FanPost

Conference Realignment: Who's In Play?

Map of potential realignment candidates - click for an interactive version.

Map of potential realignment candidates - click for an interactive version.

Conference realignment is back in full swing, and seems destined to bring major changes to the American, Conference USA, and Sun Belt conferences. In this post, we'll do a broad, numbers-focused overview of all the teams expected to be in play this round of realignment.

To quickly recap the state of play:

  1. Oklahoma and Texas announced that they are leaving Big 12 to join the SEC, leaving the Big 12 with only 8 remaining members.
  2. The Big 12 reacted by inviting American Athletic Conference (AAC) members Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF, along with FBS independent BYU. All 4 schools accepted. This leaves the AAC with only 8 football members.
  3. The AAC reacted by reaching out to 4 Mountain West members: Boise State, San Diego State, Colorado State, and Air Force. All 4 declined, leaving the Mountain West intact.
The AAC is now expected to seek new members from Conference USA (C-USA) and/or the Sun Belt Conference. As shown in the map above, all three conferences share a geographic footprint that sprawls across the southeast from the Mid-Atlantic to Texas. If programs depart either C-USA or the Sun Belt to join the AAC, those conferences may replenish their numbers by extending invites to FBS Independents, successful FCS programs, or from each other.

What will conferences be looking for in potential expansion candidates? There are many factors that conference commissioners, university presidents, and athletic directors will be considering, but the top ones are:
  • Football success: On-field product is critical to building a large and engaged football audience. Teams that can consistently compete at the top level will be in high demand.
  • Athletic facilities: Quality athletic facilities, and football stadiums in particular, are table stakes for competition at the top of the G5. A football stadium that is too small or provides a poor fan experience puts a ceiling on potential audience for home games.
  • Football attendance: Attendance at home games is a strong proxy for fan interest and engagement.
  • Basketball success: Basketball will be secondary to football in the future of all three conferences, but all three include programs with aspirations to compete at the top level in basketball. Maintaining a critical mass of strong basketball programs is essential to avoid becoming a "one-bid conference" in which only the conference champion gets a bid to the NCAA tournament.
  • Undergraduate enrollment: More students = more potential fans to add energy to a student section, and (more importantly) a larger base of alumni who might be interested in attending games or watching them on TV and streaming platforms.
  • Athletic budget: Conferences want members who are making strong investments in athletics. At the same time, current budgets do not necessarily indicate what the program's budget would be in a new conference, because differences in revenue between conferences directly affect budgets. For example, a program that moves from the Sun Belt (receiving ~$500k annually from the conference TV deal) to the AAC (receiving $6 million annually from the conference TV deal) would expect to use the new TV money to increase its athletic budget by several million dollars.
  • Metro area population: In addition to students and alumni, the other major source of fans for G5 teams are locals. All else being equal, it's easier to build a fan base and TV audience in an area that has a large population. Ideally, that area also doesn't have existing FBS football programs or NFL teams, so the G5 program is the top-tier football option in the local area.

With that in mind, we'll go through all the potential candidates for this round of realignment to see how they stack up on those metrics.

American Athletic Conference (AAC)

After the departure of Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF, the AAC will effectively have 8 remaining members for all major sports (Wichita State is a non-football member, while Navy is a football-only member). With the exception of East Carolina, all football members of the AAC are in large metropolitan areas.

Team 2021 CFN Week 6 Football Ranking Football Stadium Capacity 2019 Average Home Football Attendance 2021 Final KenPom Basketball Ranking 2019 Undergraduates 2019 Athletic Budget 2019 Metro Area Population
East Carolina 77 51,000 33,134 155 19,170 $48,582,873 180,742
Memphis 91 58,325 38,325 31 12,032 $61,254,516 1,346,045
Navy 100 24,000 31,970 N/A 4,594 N/A 2,800,053
SMU 41 32,000 23,633 56 6,516 $68,812,414 7,573,136
South Florida 108 65,618 31,823 170 25,150 $59,531,111 3,194,831
Temple 87 69,796 29,460 143 26,162 $60,719,852 6,102,434
Tulane 104 30,000 20,271 144 7,260 $31,836,150 1,270,530
Tulsa 82 30,000 18,741 121 3,151 $38,078,189 998,626
Wichita State N/A N/A N/A 68 8,927 $26,250,398 640,218

Any program seeking an invite to the AAC will inevitably be assessed by how it compares to the current membership, so it's worth quickly summarizing some key metrics for the existing members:

Metric Lowest Median Highest
Current CFN Football Ranking 108 (South Florida) 89 41 (SMU)
2019 Average Football Attendance 18,741 (Tulsa) 30,642 38,816 (Memphis)
2021 KenPom Basketball Ranking 170 (South Florida) 132 31 (Memphis)
2019 Athletic Budget (programs with football) $31,836,150 (Tulane) $59,531,111 $68,812,414 (SMU)

Conference USA

Compared to the AAC, Conference USA is less prominent on most metrics. Median home football attendance is 19,069 per game (38% lower than the median of remaining AAC members), and median athletic budget is $32,773,870 (45% lower than median AAC budget).

Conference USA followed a similar membership strategy to the AAC, and most of its members are in large metropolitan areas.

Team 2021 CFN Week 6 Football Ranking Football Stadium Capacity 2019 Average Home Football Attendance 2021 Final KenPom Basketball Ranking 2019 Undergraduates 2019 Athletic Budget 2019 Metro Area Population
Charlotte 96 15,316 12,319 234 20,802 $33,276,583 2,636,883
FIU 129 20,000 13,874 292 27,652 $36,920,733 6,166,488
Florida Atlantic 107 29,571 17,607 181 16,221 $32,271,156 6,166,488
Louisiana Tech 78 28,562 20,439 82 7,701 $21,717,648 46,742
Marshall 98 38,227 23,190 92 7,029 $31,803,256 355,873
Middle Tennessee 89 30,788 14,253 306 15,689 $34,840,886 1,934,317
North Texas 119 30,850 21,358 72 26,055 $39,895,954 7,573,136
Old Dominion 118 22,480 18,234 152 14,680 $42,629,922 1,768,901
Rice 125 47,000 22,212 188 3,931 $42,045,636 7,066,141
Southern Miss 126 36,000 24,765 256 9,650 $22,793,590 168,849
UAB 71 47,100 24,726 102 10,272 $35,441,324 1,090,435
UTEP 109 51,500 17,093 136 13,840 $28,861,869 844,124
UTSA 40 64,000 19,904 160 22,285 $29,952,607 2,550,960
WKU 95 22,113 15,191 99 11,604 $26,568,285 179,240

Sun Belt Conference

By the numbers, the Sun Belt conference is broadly similar to Conference USA. Median home football attendance is 18,254 per game, and median athletic budget among programs with football is $28,889,819.

The Sun Belt has followed a different membership strategy compared to the AAC or Conference USA, and has many members in small college towns and mid-sized cities that aren't within large metropolitan areas.

Team 2021 CFN Week 6 Football Ranking Football Stadium Capacity 2019 Average Home Football Attendance 2021 Final KenPom Basketball Ranking 2019 Undergraduates 2019 Athletic Budget 2019 Metro Area Population
App State 70 30,000 23,806 212 16,557 $28,721,844 56,117
Arkansas State 115 30,406 20,670 252 6,385 $20,880,003 133,860
Coastal Carolina 37 21,000 15,019 179 8,784 $30,828,813 496,901
Georgia Southern 114 25,000 13,964 270 18,994 $29,077,794 79,608
Georgia State 88 24,333 17,186 154 21,815 $34,058,909 6,020,364
Little Rock N/A N/A N/A 239 3,652 $11,898,913 742,384
Louisiana 54 41,264 18,203 201 11,901 $33,655,641 489,207
South Alabama 116 25,450 16,322 217 8,057 $23,928,332 429,536
Texas State 113 30,008 17,140 183 27,923 $33,701,882 2,227,083
Troy 112 30,420 23,499 305 8,687 $27,459,346 33,114
ULM 111 27,617 16,728 296 4,734 $15,990,935 200,261
UT Arlington N/A N/A N/A 253 19,416 $16,441,055 7,573,136

FBS Independents

Excluding Notre Dame (has an affiliation with the ACC) and BYU (joining the Big 12), there are five teams currently competing as FBS Independents in football. Each program has separate reasons for its current independent status, which present potential obstacles to adding them as full or football-only members of the AAC, C-USA, or Sun Belt Conferences. Despite this, both Army and Liberty will likely get serious consideration by several conferences during this round of realignment.

Team 2021 CFN Week 6 Football Ranking Football Stadium Capacity 2019 Average Home Football Attendance 2021 Final KenPom Basketball Ranking 2019 Undergraduates 2019 Athletic Budget 2019 Metro Area Population
Army 92 38,000 30,989 197 4,536 N/A 679,158
Liberty 93 25,000 18,272 98 28,434 $47,756,081 263,566
New Mexico State 124 30,343 17,905 150 9,709 $27,724,312 218,195
UConn 130 38,066 18,216 21 18,151 $74,974,097 1,204,877
UMass 128 17,000 9,498 118 22,417 $40,111,805 697,382

FCS Teams With FBS Potential

Finally, there are several teams within the relevant geographical footprint that have been successful at the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) level, and would be potential candidates to "move up" to FBS football.

The major constraints that limit the number of schools in this list are geography and stadium size. Many of the most successful FCS teams (e.g. North Dakota State, Montana, etc.) are very far outside the geographic footprint of the AAC/C-USA/Sun Belt in the Southeast. Other successful FCS programs (e.g. Sam Houston and Villanova) have football stadiums that aren't big enough to hit the minimum of 15,000 average home game attendees required for FBS participation.

It's very unlikely that any of these programs would be invited directly to the AAC, but they will be in consideration by C-USA and the Sun Belt as they look for candidates to replace any departing members.

Team 2021 Week 6 Stats Perform FCS Top 25 Rank Football Stadium Capacity 2019 Average Home Football Attendance 2021 Final KenPom Basketball Ranking 2019 Undergraduates 2019 Athletic Budget 2019 Metro Area Population
Delaware 14 18,800 14,275 225 18,352 $37,374,434 6,102,434
Jacksonville State 24 24,000 16,829 293 5,759 $15,854,684 113,605
James Madison 8 24,877 18,108 177 18,772 $48,062,926 134,964

Next Time: Assessing the Top Candidates for AAC Expansion

With the numbers in hand, our next post will go through the detailed pros and cons of the top candidates the AAC is considering. Stay tuned!

Sources

The previous content was created by fans of our site and the teams that we cover, and is in no way affiliated with or indicative of the opinions or beliefs of the site's staff.