The ASUN's ambitious expansion plan, explained:
Did you not really understand the press release? You're not alone. This might help.
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Last week, the ASUN shared an unusual press release. The TL;DR is that the league is considering expanding, and not just in the more conventional “we’ll add a team or two” sort of way, but massively. Specifically, the nine-team league is considering expanding all the way to 20 members and splitting into two completely different conferences.
The press release laid out this timeline for how they intend to do that, along with thousands of other words:
The chronological steps in this plan are:
a) ASUN Conference expands to 20 members (by June, 2023)
b) The ASUN transfers rights to the ASUN name and marks to the CCSA
c) The ASUN 7 join the CCSA (July 1, 2023)
d) The CCSA adopts the ASUN name as a multisport conference
e) The remaining ASUN members adopt the name United Athletic Conference
Clear as mud, right?
I reached out to the ASUN to double-check a few things, and I think I understand what the league is hoping to accomplish. Let me see if I can help explain what the league is thinking about doing here, and why you, detail-obsessive college football fan, may care.
First, who is the CCSA, and why are they a part of this story?
The CCSA stands for the Coastal Collegiate Sports Association. There’s a pretty good chance you haven’t heard of that league since it doesn’t sponsor football, basketball, or most other NCAA sports. It does sponsor beach volleyball, swimming, and diving. And perhaps most importantly, it is considered a Division 1 athletic conference by the NCAA.
By parking some of the new ASUN membership as multisport members of the CCSA, the ASUN can effectively create two different conferences that both have automatic qualifiers for the NCAA Tournament. Think about how the Big East/AAC split happened, or the Mountain West Conference splitting from the WAC.
NCAA bylaws require teams to share conference affiliation for a certain number of years before they can split off into their own league, while still maintaining AQ status. That’s why you have the ASUN 7 (North Florida, Stetson, NJIT, FGCU, Jacksonville, Lipscomb, and Kennesaw State) joining the CCSA, while the three newer ASUN institutions, (Liberty, North Alabama, and starting next season, Bellarmine) would be in the other league, joined by the expansion candidates.
Why is the ASUN considering creating two leagues?
I think there are two big reasons.
First, the ASUN understands the risks of being a low-major NCAA conference that doesn’t have stable membership. Five different teams have left the league since 2000, and for a while, it wasn’t totally clear the league was going to survive at all. By being aggressive in expansion, perhaps the league can create stability, or at least, box out competing leagues before they try to poach their membership.
The other reason is football. The ASUN doesn’t currently sponsor it, unlike almost every other D1 league near their footprint. A few current ASUN schools, like Kennesaw State and North Alabama, do sponsor FCS football and compete in the Big South Conference. Aggressive expansion is probably the only way the league could get enough programs under their umbrella to have a league.
This interview, released by the ASUN, makes those points pretty clear. Here’s the most telling quote, in my humble opinion:
"We are the only Division I conference in our footprint that does not sponsor football…that means we are the only one that can start football. The ability to build a new football conference primarily in the Southeast is a dominant factor.
"A second key factor is that the ASUN is well-versed in conference realignment and we recognize the need to be innovative, to be bold, and to meet the real market demands of the institutions and their students.
Under the current proposal, the plan is for the “new” ASUN, made of the ASUN 7 members (and maybe others), would not sponsor football, while the other new conference, tentatively titled the United Athletic Conference, would. An ASUN representative confirmed to me that ASUN 7 members who do sponsor FCS football, like Kennesaw State, could compete in the UAC FCS football conference.
That representative also confirmed that all ASUN expansion plans center around FCS football. There are no plans to expand to sponsor FBS football, where current member Liberty plays as an independent.
So who are some possible expansion candidates?
I asked politely several times, and nobody at the ASUN would confirm any names, or even very general categories of institutions, only saying that the league would target schools that “make them stronger”.
Here’s a few educated guesses as to where they might look:
They could look at Division II schools
I talked to a few folks I know that follow DII pretty closely, and nobody thought this was the most likely path the ASUN would take. For one, moving to FCS from DII is really expensive, and requires massive buy-in from the entire institution and booster community. It isn’t something you do flippantly.
Because it’s expensive, it usually also requires you to be at least a medium-sized institution. There are plenty of DII teams in the Southeast, including some very good ones, but many of these schools have under 3,000 students, or just don’t have a lot of money. It would be very difficult for a tiny school to make that jump.
That being said, there are three schools that on paper, could make hypothetical sense. West Florida, after all, just won the DII national title in football. Valdosta State is a well-known power in multiple sports, and West Georgia is solid as well. All three of those schools have enrollments over 10,000. Depending on how expansively you want to define the ASUN footprint, perhaps there are other candidates as well.
The last two schools to join the ASUN, Bellarmine and North Alabama, also jumped directly from DII, so there is some precedent there. But there’s unquestionably a learning curve in the DII to DI jump, and adding too many “expansion teams” could hurt the league’s marketing pitch to other current D1 institutions.
They could also look at the Big South
These two leagues already work closely together, and many institutions in both leagues have a history in the other. The league currently has eight members, but one school, Presbyterian, is leaving to join the non-scholarship Pioneer League. If two other ASUN schools (Kennesaw and North Alabama) left for the UAC, suddenly, the current six Big South schools would be looking for another home. Rather than try to compete with the UAC over DII prospects or other FCS candidates, the leagues might just merge.
The other FCS Big South members are Monmouth, Charleston Southern, Campbell, Gardner-Webb, and Hampton. Monmouth’s non-football sports are in the MAAC.
Then there are candidates elsewhere in FCS
There are a handful of other schools competing in other FCS leagues that could potentially be interested, either because of geography, shared ties with the CCSA, institutional goals, or others.
Just spitballing, those schools might include Elon (a bit of a geographical outlier in the very tough CAA), Jacksonville State (also a bit of an outlier, an Alabama school playing in the Ohio Valley), or even potentially an HBCU, like North Carolina A&T, that might be interested in playing a non-HBCU league in an attempt to elevate their profile.
Why would anybody leave their league to play in the UAC or ASUN?
Typically, schools change conferences over money. But at the FCS level, and especially at this part of the FCS level, nobody is getting fat TV rights revenue, if they’re getting TV revenue at all. And no matter how you reshuffle the deck among the several mid-major D1 leagues in the South, you probably can’t create a regular multi-bid league for the NCAA Tournament.
So the sales pitch would be less about revenue, and more about managing expenses. Here’s ASUN Commissioner Ted Gumbart, to the Naples News:
"When you have market options you have the ability to negotiate from a position of strength," Gumbart said. "I do believe that there is going to be more realignment."
"If you're not generating significant income then you have to look at managing the expenses side of the equation," Gumbart said. "If we can build a market option that will be more financially sustainable, better for the academic health of the student-athlete but still provide the guaranteed AQ (automatic NCAA qualifying) access, guaranteed scheduling opportunities, then that's what we're trying to build."
If you can offer a school more bus trips, the potential of maybe selling a few more tickets, stability, and maybe better institutional alignment, you may have a pretty compelling sales pitch, especially if there is more FCS realignment in the coming seasons, as more teams try to both join, and leave, the FCS ranks.
But the ASUN/UAC may not be the only league trying to add or poach members.
This idea also raises a lot of questions. Like what about institutional fit? Or what about Liberty?
I’ve written about this a lot on Extra Points, and probably will continue to do so. In order to be stable and successful, generally, conferences need to have shared goals and shared institutional missions. Right now, current ASUN membership only very loosely has stuff in common. It’s a mostly southeastern league….but also has a school in New Jersey, and just added another in Louisville. It has public schools and private schools, big schools and tiny schools, football-playing schools, non-scholarship football schools (like Stetson), and schools without football at all.
That identity may get even more confusing with expansion, depending on who is added, and how the leagues are ultimately split. If you’re doubling down on the southeastern identity, does NJIT decide to leave? Is it sustainable to have some schools with enrollment under 6,000 and others with an enrollment over 30,000? What about budget differences, or academic missions? Many of these target institutions have shared histories with other current ASUN members. Can they effectively reconcile their differences?
Nowhere is that more apparent than with Liberty. The Flames easily have the biggest enrollment, the biggest budget, and probably the biggest total athletic brand in the league. They play football at the FBS level, and would eventually love to be in an FBS conference. In a recent interview, Liberty’s AD said this plan “is very creative, but the practicality of it doesn’t match the creativity”, and indicated that he’s a bit more skeptical that the NCAA will even allow this proposal than folks at the ASUN offices. Probably not what you want to see if you’re the ASUN.
Liberty’s president, meanwhile, spent yesterday advocating for part of the state of Virginia to literally join West Virginia, which is the sort of thing that is unlikely to win friends and influence most college presidents.
I have no idea what Liberty will end up doing, should this ambitious proposal actually come to fruition. Will they have another all-sports home by 2023, rendering all of this moot? Will they find a home among Southern private schools, that might be more closely aligned with their institutional mission? Would they want to reunite with some former Big South institutions? A lot can change for that school by 2023.
Will this work? I don’t know! Is it interesting? Sure!
Getting to 20 schools without seriously diluting your brand, or offering fancy TV revenues, might be a difficult enough ask. Finding the right candidates to maintain some sense of geographic, institutional and financial unity, and getting the NCAA to go along with everything, might be even harder.
But hey, when you’re outside of the major power structures in college athletics, you should go bold. What’s the worst thing that could happen? It doesn’t work out and the league falls apart? That almost happened a few years ago anyway, and in a decade, it very well could again. If it works, they secure another NCAA Tournament bid for the region, give Kennesaw State a better in-conference schedule, and perhaps strengthen FCS football in an important part of the country.
Needlessly complicated? Yeah, probably. A long way from actually happening? Sure. But it’s worth keeping an eye on, in my humble opinion. If the ASUN proves to the world that it’s okay, and even worthwhile, to think ambitiously in college football, it just might catch on elsewhere.
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