The latest on D-1 conference realignment updates: The WAC, Southland, America East and more:
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Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.
It’s great to be back! It was nice to take a few days off of writing, giving me a chance to spend a little time in the woods and in the garage. But I also spent that time getting organized, working on a few exciting, big-time changes to Extra Points, and making a bunch of phone calls.
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After one of the most breakneck sprints in modern college sports history, the sports calendar is about to finally let up a little bit. The college basketball season is over, FCS spring football is winding down, and most schools only have a few more weeks of hosting a gazillion athletic events at once.
There’s still plenty going on of course, especially on the NCAA/amateurism front, but the transition from April to May represents a chance for many in college sports to at least catch their breath for a second.
That also gives administrators a chance to look closer at big-picture problems that maybe they just didn’t have the bandwidth to properly address a few months ago…problems like conference realignment and classification.
I expect news on this front to pick up a bit and continue into the summer. Here’s a little bit of what I’m hearing on that front right now.
Here’s what I’m hearing about the WAC
Back in January, once the last wave of WAC expansion became official, the league announced they would continue to look for a 14th member. Ideally, that 14th member would sponsor FCS football, share some institutional commonalities with the rest of the league, and would align geographically with the Texas schools.
That doesn’t leave a huge list of potential candidates. Multiple industry sources tell me one of those candidates is Incarnate Word. UIW is being formally vetted by the league, a process that would include campus visits.
On one hand, UIW makes plenty of sense. There aren’t many Texas schools currently playing FCS football, and San Antonio would be an attractive geographic market (and one with easy access to an airport, which matters at this level). UIW’s portfolio of currently sponsored spots also fits in well with the WAC.
But there are significant potential obstacles as well. After all, there’s a reason UIW wasn’t involved in the Texas 4 exodus to begin with, and given how acrimonious the Texas 4 departures were, UIW will need to smooth over hurt feelings. I’m also told that UIW’s facility situation is a concern, as well as the trajectory of their Men’s Basketball program. With the rest of the additions, the WAC has designs on being a very strong mid-major basketball conference, and per KenPom, IUW has been one of the worst programs in the country over the last few seasons.
I don’t think it’s fair to say that this is a done deal by any stretch of the imagination. But I do feel comfortable stating that UIW would like to be in this league, which would be yet another blow to the Southland. More on them in a bit.
What about UTRGV starting a program?
Communication immediately surrounding the official WAC press conferences suggested that UTRGV was going to start an FCS program, but UTRGV officials stressed that nothing was imminent. I continue to believe that they’re telling the truth. FCS football could very well start at the school, and there are still plenty of people in the community and around campus that would like the school to do it. But these things take time, especially in a post COVID world.
I know there was a lot of internet speculation around UTRGV’s previous feasibility study, but after studying that document myself, and talking to individuals familiar with its creation, I can pretty confidently state it isn’t a plug and play study. For one, much of the data is indexed around the idea of UTRGV eventually joining the Sun Belt (remember, WAC football wasn’t a thing six years ago). I’m also told that some of the methods originally proposed to finance the entire project are not currently available. The biggest question that must be answered in starting a D-I football program is who is going to pay for it.
Could it happen? Sure. But I do not have reason to believe that the WAC is banking on it to happen in the short term.
Are there other potential WAC candidates?
The program most commonly mentioned as a potential WAC candidate is West Texas A&M, a D-II program that currently competes in the Lone Star Conference. Other Lone Star programs, like Angelo State and Texas A&M-Commerce, have also been mentioned as potential candidates to move up to D-I.
What any of those programs do is hard for me to handicap at the moment. I’ve been told that senior leaders at West Texas are torn, as a move to D-1 could trigger a series of events that could split up the Lone Star Conference and damage the viability of D-II football at other schools, something they do not want to do. A reclassification decision isn’t just a purely athletic or even financial one, but also a deeply political decision.
I do not have any reason to believe that any current Big Sky schools, like Northern Arizona, Northern Colorado, or Weber State, are considering a jump to the WAC at this time.
What’s the Southland going to do?
The Southland is looking to reinforce its membership after losing four schools to the WAC and another important program, Central Arkansas, to the ASUN.
I’m told that as of right now, Southland efforts are squarely focused on current D-I institutions, particularly schools currently competing in the SWAC, like Texas Southern, Prairie View A&M, and Grambling.
The folks I’m talking to do not expect those efforts to be successful, and to be honest, I agree with them.
If the Southland isn’t able to lure any SWAC schools, in my view, the way forward gets murkier. The conference could decide to focus on D-II candidates, either from the Lone Star or perhaps larger state schools in the Gulf South. The league could potentially completely rebrand, moving their league offices out of Texas, and building around a different geographical footprint. Or, perhaps, the larger brands will simply decide to join other leagues, like the ASUN.
Conference comeback stories do happen. The WAC was completely left for dead a few years ago, after all. But as of right now, I think it’s harder to imagine the Southland as a *stronger* league than it was two years ago once all the dust settles. And maybe there wouldn’t even be a Southland at all.
Could we see schools reclassify *down*?
Last week, WTNH in Connecticut reported that the University of Hartford commissioned a study that recommended the school reclassify to D-III.
I am told that as of right now, nothing is imminent and no final decisions have been made re: Hartford’s classification. I also know that Hartford has not told the America East central office that they intend to leave the league.
My understanding is that Hartford isn’t the only school in New England that has asked for outside advice. I don’t necessarily think there are other D-I schools in the region explicitly wondering if they ought to drop to a different level, but I do think the Overton Window has shifted in senior administrative offices. If nothing else, there’s an increasing curiosity to know “okay, so just what would happen, hypothetically, if we DID move to D-III?”
I’ll admit that the quotes from Hartford’s president in this story do not appear to give a ringing endorsement about their long-term D-I future, but I think, as of right now, it is premature to shovel dirt on the program. I will say this though…if Hartford does decide to leave, and America East decides to replace them, they’ll approach that search from a position of strength. I anticipate several schools would be interested.
I’ll have more about this story later this week.
New England is going to be an interesting place to watch over the next year or so, since it’s ground zero for a lot of big changes in higher education. Tuition-dependent institutions without elite pedigrees are going to face even stronger competition for enrollment dollars, and those pressures are likely to be stronger in New Jersey and Connecticut than they might be in say, Texas.
Those pressures could encourage a D-II school to move *up*, hoping to earn more marketing exposure, like New Haven is attempting to do. It might also encourage a D-1 school to move *down*, in an attempt to get off the steep cost curve in D-I. From the CAA to the NEC to the AE to the MAAC and beyond, don’t be surprised to see shuffling, or strong rumors of shuffling, as schools reevaluate what they want, and what’s financially possible, with their athletic departments.
Which brings me to an interesting possibility with the Missouri Valley
I’ve written for months that the biggest conference realignment trend is about a desire to control costs. Whenever possible, schools are increasingly wanting to reduce travel expenses and find better institutional alignment with their conference peers. Think more bus leagues, less Airplane Conference.
But multiple industry sources have recently told me that there might be another, perhaps counterintuitive motive creeping in for some leagues.
Let us consider the Missouri Valley basketball conference for a moment. As leagues go, it is pretty geographically confined, centered around the Midwest.
It’s also a league with a lot of regional institutions and private schools with more modest budgets, not massive state flagships. And, outside of recent addition Loyola, it’s not much of an urban conference.
I’ve been hearing that the league would like to expand to 12 basketball playing members. Under the cost-control / institutional-alignment model, you’d probably expect any expansion candidates to closely align to the current Midwestern footprint…think Horizon League, for example, or Ohio Valley Conference.
And hey, that’s certainly possible. Cleveland State was a name that popped up in a few conversations, as has Murray State.
But two different industry insiders told me to watch for the MVC to potentially grab a school considerably *outside* of the Midwest. Think Texas. Think elsewhere in the South.
The thinking, as I understand it, is that travel concerns are somewhat mitigated if the expansion candidate is near a major city (and major airport). Gaining access to a new “market” might have some fringe benefits in future media deals, but the bigger prize is the ability to advertise MVC schools in that metropolitan area, which could make it easier to recruit new athletes and regular students.
For what it’s worth, the Missouri Valley used to stretch way further south. North Texas, Tulsa and New Mexico State were all former members. And the league’s new commissioner, Jeff Jackson, was a long-time Big 12 staffer. That footprint would not be completely foreign.
Jackson doesn’t officially take over until July, so I wouldn’t expect to break on this front tomorrow or anything. But it’s an interesting idea, and potentially a new argument to consider when evaluating realignment rumors and proposals. Going small can save you money and potentially help you sell tickets.
But maybe, in the right circumstances, it might still pay off to get bigger.
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