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Conference USA skips out on hosting a traditional conference media day

Conference Media Days are back! Well, except for C-USA.

Steve Helwick

After a tumultuous 2020 in which we saw massive disruptions to the college football calendar due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the summer of 2021 has given us signs that normalcy is on the way. The MLB All-Star Game took place in a sold-out Coors Field in Denver, Colorado. The NBA Finals between the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks are taking place with no signs of COVID pauses on the horizon, complete with 8K shots of fans losing their minds, thrilled to be back in an arena again while rooting for their favorite team.

This week college football took its turn to put 2020 in the rearview mirror as the Big 12 conference kicked off the unofficial start to the 2020-2021 college football season by hosting the 2021 Big 12 Football Media Days in Arlington, Texas. Just like it usually does.

Everything is slowly going back to normal.

Or not.

Conference USA announced that rather than holding their traditional C-USA Football Media Days in Frisco, Texas, the conference will instead hold a zoom event on July 21-22 as a substitute.

The news was announced as Big 12 Media Days were taking place. I couldn’t help but notice the irony of C-USA Media Days not taking place at the Baylor Scott & White Sports Performance Center at The Star, the same facility the Dallas Cowboys use, while Big 12 Media Days are taking place at AT&T Stadium, the same facility where the Dallas Cowboys play.

If C-USA thought it would be best to bury the news of becoming the first FBS conference this year to skip the traditional media days format while Big 12 Media Days were taking place, I wonder if they realized they were also burying the conference’s already battered rep too.

For the 2021 FCS spring season the Southern Conference held a virtual media day. The Ohio Valley held a virtual media day too. That made sense. The pandemic was still having a major impact on the country. Vaccines were still rare to come by. But in the middle of July 2021 a football season that resembles 2020 is not likely. The country is well on its way to normalcy. Why not C-USA?

I mean the Big Sky Conference is holding an in-person conference media day for goodness sake.

There’s a chance that other mid-major conferences will join C-USA in skipping the traditional format of a media day but I doubt it. The American has been hell bent on proving that they are more like the ACC than the MWC. The Sun Belt is hotter than ever with Louisiana, App State and Coastal Carolina each becoming media darlings in recent years. Maybe the MWC and MAC follow C-USA’s lead but I really doubt it.

If a conference from the FCS can hold a traditional conference media day there’s no reason why C-USA shouldn’t. Does C-USA not play Division-1 football?

Naturally, fans have blamed C-USA Commissioner Judy MacLeod for the decision but it’s a little more complex than that. Longtime Assistant Commissioner Russ Anderson passed away unexpectedly this year at the age of 50. Russ was known to handle the media relations side for C-USA and he did a great job in planning events and keeping media members who follow the conference up to speed. His absence is felt significantly with the announcement of this decision. Media members who cover the event were given just a week’s notice with this announcement. Not exactly ideal.

Sources have also indicated that this wasn’t Judy’s decision to make. The 14 Athletic Directors voted on whether or not to travel to Frisco to have the event. While there’s no tally for who voted for what, it’s safe to assume we all know why the majority favored a virtual event despite conference peers leaning towards having their media days in person.

The college football world has known for years that money is a huge cause of concern among conference members in C-USA. The media rights deal ranks last among FBS conferences with schools making around $2 million each. To put this in context, MAC members are taking home around $10 million a year. Each school has to fly their respective coaches and players to Texas, not to mention provide expenses. Given what the pandemic did to the country’s economy, understandably money is tight. But this is a tad too far. Conference USA has nickel and dimed during their entire existence since their current members came together in 2014. One can make the case that decision has contributed to the conference’s ability to last this long despite the widening financial gap between not only the P5 conferences, but the best mid-major conferences too. But this is a stretch too far.

Optics matter. Even if the conference’s track record for exposure says otherwise.

With virtually no eyeballs on C-USA last season given the poor television contract, an election cycle, a ravaging pandemic, and everything else in between fighting for consumer’s attention, the 2021 C-USA Football Media Days event was a chance to give followers of the conference who are starving for news an opportunity to care about C-USA again. This is one of the few given opportunities C-USA will have to bring eyeballs to the league this season and instead they punt.

Sure, we can still get the same coach-speak over a zoom. But who wants to spend their time in yet another zoom meeting? Haven’t we all done that enough in the past year? Watching Bill Clark talk about UAB becoming a C-USA power in front of a Protective Stadium computerized backdrop does not scream football is back.

One can say that there’s not a lot of upside for an in-person event. It’s not as if the coaches care and based on previous years not a whole lot of media members make the trip anyway. But if this is your argument for why C-USA should potentially be the lone FBS conference to not have a traditional conference media day during a time in which a return to normalcy is being celebrated and welcomed across the country, what hope does this conference have long term? What does it say that Athletic Directors are watching their pockets so closely that they aren’t even willing to fly coaches and players to bring publicity to their respective schools and their conference?

I’m sure the fine leaders of Conference USA would have an answer but they might be too busy getting dirt out of their eyes.