Friday, August 28, 2015

So they made UMass "an offer they couldn't refuse" ...and UMass refused....What should the MAC try next?

So the Mid-American Conference is again at 12 members. 

(To catch up those who do not follow the MAC,  more or less the jist of it is that the conference opportunistically offered Temple a membership, but only a football-only home ----probably in part because MAC schools weren't thrilled with the idea of travel costs to Philadelphia in their Olympic sports and because they knew Temple was likely only a short-time member.  The conference followed that up by inviting UMass to move up to the FBS level as a football-only member to balance divisions and hopefully open the door to future expansion in the northeast.  When Temple's boat finally came in and the Owls were invited into the Big East (now the American), it opened up a clause where the MAC could offer the Minutemen a "join as a full member or get the hell out" offer.   At this point, unfortunately years after the MAC's Temple decision,  the MAC membership appears to have realized they are leaving money on the table by not upgrading the conference's basketball.  It suddenly became very appealing to add UMass basketball.    It sounds like the MAC waited until the last month and then employed the clause --- basically trying to make it too difficult for UMass to say no. UMass figuratively flipped them the bird and walked away.  It may have been less contentious than that, but more or less, that is the story.)

So now covered in the egg yoke of a school with a 2-22 record at the FBS level telling the MAC effectively that the conference sucks too much to join as a full member, the MAC has retreated to it's den to lick it's wounds. Anyone who has felt the sting of unrequited affection can relate.

So what should the MAC's next step be?

The MAC needs to take action now, while it can be argued that they are in the driver's seat.

With honestly no disrespect meant, I think the MAC should have a brief, but intense period of self-reflection, followed by a smart plan to address the conference's correctable failings that also acknowledges the conference's rather pronounced limitations in generating realignment leverage.

What does the MAC have to reflect on?

Well, who they are and who they want to be as a conference.

The bottom tier of the FBS used to be populated by 3 relatively equal conferences --- the MAC, The Western Athletic Conference, and the Sun Belt conference.

Arguably the WAC (with Boise State and Hawaii) was the best of the three and the Sunbelt --- a conference that had to dip into the FCS ranks to survive -- was the worst.

The MAC had one thing over both conference --- a stable core of teams.

But times have changed.  The WAC imploded when the member schools couldn't stop applying conference conventional wisdom and take action with a long term perspective.

The Sunbelt profited from the realignment madness, upgrading it's front office and losing several mediocre teams in CUSA's pursuit of markets and replacing them with two members of FCS royalty ---Appalachian State and Georgia Southern.  No school in MAC has fan support that rivals those schools'.

In a very real sense the MAC can now be seen as the worst conference in the FBS ranks, with many, if not most of it's schools having difficulty keeping football attendance over the long-standing official (but never enforced) biannual attendance threshold average for FBS membership of 15,000 per game.

It is telling that CUSA did not poach ANY member of the MAC in this go-around.

MAC members aren't mediocre.  The fact is, they are marginal.

No members of the Missouri Valley Conference are actively pursuing MAC membership.  There is a reason for this. MVFC football has better talent, despite having 20 fewer scholarships.

MVC basketball is dramatically better.  Why increase spending to join the MAC, when there are no benefits to be had?

Again. It is damning.

A sales point of the MAC is that they are a conference of peers and as such any school can suddenly run the table.  The trouble with that is that a good coach comes in, runs the table in the MAC against a bunch of teams with mostly upper-level FCS talent, gets beaten in a bowl game, and then the coach leaves for a real FBS job.

It is a conference with 3-5 mediocre teams and a bunch of dogs every year.

So what is the solution?

Well,  there are a couple of basic directions the conference can take depending upon how the self evaluation goes.

1) A drop as a conference to the FCS level. (Very unlikely, but potentially not a bad idea.)

No one really knows how much the expense levels at the FBS level will be in the future. The power conferences are going to set rules for themselves, but there is a good chance they will also impose some rules on the non-power conference schools too.

Maybe this is a good time for the MAC to bail on the FBS ranks.

Unlike other conferences dropping, there would be no real loss of stature for the MAC in such a move.  With the exodus of top teams from the FCS level in recent years, an FCS MAC would instantly rival the MVC in football as one of the best at the FCS level.  Frankly, that can be seen as an improvement in status.  As an FCS conference, the status quo in their Olympic sports would remain the same. 

Now at least a couple MAC schools would likely never even consider such a move. IMO, the outliers especially.  Buffalo for one has worked too hard to get into the FBS.  I think Northern Illinois as well as they hit me as a "football school" and as such FBS status matters a lot to them.

The other schools would consider it based on their shared history, but I think most would ultimately reject the idea for one reason (new stadiums/recent upgrades) or another (pride).

Not going to happen.

2) A split with six schools splitting off into an FCS conference and six staying at the FBS level.  (Highly unlikely, but in some ways very much optimal.)

Seeing the schools with weaker support drop to the FCS level would solve a ton of issues for the MAC and dramatically improve the lot of every member.

Lets say Buffalo and Northern Illinois are joined by the two best academic schools remaining ---Miami (Oxford) and Ohio University --- and the two other schools with the strongest football attendance in the last two years ---Toledo and Western Michigan. 

The resulting conference would have an average football attendance in the ballpark of a little over 18,000 and still be very relevant in the MAC footprint.  

The ratio changes between well-supported basketball programs and not, and better academic schools and not, in addition to fewer filled conference slots would open the door to string together schools from several large population states.  This makes this a conference that, more than the current MAC, might interest schools the MAC has flirted with recently like UMass, James Madison, and Western Kentucky.

Eastern Michigan, Central Michigan, Ball State, Akron, Kent State, and Bowling Green would all do well very as FCS schools. Their facilities would be among the best at that level, ensuring their talent level would exceed most of that of most of their out of conference opponents.

Most of their attendance numbers would generally be in the top 20 or so at the FCS level.

That kind of conference footprint could attract schools like the GLIAC's DII football  power Grand Valley State (and really most of the GLIAC's north division) and Wayne State.

Youngstown State jumping from the MVFC might be a strong possibility as well due to travel costs,  adding another football ringer to the FCS conference.

That would be one of the better FCS conferences around.

Also not going to happen.

3) A focus on expansion to improve the conference lot at the FBS level.

Lets say that the soul searching has been done and the MAC schools are mostly committed to working to improve.  What would make sense?

Tune in for my next article which will talk about realignment strategies and will take a detailed look at what an optimal expansion for the MAC today would look like.