel concerns — is simply a thought not taken far enough. Why should there be any conference affiliation at all?
The reason is that there is politics and money involved. The 25 members — including non-FB playing UT-Arlington and UA-Little Rock — cannot be divided into two evenly split leagues without some issues. Some programs do enjoy working with others and some are still too far for a bus ride. There are few historical ties for every program included. There are not enough easy wins to justify reconfiguring nearly 20% of major college football.
The entire state of Texas might be able to form a small league of its own — UNT, Texas State, UTSA, UT-A, UTEP, and Rice. El Paso is a difficult trip but if you take two UT-system members, you cannot leave the other out. Five football-playing schools is not enough so you would have to ask the Louisiana schools: LaTech, ULL, and ULM. They do not like working together and that could be a gigantic issue already.
Let us say we convince them that it is necessary in These Challenging Times. Cool. ULM is the furthest northeast and UTEP is the furthest southwest. That is the most difficult trip but it beats El Paso-to-Norfolk right? There you have the new Big-8 (for football).
(Going from N-S, W-E) UNT, UTA (no FB) Texas State, UTSA, UTEP, Rice, LT, ULM, ULL
Wait. What about the Arkansas schools? Arkansas State has been a Sun Belt powerhouse for years and will not like being left out. Arkansas borders Texas but Jonesboro is on the northeastern edge of the state. That means it would make better sense to group the school (and UALR for basketball) with Tennessee-stationed Middle. Of course it makes more sense to include the school just a short drive up from Murfreesboro in Western. That is only a group of three so we need to go south and invite Troy, UAB, and Southern Miss. USM will not like losing their final CUSA rival in Tech but sacrifices must be made, I suppose. We need more, so we’ll invite Georgia State and Georgia Southern.
We have made a South Central league of eight (for football): (Going from N-S, W-E) Ark St, UALR (no FB), WKU, MTSU, UAB, Troy, USM, GSt, GSU.
We started going from West to East and that means the coast is left with the most spaced-out members and that is not going to go over well. The Florida schools are a packaged deal, basically, but Coastal Carolina and Charlotte are 173 miles from each other and far from Boca Raton. We ask Appalachian State and invite Norfolk-based ODU. West Virginia-stationed Marshall is difficult. Huntington is on the other side of the mountains and would enjoy a game against Western over one with FIU.
Also, that leaves the New Big Coast Conference with only seven football-playing members. That doesn’t work.
If you move over the Arkansas programs to the Texas-based league to try for some balance you have some poor fits. Again, Jonesboro is very far and we would have some of the same issues both leagues have now. There is always Liberty, located in Lynchburg, VA with all of its controversy. Both the Sun Belt and CUSA turned the program down when it applied for entry previously, but it would work and make eight
New Big Coast Conference: Marshall, Liberty, ODU, Charlotte, App State, Coastal Carolina, FAU, FIU.
Old Dominion fans would continue to be unhappy about the league affiliation. The proposed league is mighty poor in basketball terms. This highlights the real reason these leagues cannot simply accept that “it doesn’t make good economic sense to put teams on airplanes and fly over schools that you can drive to to compete against” as UL’s AD put it. It may make less economic sense to forego NCAA tournament units, the money allocated to tournament participants each year.
There is not guarantee that this geographic-based alignment would receive automatic bids. Do those athletic directors think they could produce enough revenue from ticket sales and traveling fans to make up for the lost basketball income? Would the travel cost savings be enough to make up for it? It is possible. ODU’s internal study showed they lost something like $2 million a year.
It is a risky move. The thinking that “local games = local fans = filled stadiums” (and better tv ratings) is hard to accept. At Rice Stadium, I have seen UTSA and UNT fans outnumber the Owl faithful in Houston. That could be a function of a struggling team, and an old stadium but it does not bode well. I have seen boosted attendance at Texas-State vs UTSA games, and I read somewhere that UNT and Texas State have lots of history. There are no guarantees either way. Moving for the sake of it is no reason at all. Staying put you have at least figured out how it works now. The devil you know, right?
It would certainly be easier to get Charlotte fans over to Boone and vice-versa than convincing either to fly out to El Paso, or even Denton.
In any case, I accept that CUSA can only thrive with either a new television deal, or a reconfiguration. We must also accept that there will not be a CUSA any longer, and that simply mashing the current 14 members together with some other group is not the answer to any question worth asking.