Our friends Bill Connelly and Steven Godfrey brought up some salient points about Conference USA and the AAC/SBC/CUSA relationship in general in their latest edition of Podcast Ain't Played Nobody, namely the idea of blowing up the three conferences and combining them into one large mega-conference. We decided to discuss our reactions to their ideas in Slack.
Broaching the Mega-Conference Topic
Will Butler: Personally, I'd be ok with blowing up and combining the Sun Belt, American, and Conference USA, but that's because I'm admittedly biased towards a Texas State perspective.
Fair or not, one of the biggest complaints lodged against our athletic director - and Texas State sports in general by some of our fans - was a perceived lack of effort in getting us into C-USA or the American, where we'd have recognizable (read: in-state) conference rivals like UTSA/UNT/Rice/Houston that our fans actually know.
I have absolutely no loyalty to the Sun Belt at all beyond enjoying the occasional road trip to Lafayette, and I know this is the case among many of our fans. This is my perception, and mine only, but they don't seem to value their western members as much as the southeast core. See: Arkansas State getting slighted all the damn time.
Nic Lewis: I suppose I could see the benefit of this, at least from the standpoint of possibly beating the Power 5 conference's to the punch when it comes to developing a super conference. You would most likely--not definitely, but probably--at least start a shift of power in the opposite direction. That being said to your point about rivalries, I think that situation is less about joining the right conference with the right rivalries than it is about a certain athletic department not doing a very good job of developing rivalries within the conference they've got.
Will: For sure. But I guess I'm trying to look big picture here as well. I've never been a fan of the inherent classism that takes place in college football where you want to be better than your neighbor and then keep them below you by not playing them (see: Texas and Texas A&M as the most prominent example).
That takes place in G5 as well, with the most prominent example being Louisiana Tech. I see their point about not wanting to slum it with ULL and ULM, mainly because the past few years they either have (ULL) or likely would have (ULM) blown the doors off of both. From their perspective, they don't want to take a hit to their strength of schedule.
But the geographer in me blanches at Idaho and Coastal Carolina being in the same conference, or Hawaii in Tech's case just a few years ago. Additionally, if TV revenues are a concern, wouldn't it make more sense to focus on both regional rivalries where everyone hates each other and the best teams in a mega-conference getting the opportunity to play each other (like a Houston-Arkansas State-Marshall-WKU-Georgia Southern-Temple deathmatch) in order to stir up some more interest?
Because let's admit it, even though UNT (as an example) is mad that they have to share a conference with UTSA, that newfound rivalry is sparking interest on both sides.
Nic: I suppose there's a "rising tide lifts all ships" aspect to this. Conference USA's recent cratering of their TV revenue due to the team mix of their conference, plus the Sun Belt's horrific TV revenue, would probably have them on board immediately for such a plan. Surround yourself with more good teams, then you look better. I think such a move would be harder to justify for upwardly mobile teams like most of the AAC as well as the top third of CUSA and SBC though. Why would they do the opposite and purposely surround themselves with a greater number of lesser teams?
Will: Right, it doesn't make a ton of sense from the perspective of the upper echelon of the AAC. Which is where I think a bit of Darwinism would have to come into play. You're always going to have bad teams at the bottom of the pile, but that sort of arrangement would make it so that you'd probably need to tell the NMSU/Idaho/ULM crowd to step up their games or drop down a level. Otherwise, the better schools would be dissatisfied at having to slum it with those they perceive as their lesser. AKA the Big 12 syndrome.
Nic: Or do you split it into two conferences? Take those 38 teams, rank them (by whatever metrics you like), and split it (roughly) into quartiles. First and third quartiles make a conference, second and fourth quartiles make a conference so that the "we have to be in a conference with WHO??" is minimized a bit. Then loop in Army and BYU for two 20-team conferences.
Will: I could see that as being a sort of a compromise. More than likely you'd solve a few regional geographic incongruities (Texas, Louisiana). My problem is that since college football is so cyclical, those conferences could become unbalanced themselves within 5 years. With a mega conference, you can control for that and also have a more unified voting bloc.
Nic: You would first need that voting bloc to actually count more before it could matter more, though. I think a merger makes sense, but what that merger looks like gets dicey depending on what matters most and to whom.
It all rests on the AAC
Thomas Sherrill: From what I've heard, as long as they have UConn and Cincy (and SMU) make a March run every 3-4 years in the NCAA tourney, the AAC will be fine. A $10 million tourney unit influx helps stability.
Nic: Oh yeah. But we already know that the AAC by far benefits the least from this (merger idea), outside of maybe getting to jettison the likes of Tulane and Tulsa if they play their cards right.
Thomas: If the Big 12 takes Cincy and UConn, then the AAC is in trouble.
Nic: So would it be fair to say that this is a logical domino if Big 12 expansion occurs?
Thomas: Yep. UConn is up there as a B12 target. State school, strong academics, hoops, NYC media market (somewhat). Media markets don't mean shit outside the Power 5 though.
Will: Unless you're CUSA.
Thomas: We saw how much that "helped" them in their new TV deal. I've heard folks talk about CUSA and the SBC realigning into something more geographically-sensible.
Will: I think aligning those two and keeping the AAC would make some sense now that there's so much separation between the AAC and the rest both financially and competitively.
The "Sink or Swim" method
Will: Here's another idea. Combine the three conferences, which means in the interim you have 38 teams (including Coastal eventually coming in). For a bone to throw to the best teams, you say "within 10 years, we're cutting our membership down to ____ members" - 32 or 35 teams, whatever works.
Then by the end of that decade, you toss out the teams with the worst win percentages. That way you're probably getting rid of teams who won't be bringing much in terms of tv money anyway and leaving fewer revenue mouths to feed.
Ten years can give schools two coaching cycles to get their shit together. I'd bet you dollars to donuts that any athletic department sclerosis that's built up at a certain school would get addressed real quick.
Thomas: Maybe do a promotion/relegation system within the super-league. 4 tiers with 9/10 in each tier. Top 2 move up, bottom 2 move down. Or do a playoff so a team can fight to stay up or move up. (Editor's note: For what it's worth, Bill Connelly has proposed a similar idea).
Will: I think you'd have to make the revenue splits different for each tier to really make that work. In tier 1 you get AAC-level revenue compensation plus any trickle-down from an access bowl appearance, tier 4 gets hardly anything, etc. Problem is that'd make it really hard to get out of tier 4 and stay there (just like soccer). But that might also force some FBS pretenders to tap out anyway, so depending on your perspective that could be a blessing or a curse.
Nic: Relegation won't work. Then you just wind up with a big fat middle group who are never really good enough to win the title, so all they ever care about is not getting relegated. Also Will, you would have to have an athletics-wide method of assessing the "worst" and demotion-worthy programs.
Cyrus Smith: I think this issue would be solved if conferences, you know, actually made geographical sense.
Will: Yeah Nic although we all know football drives the bus. Unless you're UCONN, in which case your bus is wildly flinging around in circles while the bus driver does left-handed layups on the tiny hoop in the back.
[Cue 10 minutes of making fun of UCONN, the Big East, and basketyhoops]
Smash the Texas/Louisiana schools together instead?
Cyrus: To be honest, I wouldn't be surprised if UCONN returned to the Big East as a basketball only member and do football in, say, the MAC.
Nic: That's just what the MAC wants. Another (sort of) UMass. Amirite?
Cyrus: I do find it interesting how this conversation usually stems from unrest in the Sun Belt & C-USA and almost never the MAC.
Thomas: The MAC has a nice 12-team conference that plays shitty football on weeknights that people are happy to see just because it's football.
Nic: Yeah, the MAC and MWC don't really enter this conversation largely because of their geographical stability (and being completely ok with their "little guy" status).
Cyrus: Well I think to a point made earlier you don't have Central Michigan in a better G5 conference than in-state school Eastern Michigan. Just put them in the same conference.
Makes no sense why UTSA, Texas State, & UNT are not in the same conference. Really the next conference should be all G5 Texas schools and all G5 Louisiana schools. It makes geographical sense, maintains local rivalries and it would fit the TV market landscape.
Will: True, although you run into the (now defunct) Southwest Conference dilemma, where everyone's doing the same thing and there's not enough outside influence to prevent institutional sclerosis and national obscurity.
Nic: So where is the decider between "we're the SWC and we're so inbred it's killing us" and "we're the MAC and we might be insular but honestly, it works for us?" Is (the MWC's success) just because the geography is so tight?
Chris Hondros: Yes and no. Geography is tight and also the MWC has at least had the consistency of we're almost there in certain years, so there's that naive outlook they could be there eventually.
Cyrus: No one's complaining about why they have to travel outside their footprint (in the case of the MAC and MWC). I think the SWC G5 edition would be perfect. C-USA could then be more Carolinas/Florida and add App State.
Will: I think part of why the Southwest conference merged into the Big 12 was because of TV obscurity. That's less of a concern with the G5, so I think the bigger danger would be just inbreeding of ideas and coaching strategies, though CFB is so national these days that it might matter less. So I think an SWC G5 edition would make sense, more than a major conference at least.
Cyrus: I think the only G5 school who may oppose would be Houston.
Will: Probably. They want to be in the Big 12. They think of themselves above the rest of the G5 schools in the area now. And as long as they have Tom Herman, they are.
What do you think? Do you agree with any of these conference realignment ideas? Are we just plain nuts? Leave a comment below.