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A few weeks ago, I wrote that my sources were telling me the Missouri Valley Conference was considering an interesting new strategy. While many low and mid-major conferences are considering expansion strategies that will contract their geographic footprint, allowing them to save money on travel, the MVC was considering expanding theirs, by kicking the tires on adding a school completely outside of their current Midwestern-heavy footprint.
Will that 100% end up happening? I don't know. But I do know some of those conversations have happened. And now, I have a receipt.
I filed an Open Records request to one of the schools I was told could be under consideration, the University of Texas at Arlington, currently a member of the Sun Belt. I asked for all communication between their university president and/or athletic director and representatives of the Missouri Valley Conference over the last six months via email, phone, or Zoom.
And lo and behold, there were responsive records.
On December 7, 2020, Missouri Valley Commissioner Doug Elgin sent the following email to Jim Baker, athletic director at Texas-Arlington:
Subject: Please call when convenient
With all of the rumored realignment that is in social media and in conversations, I wanted to see if we could have a very brief discussion.
I know the pandemic has given us all more than we can handle, and understand how overwhelmed all of you on the campus ‘front lines’ are… please call anytime that is convenient – thank you.
Roughly an hour later, Baker responded to Elgin:
I’ll call you later this afternoon on calls till around 3:00 hope your good.
Additional correspondence in this email chain was redacted by the UT-Arlington records department, as "is confidential under section 552.117 of the Texas Government Code."
I reached out to the UT-Arlington athletic department to ask about this particular phone call. Rather than respond to my questions directly, a department spokesperson provided me the following statement, attributed to athletic director Jim Baker:
UT Arlington Athletics is a proud member of the Sun Belt Conference, and our department’s on-going mission is to help strengthen the brand of the league with our successes on and off the playing surfaces. However, we are acutely aware of the ever-changing landscape of collegiate athletics, and conference realignment is – and has been – a driving force in that change. With that reality in place, we are constantly evaluating and conversing about UTA’s position relative to our peers. We are located in a national top-5 media market with a growing population and fertile recruiting base. Those factors, among others, make UTA attractive to many; however, every decision we make is with the best interest of our student-athletes, department and university at the forefront of our minds.
When I reached out to the Missouri Valley Conference for comment, conference commissioner Doug Elgin provided the following statement to Extra Points:
We have experienced membership change twice in the past 10 years, and I can assure you that we are always monitoring the landscape, and looking at growth opportunities that can strengthen our league. We have a membership working group that is comprised of a subset of our university presidents, and this group has always been thoughtful in their analysis of potential threats and opportunities. But right now, I have nothing specific to say about any institution.
Conspicuously absent in either of these provided statements: a denial that either party is interested in changes or having conversations about different configurations.
Representatives of the Sun Belt Conference did not respond to multiple requests for comment by press time, but I will update this space and tweet out their response should they respond.
Did the MVC reach out to any other schools?
I sent out similar records requests to Murray State and Cleveland State, but both schools told me they did not have any responsive records. Other theoretical candidates for MVC expansion, like Belmont University or Denver University, are private schools and thus not subject to records requests. Another possible candidate, Austin Peay University, is in Tennessee, a state that limits records requests to Tennessee residents.
Having tracked conference realignment changes for a few years, I can tell you that it would be relatively uncommon for a university to release communication between university leaders and other conference leaders beyond an introductory type email published above, as many states would consider such conversations privileged communications (I didn't get any emails relating to WAC expansion until after the official WAC press conference, for example).
I do not believe that the absence of a responsive record automatically means no conversations are happening or have happened. But you have to file the request anyway.
Why would the MVC want to do this?
As Commissioner Elgin mentioned in his statement to me, the MVC has lost two members (Creighton and Wichita State) over the last decade. Like many leagues, it would make sense for them to be proactive and have at least exploratory conversations. After all, you never know if one of your institutions could leave.
In my previous story, I wrote that one reason the MVC was particularly interested in expanding their Midwestern footprint was recruiting. Not just in the recruiting of talented athletes, although that is certainly a reason, but in recruiting students. Additional exposure in a large, new metro region could improve out-of-state student recruitment efforts for regional public institutions that could use more tuition dollars. Even if travel costs increased, an Indiana State or an Illinois State wouldn't need to recruit very many students from say, Texas, or Colorado, in order to at least break even. Out-of-state tuition is a powerful force.
UT-Arlington struggled a bit on the court last season (13-13, #253 in KenPom, well worse than any other MVC team), but they have been a quality program in recent memory. The Mavericks won at least twenty games in three consecutive seasons in 2015-2018 and won 24 in 2011-2012.
For what it's worth, Loyola was a pretty average Horizon League men's basketball program before they joined the MVC. After an acclimation period, the Ramblers became a wildly successful program, making a Final Four and a Sweet 16 run, while giving other conference schools additional exposure to Chicago. Perhaps some league leaders see a template that could potentially be applied to other urban institutions.
Why would UT-Arlington want to do this?
For one, the MVC is a better men's basketball league.
The MVC's 2021 RPI was 11th last season, while the Sun Belt was 15th. According to WalterNolan.com, the MVC has been ranked at least three spots higher than the Sun Belt since the 2016-2017 season, when the MVC was only one spot ahead. The MVC has boasted a superior conference RPI in every season over the last decade.
Because the MVC regularly competes for multiple NCAA Men's Tournament bids, there may be the potential for increased conference distribution money as well. According to UT-Arlington's FY20 FRS report, the school claimed $185,000 in conference distributions and roughly $250,000 in NCAA distributions. MVC member Northern Iowa, in FY20, reported $580,000 in conference distributions and $685,544 in NCAA distributions. Other MVC institutions claimed similar conference and NCAA distribution amounts in FY19.
These numbers come from the Extra Points FOIA Directory.
You could even potentially make an argument for institutional fit. Most Sun Belt institutions play FBS football, and have the athletic department budgets to support it. UT-Arlington doesn't have a football team at all, and with a budget of roughly $16 million a season, is a substantially smaller department than most of their conference peers. Even though many MVC schools also play FCS football (and some at a high level!), their total athletic department budgets are typically closer to $16 million than $36 million.
Institutional fit can be tough to define. UT-Arlington, by many definitions, is a very different school than say, Drake or Evansville. But depending on how the school defined fit for their athletic department, one could argue that the MVC might be a better fit for a basketball-centric institution.
Is this all 100% happening?
No, I can't say that for certain.
What I can tell you is that I was previously told that the MVC is kicking the tires on expanding the league footprint. Then I found an email that showed the MVC talking to a school outside of its footprint. Then I gave both the school and the league an opportunity to deny there was potential interest on either side, and both sides declined to do so, which is newsworthy.
I don't expect any final decisions to happen in the immediate future, and I don't think I have enough information, at least right now, to confidently predict exactly how this will end.
But it's worth keeping an eye on whatever the Missouri Valley or the Sun Belt decide to do. And hey, if a big-time Mid-Major league decides to buck conventional wisdom and get bigger, rather than smaller, well, who knows? Maybe other leaders will wonder if it's worth taking a second look at that conventional wisdom after all.
Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.
I've mentioned this before, but I have a LOT of discount packages available for folks who still have college email addresses. I work with a lot of schools, some who use Extra Points as a textbook or classroom discussion supplement. Others buy bulk subscriptions across their athletic department.
Once I get a critical mass of subscribers from a particular school, I set up a 50% discount code that ANYBODY affiliated with that school can use. To see if your school is listed, check out the full list here.
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I'm still giving away some big prize packs once Extra Points clears 5,000 free subs. We're about 80 away. Next week, I'll share more info on what'll be in those prize packs, but I promise you, you're gonna want one.
Okay! Let's talk about the latest podcast, one I'm particularly excited about.
Let's talk about esports
More and more of the athletic and university leaders I talk to are interested in esports programs. It isn't because your sitting AD is a secret gamer...I can't say I've talked to any major leader who admits to playing any video games right now. It's because they've come to realize that esports can further many of the same university goals that an athletic department can.
Need to recruit more male students? Need to find new ways to retain and engage students on campus? Sure, you can start a football team. But it's way cheaper to start an esports program. Heck, not only is it cheaper, but in a year or two, your esports program could kick Alabama's ass, even if you're some tiny liberal arts college with a 2,000 student enrollment. That's not happening in uh, any other sport.
It's not an accident that a lot of the schools who have been innovators in the esports space are not your Ohio States and Notre Dames, but your Peach Belt schools, your MAC schools, your Northeastern D-IIs, and your Mountain West programs. These are the institutions that need to grow enrollment, and want to be nationally competitive in something that doesn't require a $10 million dollar down payment.
But with that rush of administrator interest, comes complications. Do university leaders know how to actually build an esports program, when most of them don't know Twitch from a Nintendo Switch? Can club sports officials help run these teams, despite the esports model being REALLY different from traditional college sports? Is this a real gold rush, or is it fool's gold?
To better understand, Bryan and I talked to Alan Ignacio at San Jose State. Alan helped found the esports program at SJSU, and cheerfully talked to us about all of those issues, along with:
- How to improve equity and diversity in esports
- How schools should define success with their esports program
- What a school should actually spend their money on if they want to build a quality program
- Whether match fixing or gambling could become a problem in collegiate esports
- Why Hawaii is at a disadvantage in esports AND conventional sports
- Whether more money coming into the system is actually a good thing...and who really owns college esports anyway?
I learned a lot, and I'm excited to keep following along with this story. I doubt this will be the last time we podcast or write about collegiate esports.
You can subscribe to our podcast, Going For Two, right here.
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