ASUN expansion update, BYU bowls, NCAA reforms and more
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Rather than one big story, I feel like the last few days have given us lots of little updates on various stories this newsletter has been following. Let’s get into it.
The ASUN’s expansion plans get yet another clarification
In my last newsletter, I took a stab at trying to explain the ASUN’s potential expansion plan, one that would involve adding enough teams to create an entirely new conference that would sponsor FCS football. I reached out to folks at the ASUN, folks who follow DII football, and others.
Shortly after that published, ASUN commissioner Ted Gumbart released a Ted Talk (get it?) Youtube video that shed a little more light on what exactly the league is trying to do.
This screengrab, in my opinion, is particularly instructive:
When you look at it that way, it makes more sense, huh? Ideally, according to Gumbart, the UAC would be filled with “state institutions that play football” that are geographically close.
That doesn’t leave many schools to pick from. Most of the football schools in the Big South are private, as is Elon of the CAA. If you’re excluding HBCUs, that basically leaves you Jacksonville State, Tennessee-Martin, Austin Peay, Tennessee Tech, Western Carolina, Chattanooga, and East Tennessee State at the current FCS level. I think it would be difficult to get to eight for the UAC without promoting some other DII programs (West Florida? Alabama-Huntsville? West Georgia? Valdosta?).
Expanding to a larger geographic area could give you more options, but also weakens the ASUN’s pitch to prospective schools. After all, if you’re trying to get schools to leave their current conference home to save money, you can’t make them go to Kentucky and New Jersey or West Texas.
I don’t know if the ASUN can actually pull this off, given the available inventory, but it should probably concern fans of schools in the Big South and Ohio Valley, no? If North Alabama and Kennesaw depart the Big South, suddenly that FCS league only has five schools, and some of those programs might want to make some decisions about whether they want to keep playing scholarship FCS football. Would some go to the Pioneer League? Try to backfill spots in the OVC or Southern league created by the ASUN/UAC?
These sorts of realignment stories always have impacts on multiple leagues. It almost certainly won’t impact much at the FBS level, but if you’re a fan of FCS football in the south, an aggressive ASUN/UAC campaign could upend a lot of apple carts.
I do understand the hypothetical appeal of the ASUN’s proposal a little more though. Having a “partner” league makes a lot of sense at the FCS/Mid-Major level. You can have a built-in out of conference scheduling option and travel consolidations, sort of like how the Patriot League and Ivy League operate or perhaps work even more closely. One ASUN source told me they hadn’t even ruled out sharing a commissioner between the ASUN/UAC. Is that allowed? Who knows!
I don’t know the ins and outs of every FCS school to handicap how likely it is that this actually happens. But it’s certainly a story worth monitoring.
BYU’s new ESPN deal is official…and potentially involves lots of Shreveport
Extra Points readers knew months ago that BYU was going to renew their deal with ESPN. BYU basically confirmed it during their Media Days. It wasn’t exactly a state secret.
But now it’s official official. And while the school didn’t release the financial terms of the deal (if you know them and want to share,,,I have Signal), they did release a few interesting new details.
The TL;DR is that BYU and ESPN are locked in through 2026, unless BYU decides to join a conference before then, giving the Cougars some additional financial and logistical stability as it faces the next few years.
There are a few nice wins for BYU here, in my opinion. For one, unlike the AAC, or any other G5 football league that works with ESPN, BYU doesn’t have to put any home games on ESPN+. They’ll still have one on byuTV each season, but that’s free, if you feel the need to watch BYU play North Alabama next year or something. I’m sure BYU could have earned more money if they were willing to put some content behind a paywall, but if your major goal is truly exposure, then keeping your games free and easily accessible is a major victory.
ESPN bought the rights to at least four BYU home games a season, and per the release, at least three of those will be on ABC, ESPN or ESPN2. Given that BYU also plays road games against several P5 programs, the Cougars are going to play on national TV a lot, especially in September and October.
The big drawback, in my opinion, is with bowl access, but that’s been a tradeoff since BYU decided to go independent. Per the deal, BYU is guaranteed a spot in an ESPN-owned bowl game in 2020, 2022 and 2024, provided they win at least six games. In 2021, 2023 and 2025, the Cougars are locked into the Independence Bowl, located in Shreveport, Louisiana.
BYU expects at least one of those Independence Bowl trips to actually become trips to the Cheez-It Bowl in Arizona, which would make much more sense. Considering the location and probable opponent (either a Conference USA opponent or a team from the Pac-12), that doesn’t scream like a must-grab ticket. A BYU-Cal or BYU-Marshall game in northern Louisiana in late December sounds awful.
I think if you’re going to go independent in the mid-2020s, you’re trading bowl flexibility for schedule flexibility.
BYU is going to get at least five P5-ish caliber opponents each season for the foreseeable future but probably won’t get one in a bowl game (even the bulk of the ESPN owned games usually feature G5 schools). If you can host USC in September, do you care if your bowl opponent is Southern Miss or Mississippi State? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. Maybe there’s something discouraging about knowing where you’ll be bowling by the 7th week of the season, maybe not.
If my team was never going to win a national title or seriously compete for a playoff spot, I’d rather seem them play as many big games as possible, even if those games are in September instead of December, but that’s just me.
If Boise State, or a team of comparable quality, decided to go independent in the near future, I bet they’d end up with a similar arrangement.
Can NCAA critics keep it all together?
This seems like a pretty good time to be an NCAA reformer-type, right? States all over the country are passing NIL laws, public opinion of the NCAA has cratered, and almost every sportswriter under 40 is constantly attacking them. All the momentum seems to be with those pushing for change.
That’s all well and good in the short term, but what if there isn’t a true consensus among the folks pushing for change?
The Intercollegiate recently wrote a fascinating examination of the different potential fault lines emerging among various NCAA critics, and I’ve been thinking about it for days. It’s long, but if you really care about what meaningful changes to the NCAA status quo might look like, I think it’s worth digesting. Grab a beverage and open up another tab. I’ll wait.
From those who worry about athletes coming away with too little from the multi-billion-dollar industry they labor in; to those who worry about athletes getting away with too much; to those who care about gender equity among athletes; to those fighting to subordinate athletics to the educational mission of universities; to, well, name your beef with college sports, and someone’s out there beefing about it, too—all of these factions are trying to inhabit what is, if not yet a big tent, a diverse and potentially unruly one.
Nearly everyone in this story — from the more conservative college sports reformers to the most nihilistic — agree on this much: the NCAA sucks, and irredeemably so. Most also agree that the current system of college sports selectively serves to enrich a small, elite group of rich, primarily white, men. Beyond that, in diagnosing the underlying disorder or prescribing its most effective remedy, it gets complicated.
Each new crack in the governing body’s armor creates different ideas on how to exploit it for the betterment of athletes, the broader university communities, the taxpayers who underwrite much of the college sports infrastructure, and even the sports themselves.
Getting lots of people to agree there is a problem is hard enough, and I think NCAA critics have done a pretty amazing job advancing the national conversation about fairness, amateurism and markets over the last decade or so. But figuring out what to do next, and how, is a much more complicated question.
Do you push to engage with college presidents, athletic directors and lawmakers? Do you focus reform efforts primarily on economic rights, or do you focus on health care and player wellness? What about academic fraud? Gender equity issues? Can you afford to take a broad, intersectional approach, when maybe the public or other stakeholders haven’t completely caught up to that? Can you afford not to?
These are hard questions! And I couldn’t help but think this comparison, made by Ohio University associate professor B. David Ridpath, is pretty apt:
The clashes between reformers can resemble — if not serve as proxies for — the kind of friendly fire one finds rivening the political Left ahead of November. “Using the Democratic Party as an example here, they have one goal, and that’s to beat Donald Trump,” Ridpath says. “And at some point in time they’re going to come together to do that. If they undermine each other, they’re going to lose out on that goal.”
I follow and read many of the people quoted in this story, all of whom approach their NCAA critiques from different angles, and while I don’t always agree with all of them all of the time, I certainly appreciate what they’re bringing to the conversation. But I don’t think I could tell you who I think is “right”, because I honestly don’t know.
I do know that getting large, entrenched organizations, be that a government, business, church, or the NCAA, to make big changes is really difficult, and takes a lot of time and energy.
Right now, maybe the biggest fights are just on Twitter, on the group texts of various economists and academics.
But as legislative proposals become less hypothetical and more concrete, maybe those divisions become even starker.
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