This article is none of the above. In this article I am writing about possible movement that in a vacuum might make sense but where there are hurdles that would prevent them from occurring...even if most of those hurdles are just conventional wisdom driving bad logic. I think it is a good venue for discussing some under-reported, "hidden" internal pressures some conferences feel, but don't expect these to happen. This is strictly looking at unlikely optimal scenarios for entertainment, education, and most of all --for fun.
Like in the previous just for fun article, I am going to run through Grades, Raids and Horse trades, but this time in the FBS's second tier of schools --- the "Group of 5" Conferences going by what I perceive to be their realignment pecking order. At this level, the pecking order is almost exclusively based on the ability to generate TV revenue and the quality of their football.
(With that in mind, these five conferences have reached some fairly mind blowing realignment decisions lately).
Let's start at the Top...
The American Athletic Conference
Realignment Grades: East Carolina and Tulane were the last two adds. ECU was certainly a no-brainer with their strong fan support in a very populous state. ECU made sense.
Tulane was tougher to understand as they are more of a power conference type "academic consideration" than an group of 5 asset, but...still...with the new stadium built, they look like they will work out eventually.
The MWC offered Boise State stilted media payouts to recover the Bronchos. BSU tried to leverage the conference's need for a football media darling into an inequitable media share with the AAC. The AAC membership said no and Boise walked back to the MWC. With no BSU, the odds of pulling in Air Force and BYU (and fat paydays) went down the toilet.
(I cannot fault the conference for sacrificing a small chance at nice payouts to save their souls.)
The Conference allowed San Diego State to get cold feet and return to the MWC. A huge mistake.
Raids: The Conference would be smart to outlaw realignment "blocks" to open the door to adding the best candidates possible. On the positive side, the AAC has most of the best supported football programs in the Group of 5 level. On the bad side, they are 11 all-sports members speckled throughout the country --- far too isolated. They don't get the western 1/3 of the country and stopping at 11 with these huge gaps doesn't allow real money-making and program-developing rivalries to grow.
Now it is not all bad, division-less play is helping the AAC's strength of schedule as it does with the Big 12. That is OK if your member schools are exclusively about chasing Big 12 or ACC membership at all costs, but I would think that strategy leaves a lot of money on the table unnecessarily.
In general, it is a very smart idea for the AAC to grab the best supported football programs at the Gang of 5 level. If you can pull them away from the other gang of 5 conferences, you create separation from the other conferences in terms of average attendance. Where things stand today, the AAC sits just barely ahead of the MWC. There is no reason for that.
It is also a smart strategy to claim ownership of the best part of the 4 media rich areas that have Gang of 5 members: The Northeast, Florida, Texas, and California. They have the best plays in Texas and Florida and had their best play in California. They could do better in the Northeast.
Finally, the military academies' nation-wide followings offer a tremendous media benefit to the right conference, but given their athletic limitations and the academies' leaderships' desire to play a national schedule, it is debatable whether the AAC is the right conference to nab them.
University fan bases that fuel TV viewership are usually built off alumni bases. Alumni bases are, of course, based on enrollment. Rice for example --- the smallest enrollment school at the FBS level --- has only 44,000 living alumni. The Academies can claim fandom from a large portion of military and retired military personnel.
326,046 active duty personnel
107,115 reserve personnel
Army + National Guard
546,057 Active personnel (2012)
559,244 Reserve and National Guard personnel (2012)
1,105,301 total (2012)
308,016 active personnel
180,084 civilian personnel
71,400 reserve personnel
106,700 air guard personnel
There is a reason the AAC went after the Academies before. If you want to have a national conference, the Academies deliver a nation-wide audience. The plan was to add Boise State University (the group of 5 rockstar) to the nationwide Academies' viewership and use that to lure in BYU.
It was a great plan. Aresco just allowed BS University to screw it up.
The AAC needs to pull in Air Force. If they can land the AFA, they have a real shot at eventually landing Army down the road. Having two or all three academies in the AAC would do a lot to fix their TV revenue problem.
Finally, the AAC has done quite well in basketball, but they could use more competent basketball programs to again allow the conference to emulate the power conferences ---specifically the old Big East ---earning good money with a handful of teams making the tourney each year.
UNM & CSU would likely be happy to join, given the leak in the press a few years back that both schools were discussing bailing on the MWC and forming a central conference. Both have tourney level basketball programs on a semi-regular basis. With the central part of the MWC gone, Air Force would be happy to join the AAC as well as an all-sports or Football-only member.
In the Northeast, Buffalo and UMass make the most sense, bringing Massachusetts and New York state into the AAC TV billfold. Buffalo is fairly decent in both revenue sports. UMass is again solid in basketball and would likely improve quickly in Football with a higher profile conference, local competition, and Florida and North Carolina supplemental recruiting. UMass would be able to leverage games against Army, Temple, Navy, and UConn into nice draws at the Patriot's stadium.
With MWC basketball somewhat gutted, SDSU might be willing to return. BS University narrowly passed SDSU as the second best draw in the G5 ranks this year. This AAC western division is actually relatively travel friendly for SDSU --- with fairly similar flight times to what would be left in the MWC conference MWC --- and offers much better recruiting and basketball.
BuffaloNavy (FB only)
Air Force (FB only)
The Mountain West Conference
Realignment Grades: The conference added the entire WAC, besides Idaho and New Mexico State ---who were almost certainly blocked by Boise State and the University of New Mexico. (I am well aware that UNM publically denied this, but as a lifelong realignment follower, I am extremely dubious. UNM has always been alleged to strongly prefer to have out of state rival UTEP in conference rather than in-state rival NMSU.). It is very likely that Boise State made it known they didn't want Idaho in the conference. It is very possible that the conference's desire to lure BS University back from the AAC lead their members to not even consider Idaho.
What they pulled in has been a mixed bag. Basketball is great, football...not so much. But they got Boise State from a better conference, even if they had to make some uncomfortable financial concessions to lure them in.
Raids: The MWC is like the Big 12 of this level--- a conference with small populations in their footprint capping the potential media value of the strong programs this conference owns.
I would love to champion the addition of western big market schools like UC-Davis, Sacramento State, Portland State, Northern Arizona and maybe even Azusa Pacific, but history has proven that most of those schools are scared to upgrade. The schools from the Big West and Big Sky that have the balls to upgrade to the FBS are schools with markets the MWC schools might pass on, like Eastern Washington, Montana, Montana State, North Dakota State, and Cal Poly.
I think it would be more prudent to make a play late on a couple of schools out of the lot when slots are scarce than make the same mistake the WAC made in counting on a spine appearing in that preferred lot.
I think the MWC might have done better to pull both Idaho and New Mexico State with the rest of the WAC as western geography makes travel long and the expansion candidates in the West are painfully gutless.
The MWC needs markets, but how do they get them? I think they need to create slot scarcity to force schools in valuable markets to upgrade.
So lets say a raid of the Sunbelt. With both NMSU and Idaho staring at the abyss, the conference could demanded concessions from both host states to buy their universities' inclusion.
Idaho could be admitted if the state government approved funding to expand the Kibbie Dome to 25,000 seats and built a 5000 seat basketball arena. At 15,000 plus seats, the Kibbie Dome is a program killer. At 25,000 seats, it would be a deafening home field advantage and a program maker. Idaho's academics and the Spokane TV market are a nice bonus add at this level if the Kibbie situation can be resolved.
NMSU is a strong basketball school which would help the conference pile up tourney invites. They could also use a state sponsored football makeover --- say a stadium revamp to 22,000 and other sports facility improvements.
Some may question why I would put NMSU ahead of UTEP. It's pretty easy. Two things.
UTEP is a nice add if you want to pursue the Texas markets. The Texas Markets are the big score for western conferences like the PAC-12 and MWC, but the Texas schools have already gone west in a similar "super WAC" and been abandoned by these MWC schools. (I don't know if it is a direct correlation, but there is a very palatable distate in the state for western associations at all levels that seems to extend well beyond not wanting to deal with jet lag and later game times. With that in mind any offer to a Texas school outside of UTEP would have to have limited travel. Pursuit of the Texas markets is probably why UNM and CSU reportedly kicked the tires on starting a new central conference).
Plus this is about getting it done now. UTEP is very much on the fence about joining the MWC. They should be. UTEP was abysmal in the WAC and they are decent sometimes in the CUSA. UTEP only draws well when they are good. Financially, there is not a lot of gain moving west.
NMSU on the other hand has no current options. NMSU is consistently in the running for UNM's best draw and has some decent MWC rivalries. Their facilities are not really good enough to challenge UNM for recruits and there is no money in the MWC footprint so that won't change, so there really is no real reason for UNM to block their inclusion. NMSU should always be an easy win in football. Even for UNM.
This gets the MWC to 13 all sports and Hawaii in football. Add Wichita State to fill the open Olympic slot.
That leaves only two slots. I would start with UC-Davis. Davis will angle for a pairing of Davis and Cal Poly. I think in TV terms the conference can do better, but Davis really can't do better than the MWC. It would be a tough thing for them to pass on a division with SJSU, Fresno, UNLV, and Nevada just to back Cal Poly. (I would not be opposed to offer Cal Poly a slot in general though or even promising Davis Cal Poly would be invited down the road as soon as their stadium is upgraded as long as Davis joins today. Davis needs a larger stadium too, but their alumni are rich.) Let's assume Davis passes for now. How do you turn up the pressure?
The Montanas would be going nuts for those slots as a pair ---and they would fit nicely except for the fact they bring no markets with them. I would talk to the Montanas about potentially a package deal assuming the member schools support the idea. Playing the Montanas' desires against the Big Sky could yield a nice media prize in Portland State.
Then come back to Davis. If they are still out, make a "take it or never, ever get another offer" proposal to Sacramento State. (There was a perception that before nearby WAC schools Nevada and Fresno State shot the wheels off "The Project" --- the WAC's secret plan to add BYU --- in jumping to the MWC, both UC-Davis and Sacramento State were very interested in a WAC invite. So there is a basis there...) Either way the MWC might be able to leverage slot scarcity into the valuable Portland and Sacramento markets.
Realignment Grades: CUSA's adds take a lot of abuse, but most of CUSA's additions were actually pretty solid given their footprint and media needs. They added a team in each state and pulled in a lot of markets. Even the addition of Florida Atlantic (on the surface somewhat superfluous if you have the larger Florida International) makes sense once you realize that working at this financial level, there were probably a lot of member schools wanting a single, two stop trip if they had to fly to distant Miami. Plus pulling both schools gets the Sunbelt out of Florida. In some ways, it is defensible.
The major issues I see is that they were too conservative---too limited --- for a large VCU to UTEP footprint. The conference lacks rivalries. The schools are generally slightly too far apart to help each other's attendances, and all of the schools are pretty forgettable in terms of attendance.
I believe CUSA is in danger of eventually losing UTEP over this conservative streak. Some may say good riddance over travel to El Paso, but the reality is, in a well thought-out CUSA, UTEP could be winning and drawing 40-50,000 fans a game. Can CUSA really kiss that off with their recent membership losses?
Check out the best attendance year of each CUSA school over the last 15 years...
UTEP is on another level when things work down there.
Right now UTEP plays the other 5 central members and then has to play 3 random eastern schools that are totally irrelevant to their fan base. It makes for a poor schedule. That has UTEP's leadership toying with the idea of a return to the MWC. The MWC is a better conference in football and basketball and offers UTEP's fans their historic WAC rivals. The thinking is that such a move would have to be good for attendance.
The thing is, it likely wouldn't, but UTEP could be in the MWC before they figure it out.
Raids: A good sales person could pull off what I am about to suggest, but it would have to be a hell of a sales job.
I think given CUSA's huge footprint, the commissioner would need to propose a move to 18 schools (a 4 school expansion) to give better coverage, to allow an 8 game football schedule made entirely of regional conference opponents, and to ramp up basketball. (Eventually the PAC and Big 12 will expand so even expansions to 18 among the group of 5 conference are all about maximizing assets in the short term. Most will lose 2-4 teams in a few years if they maximize their conferences.)
That is already a pallet of changes which will bother the sensibilities of CUSA conference members. On top of that, I am proposing both an "up conference pecking order" raid of New Mexico from the MWC and that 3 of the teams be schools that conventional wisdom would have CUSA schools rejecting --- St. Louis (a football startup), Texas State (considered competition by UNT and UTSA), and New Mexico State (considered competition by UNM and UTEP).
Lets's take a look at the candidates best recent attendance seasons...
New Mexico's and UTEP's leaderships have historically seemed quite oblivious to why both programs struggle. I don't know why. They just are. UTEP usally draws very, very well when they're in the 7-9 win area. They have gone from a cellar dweller in the WAC to a sometimes reasonable team in Conference USA. Texas recruiting in CUSA has helped them a lot, as has a weaker slate of opponents.
New Mexico would likely experience a similar football bounce if they moved to CUSA. The question is would the move hurt basketball too much?
A: Not if you have local rivals and the conference tweaks the basketball divisions to protect what you've built.
Enter the university that conventional wisdom would suggest is UTEP and UNM's poison pill...NMSU. UTEP and NMSU would be great in-conference basketball rivals for UNM. They are tourney level and travel well to Albuquerque.
The CW is that if you bring NMSU football up to the same level conference as UTEP and UNM, neither of the three school will be able to recruit enough talent to compete. This would certainly be the case in the MWC. But not in a CUSA where the entire rest of the division would be in every major city in Texas, plus some that give access to the rich Mississippi/Louisiana region!
Recruiting for the trio, for the first time ever, would be a non-issue. UNM and UTEP have much better football facilities and fan support than NMSU, so they would profit more.
None of the other Texas schools are dominant enough that the trio couldn't compete. It's a mixture of mediocre football and good recruiting that could actually allow all three schools to fully tap value from their fan base on a regular basis.
Then there is the reality of attendance. The MWC schools may be historical rivals to UNM and UTEP, but if you look at the attendance numbers, they are actually poor draws. UNM may longingly miss UTEP, but UNM's best draws most years are NMSU, Arizona, and Arizona State. Moving the NMSU game in conference could allow UNM to schedule another smart OOC game for their future that would likely draw well --- Colorado.
UTEP similarly draws well hosting high level power conference schools (Big 12 teams), then right under that, it draws well vs. NMSU and UNM, then they draw about the same for in conference games. Usually games hosting the New Mexico schools draw 8-10,000 more fans than their conference slate. Why not move those in conference and open the slate for high profile matchups vs. say Texas Tech, Baylor, and TCU?
So what is in this for the conference taking on this "huge travel hit"? Well besides a major basketball upgrade, it protects the conference from a potential raid on of Texas schools and yields several made for TV rivalry games --- something the conference sorely lacks. NMSU was UNT's best rival in the Sun Belt.
Adding Texas State does more of the same. The difference in quality between the new Sunbelt and the new CUSA in football is marginal at best. Texas State is already recruiting against UNT and UTSA. Bringing the Bobcats in house removes the Sunbelt's only Texas football member---a net football recruiting gain.
Just like the UTEP/NMSU situation, UTSA would gain a huge draw with Texas State in conference. Look at the 2014 UTSA schedule. It is eerily similar to UTEP's dynamics. UTSA draws 20K vs out of state in conference foes, 24K vs UNT and 30-33 vs. schools in heavily Hispanic regions (UTEP, UNM, Arizona). It doesn't take much looking at both schools' attendance that a UTSA/Texas State game in San Antonio would draw about 35,000 at minimum.
And that is another made for TV game.
It wouldn't take much for UNT and Texas State to become bitter rivals. This kind of division just makes too much sense. TV rivalries? Check. Good Media Markets? The best in Texas, Lousiana, and New Mexico. Check. fans traveling to see all of their football team's conference away games? Very possible. This conference would have many of the aspects that made the SWC great for fans. Check. Net schedules that drive up attendance numbers? Check.
St. Louis could be allowed to join and play football. FBS football is a safer revenue generating position than being an Olympic-only DI member, but the basketball trio would need to be added to CUSA before St. Louis would consider giving up a spot in the Atlantic 10. The Billikens could bring a nice market, good basketball, and potentially a great program-driving stadium in a reworked Edward Jones Dome. Really all they have to do is average 20,000 for them to be a great fit in CUSA. I think that is very doable right off the bat given the assets on hand.
St. Louis v. Western Kentucky could be a very solid rivalry in all sports and could drive Western Kentucky to a consistently higher level in basketball.
Horse Trades: It could be a very smart trade for the Sunbelt and CUSA to trade Florida Atlantic for Georgia State. It would help both conferences's TV offerings immensely. Karl Benson could recover Florida and Conference USA could pull in Atlanta media --- the sounding board for the deep south -- and a better basketball school. Georgia State would certainly be on board. Perhaps CUSA's membership could just boot out FAU. Where else would they go but the Sunbelt?
The Sunbelt Conference
Realignment Grades: Karl Benson has done a pretty good job of rebuilding the Sunbelt. There is no question that in football terms they are already on par with CUSA due to the injection of FCS superpowers App State and Georgia Southern.
The football only additions of Idaho and NMSU are more debatable. Benson is too nice. Idaho and NMSU probably didn't back him in the WAC and are incredibly dysfunctional in football. I am reminded of the song "somebody that you used to know". Benson doesn't owe Rob Spear a thing. When the WAC could be saved, the Vandals made their bed with the Montanas and the Big Sky. It was a stupid, stupid decision, but it is all on them. It is time for Idaho to move back down to FCS. It is time for Benson to cut bait on Idaho and make a decision on NMSU.
The addition of FCS up and comer Coastal Carolina seems relatively solid and works geographically.
Raids:I am going to start by banging the drum for NMSU's inclusion as an all-sports member.
The New Sunbelt is a subpar basketball conference. Benson has seen the money good basketball can inject into a conference. He has several mediocre basketball programs that could develop, but no good ones to lead the way in creating the culture.
To build a conference that could put two or more teams into the tourney, you need a small handful of real basketball schools. There are not many in the footprint and most are unavailable. Having one ringer makes adding another (or developing another) possible. You have to start somewhere. NMSU is an annual tourney team and is very available.
NMSU has actually offered to pay the sunbelt to get in as a full member, but the sunbelt teams still won't vote them in.
(It is an embarrassing situation that NMSU's leadership at the time created when they looked to CW and didn't back Benson when he tried to push Lamar to the WAC at the end of 2011. That add would have reset their conference to 8 football members hitting the threshold to add 2 more years to their compliance clock and likely saved the FBS WAC.)
One bad trip in each sport is not the end of the world for sunbelt member schools. NMSU could be a workable travel partner with UTA or Texas State.
Besides travel, there is a reason the Sunbelt is standoffish. With one exception, every one of NMSU's top 20 all time football draws to their stadium are either UTEP or New Mexico. That tells you a lot.
No doubt losing supresses NMSU's numbers, but...If you look at the top 20 game list and the season by season game numbers, they suggest that UTEP and UNM are capable of bringing in 10-15,000 more fans to Memorial stadium (likely), that NMSU doesn't have a large fan base (something enrollment would suggest is unlikely and basketball support debunks to a degree), that the general love of football that drives fans to see games against good teams may not be present in Las Cruces (the numbers support this, but it would be surprising.), or IMO the most likely scenario, that the stadium design is suppressing attendance by pushing fans too far from the action..
|"NMSU AggieMemorialStadium" by Terry Umbenhaur - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NMSU_AggieMemorialStadium.jpg#/media/File:NMSU_AggieMemorialStadium.jpg|
I doubt NMSU's leadership has the will or wisdom to commit the money for even a small-time renovation. And the wrong choices could be tricky or expensive.
Memorial Stadium is a partially below ground level 1970's style bowl. It is a two tier stadium where more concessions were made to style, construction costs, and the underlying structure than to fan appeal. (It is a shame they didn't build it more like West Texas's Kimbrough Stadium.) It has many of the same issues in terms of fan experience as UNT's Fouts Stadium used to have and Eastern Michigan's Rynearson Stadium --- where a good chunk of the seating are bad seats. Those bad seats are rarely filled by home fans (who know the seats suck). The empty seats make the games seem unpopular and discourage fan attendance. Eventually fans become conditioned not to go to NMSU home football games.
I imagine the cheapest way to bring the stadium back into being a positive asset would be to start by demolishing the upper level and taking out the bad end zone seats...
I think from there you could either put in two raised decks, moving your upper deck fans much, much closer to the action...(proximity and construction materials I couldn't faithfully replicate in 5 minutes in photoshop. The Nussli Group could likely build a sensible upperdeck solution cheaply.)
or ...if the money became available, maybe look at creating a ground level, inspiring presentation piece before people descend into the stadium (ala the LA Coliseum)...
|By Los Angeles (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons|
or an upper level round or oval balcony/promenande built right over what is there, conceptually similar to what RFK stadium has.
|"DC United" by Phillyfan0419 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DC_United.jpg#/media/File:DC_United.jpg|
I say take their money and add them.
My next basketball ringer is Florida Gulf Coast. They along with N. Florida will most likely be playing football at the FBS level in the next 20 years anyway, and as the Sunbelt is a hybrid conference, why not? FGCU is big enough, they are a basketball school in a state that has hoop talent to spare.
Lamar is another school with a basketball culture and their football fundamentals and progress make them a smart add. The Louisiana schools are kind of culturally isolated from the Texas schools (and certainly from NMSU). Lamar would be a sensible bridge as football member #12.
I would add Jacksonville State as a 13th football member. JSU is a peer of GSU and App State and you've seen what they have done in the Sun Belt. I can already hear the wailing..."But we already have two schools in Alabama!!" Yes, but JSU is already recruiting against them.
You might as well get the benefit of cheap travel, a good attendance bump by traveling fans, and some made for TV rivalries in an area that is crazy about college football. Plus Florida and Georgia are next door with more than enough surplus talent.
Now that makes a 13 football, 16 member basketball conference. There is still potentially a room for another football-only member. I would offer UMASS instead of Idaho a football-only invite.
Why UMass? Because northeastern schools need southern supplemental recruiting to succeed. For this reason, I think they would take it. It would ultimately be quite healthy to send a dominant App State or Georgia Southern up to play an improved UMASS squad at the Patriot's stadium near Boston. UMass has a good TV audience. That's a good play to have them watch the Sunbelt on TV.
I might be inclined to put JMSU in the central division in football for competitive balance as they are a football rockstar.
Jacksonville State (f)
University of Louisiana
UMASS (f)/FGCU (oly)
Jacksonville State (oly)
The Mid American Conference
Realignment Grades: They added and then forced out UMass in a blown power play to try to pre-maturely force UMass basketball into the conference. Ill-timed.... Dumb.
Raids: I covered much of my thinking on the MAC in the two part series on them last year and it is hard to "trick it up" for this just for fun article.
I am going to run with what I wrote there, tweaking the presentation of part of it into my horse trade --- plus a few extras for a very idealized finish. I feel like I really knocked it out of the park on those two articles---especially the second, so if you haven't read them yet --- give them a shot (shameless plug).
I think you could pull schools that might be a little better than one expects if the schools were added in the right sequence.
Additions would be all-sports Wisconsin-Milwaukee, James Madison, Delaware, and William & Mary. Stonybrook & Albany would be Olympic-only adds until their football is ready. In the meantime, the conference would ruthlessly use UMass and Villanova allowing them to fill their football slots and cover the markets at the cost of 8 OOC basketball games each vs. the highest ranked MAC schools each year. UMass needs FBS opponents they could potentially beat and Villanova craves an FBS invite so both would take the invites.
Horse Trades: Eastern Michigan to the Summit for North Dakota State. EMU's programs are dead at the FBS levels. Their commitment and their assets to sports would be very well utilized at the DII level in the Michigan-centric Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC). They could prosper at that level.
I am guessing they would want to hold on to their membership in DI, so a trade to The Summit might make sense for both parties. EMU would be wise to play their football at the FCS level in the scholarship-less Pioneer Football League.
NDSU is playing for an unprecedented fifth straight FCS title. Replacing EMU with NDSU would be a dramatic conference course correction and help correct the fact the conference is well...very, very bad.
This would leave a very nice looking MAC with about as much media relevance in the rich Northeast as they do in the Midwest. The divisional divide would sensibly be in Ohio, where the MAC has 6 schools. In basketball and Olympic sports, they could go with 3 divisions by simply pulling the 3 Ohio schools from each division to be central division.
North Dakota St.
Albany (oly)/UMass (f)
Stonybrook (oly)/Villanova (f)
William & Mary