Conference Realignment Updates: WAC, Patriot, Big Ten and more
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I’ve got a few more announcements at the end of the newsletter. But for now, let’s dig right into what has become one of my favorite little niches in the great college athletics internet. Conference realignment rumors.
Could the Patriot League expand?
When I launched Extra Points, I didn’t expect to write so much about William & Mary, but well, things just keep happening over there.
Via Richmond.com, Interim William & Mary AD Jeremy Martin commented on chatter tying the Tribe to the Patriot League:
“I do hear the Patriot League conversation quite a bit,” Jeremy Martin, W&M’s interim athletic director, said Wednesday.
“Sometimes I think people think that that’s a quick fix for competing with those peers,” Martin said of potential PL membership. “I would simply offer as well, it’s been a lot of fun to see rivalries start to develop with Patriot League teams in recent years.
Martin didn’t say that William & Mary is considering a jump to the Patriot League. But he certainly didn’t shoot that idea down, only adding a tepid:
“I hear the (Patriot League) conversation, and get why people would look and consider those sorts of things, but don’t know that it’s quite as cut and dried as folks might like to think.”
So if you want to try and shoot a conference realignment rumor down, well, that isn’t how you do it. It certainly wasn’t a full-throated commitment to the CAA, long-term.
I reached out to a handful of folks over the weekend that follow William & Mary and the Patriot League closely. Nobody told me that they believe any move is imminent, but I also didn’t hear from a single person who thought such a move would be implausible. As far as realignment rumors go, I feel comfortable saying this one at least passes the sniff test.
On one hand, It’s not hard to see what the Tribe would get out of joining the Patriot
The William & Mary community has made it very clear over the last month that they value having an athletic department that prioritized multiple athletic offerings, rather than singular success in football or basketball. It would be easier to financially support a broad-based athletic department in a league like the Patriot, where travel costs are relatively contained, and where nobody is dropping $80 million dollars on their athletic department. It might even be a little easier to finally make the Men’s Basketball NCAA Tournament, something William & Mary has never done.
There’s an academic and cultural fit too. Sure, outside of Army and Navy, everybody else in the Patriot is a private school, but they’re also clearly academically-oriented, and I’m not just saying that because I began my own academic career at a Patriot League school. In many ways, William & Mary probably has more in common with a Bucknell or a Holy Cross than they might with some CAA schools.
Athletically, it would be a step-down. The CAA is one of the, if not the best, FCS football leagues in the country. No disrespect to the Patriot League, but…there’s a pretty big difference between James Madison football and Georgetown football. The Patriot is a one-bid league.
The big question to me, is why now? If taking a small step down in athletics to better align with your university mission and identity was on the table, why alienate your entire campus community by cutting sports and trying to increase funding in football and men’s basketball? If William & Mary had pursued a Patriot-focused strategy say, three years ago, there wouldn’t be angst over attempts to drop sports, their AD wouldn’t have been fired, and so much drama could have been avoided.
To spend so much political and financial capital, only to essentially pivot the opposite direction just a few years later, feels like a waste. If that isn’t a potential option, then why not quash the rumors or speculation now?
I don’t expect movement on this tomorrow or anything, but this is a situation worth monitoring. I’ve already written that the CAA is facing a bit of an identity crisis, and membership there could potentially look different in a year or two. Maybe this ends up being the first domino. Maybe the school decided to talk about realignment in an attempt to change the subject from inquiries over athletic department financiers (if that was the case, well, I’m still gonna write about that pretty soon). Who knows?
My unsolicited advice though? If the Patriot League does add William & Mary, and needs another team…go grab Howard. Do something bold.
What’s the latest on the WAC?
So first, here’s what I know. Southern Utah is still expected to join the WAC. I also know that the WAC has targeted multiple institutions in the Southland Conference, with those talks centering around Stephen F. Austin, Lamar, Sam Houston State, and Abilene Christian. I also know that the remaining Texas-based Southland institutions, Houston Baptist and Incarnate Word, are not being considered for the WAC.
As of Sunday, November 1st, I do not believe anything out of the Southland institutions is official.
I can also tell you that I filed open records requests for correspondence between athletic department and WAC officials at Southern Utah, SFA, Sam Houston and Lamar. SUU, SFA and SHU all denied that request, not because those records do not exist, but because the schools consider them to be privileged communications, except under the particulars of Utah and Texas records laws. For example, this passage came from SUU:
Correspondence from the Texas State University system made similar arguments. Lamar just ignored my requests entirely.
So there’s a hell of a lot of smoke. But no fire, at least not yet. What’s the holdup?
I’ll be honest, I expected at least one of these announcements to have happened already. I believe the wait now is because all of the schools want to announce at the same time. I also believe that those five institutions are not the only schools the WAC has at least considered. Central Arkansas, and Augustana (out of D-II) could also be potential candidates, although my understanding is that neither should be considered as likely or as far along, as the others.
The benefit for the WAC seems obvious. But why would anybody else do this?
I believe there are a few reasons at play, depending on the institution.
One is a desire to control costs. Nobody is really making money at this level of FCS football. There’s no meaningful media money to secure, and ticket sales are modest. If a program believed they could field a competitive roster while potentially sponsoring a few fewer scholarships, or shaving off some travel mileage, it may be worth it, even if the Q-rating of the new league isn’t quite as high. Remember, nobody is making big money from even hosting FCS playoff games. A slightly lower Sagarin rating isn’t always as big a deal as you might think.
There’s also plain ol’ institutional fit. I don’t think it’s a massive industry secret that not every institution in the Southland sees eye on eye on every issue, or has the same needs. Let me just say this. If an institution is not happy with their current conference peers or conference leadership, at the FCS level, it may make sense to find new surroundings just to be around different peers and different leadership.
For what it’s worth, I have not heard anybody look at WAC football membership as a potential FBS springboard, especially not now, with the significant budget and infrastructure costs needed to join FBS looking especially daunting in a COVID environment. Nor do I have any reason to believe that the WAC looking to get back into football changes anything about New Mexico State’s FBS plan.
When the dust settles, I imagine we’ll see a world with a WAC football league, a slightly smaller Big Sky, and a radically different Southland. Whether the Southland decides to backfill any departures with their own expansion, or if remaining teams just decide to go elsewhere, I do not know.
I don't know if there are too many FCS leagues that’d I feel completely confident won’t change members over the next five years, to be honest. But if you’re looking for where the next bigger changes might happen first, I’d focus on the Southeast. And don’t be shocked if you see schools leaving what appears to be a “better” league for a less prestigious one.
Okay, Nebraska isn’t going to leave the Big Ten, right? Right?!?
Let us depart from the FCS ranks for a minute for a thought experiment.
It is fair to say that the Big Ten’s marriage with Nebraska has seen better days. No university was more full-throated in their opposition to the league’s original decision to postpone football than Nebraska. No school has complained about the league schedule more than Nebraska. And even after all of the other schools decided that the league would only schedule conference games, Nebraska went so far as to secure an FCS opponent, only for the league to formally tell them it wasn’t allowed.
National columnists have taken notice. It’s all pretty awkward!
Nebraska columnists and fans have been quick to point out that Nebraska is always going to loudly advocate for themselves, just like they did in the Big Eight and Big 12, even to the chagrin of more powerful conference members. Complaining in public wasn’t as big a deal to Oklahoma and Kansas State, why is it just a big deal now?
To that, I’d like to allow my good friend Raylan Givens to offer a retort.
To paraphrase my favorite TV show here, if you share a league with Texas, and they’re an asshole, well, you shared a league with an asshole. But if you join a new league and you complain that everybody else is the asshole….I have some bad news for my readers in Lincoln.
The fact is, there are some significant cultural differences here. Nebraska isn’t an AAU institution. They don’t have decades of shared institutional history that might blunt public outbursts. It’s a blood-red state with a different (and that doesn’t mean bad!) cultural attitude about athletics than other Big Ten communities. And the athletic department that the league thought it was adding just does not exist.
If Nebraska started winning, their drama would be more tolerated. If they moderated their tone and limited their complaining to closed doors like other midwesterners, it would be tolerated. I don’t think either of those things are happening.
But I don’t think divorce is really realistic. Honestly, Nebraska doesn’t have anywhere else to go.
Go back to the Big 12? Everything Nebraska didn’t like about the old Big 12 is still there. Texas and Oklahoma are still in charge. Only now, Nebraska would be leaving tens of millions of dollars a year on the table, since the Big Ten’s next media rights deal will dwarf the Big 12, and it would take years for Nebraska to get a full Big 12 media revenue share. Plus, you’d have to price in risks, like “how will my state respond to football and basketball games available only via streaming” and “what happens if Texas leaves the league?”
Once you add in the academic prestige that comes from Big Ten affiliation that doesn’t exist in the Big 12, and that the entire operation would be an admission that they made a mistake…well, that just doesn’t look very practical.
And then what else is there? Going Independent? That might seem spiritually and politically freeing, but the logistical challenges are enormous. Who will broadcast your games? Where would you park Olympic sports? How would you make up the lost revenue? How would you secure access to the Playoff?
Nobody pulls their membership from the wealthiest and most academically prestigious conference in college athletics because they’re mad at the league making it harder for them to go .500 in the middle of a global pandemic. There’s mad, and there’s FINE WE’LL PLAY BASKETBALL IN THE SUMMIT LEAGUE JUST TO NEVER THINK ABOUT NORTHWESTERN AGAIN. Nebraska is not that mad.
If Nebraska left, I can tell you that a lot of folks, from Big Ten fans to folks who work at Big Ten institutions, wouldn’t miss them. For many Nebraska fans, I think the feeling is mutual.
But practically speaking, everybody is stuck with each other right now, unless they are willing to make enormous sacrifices just out of spite. You can leave a league if you don’t like the conference office or some of your league peers, even if you have to take a “lesser” gig, if nobody is really making big money. You’ll see that at the FCS level over the coming years, I think. But the Big Ten isn’t the Big South. Nebraska’s golden handcuffs are pretty tight right now.
I think it’d be better for everybody, from Rosemont to Lincoln, if the parties could figure out a way to get along, at least in public.
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