The Return of the WAC is now official. Here are some final-ish thoughts on what it means for everybody.
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I’ve got a few other announcements, but let’s get to the newsletter, and I’ll share the rest of those at the end.
It’s officially official. The WAC is back.
Extra Points readers have known about this for a little while, but conference realignment decisions aren’t official official until the ink is dried and the press conference finishes.
That’s exactly what happened yesterday, as WAC leadership formally announced the addition of Southern Utah, Abilene Christian, Sam Houston State, Lamar and Stephen F Austin. The conference now officially has 13 institutions, seven of which sponsor football, which means the WAC is back in the pigskin business.
There were a few nuggets that I picked up from this presser that maybe weren’t as widely known:
- WAC football is scheduled to begin this fall season, although Southern Utah will not join the league until 2022. This was not the original plan, but a few days ago, the Southland voted to terminate their relationship with the four Texas schools at the end of this academic year, rather than letting them compete in a lame-duck season. I’m told the conversations between Southland leaders and the departing Texas schools got “acrimonious.” Other sources have used more colorful language to describe the tenor of those conversations, but I’m trying to cuss a little less on this newsletter, so let’s go with acrimonious.
- Because of that expedited timeline, it’s possible that the WAC may not have an automatic qualifier for the FCS Playoffs during that first campaign. The league office is evaluating their options, which could potentially include a waiver request, but honestly, I suspect that’s all moot. Even though some WAC schools are likely to struggle at the FCS level this fall, whoever wins this league is going to get a playoff bid. Over time, it’s possible the WAC could even support multiple playoff bids.
- The WAC will pursue a 14th league member, one that sponsors football, and ideally, one that would align geographically with the Texas schools, and would share some commonality as far as institutional size and budget. After asking around, my reading between the lines is that’s probably bad news for Augustana, a D-II school in South Dakota that has sought entry into the league. I don’t believe Augustana’s path to a D-1 conference has closed, but I think an immediate WAC invite is less likely.
Well, who could that extra football school be? It probably won’t be an internal candidate
I saw internet speculation about three different WAC schools eventually starting football: Utah Valley, Grand Canyon, and UTRGV.
On Thursday morning, I received a copy of an email Sam Houston State’s athletic director emailed to supporters, ahead of the press conference. That email stated that “UTRGV has provided a letter of intent to begin an FCS program effective preferably with the 2023 season and no later than the 2024 season.” I don’t believe I was the only media outlet to notice that email.
When pressed, neither WAC Commissioner Jeff Hurd or senior leadership at UTRGV indicated that anything was imminent. While Hurd noted that UTRGV has studied the issue before and that such a football addition would be welcomed, the current Texas expansion strategy does not require them to start a program. Senior UTRGV officials reiterated in a later breakout session that the school had only begun the process, and nothing was finalized yet.
Could it happen? Sure. Would it make sense? I can’t pretend I’m an expert on UTRGV, but on a superficial level, I understand the reasoning. Is it a stone-cold lock to happen, particularly on that timetable? I don’t think so. At least, not yet.
I’ve nothing to indicate that Utah Valley is close to starting a team, and Grand Canyon’s president straight up denied it during the press conference.
Honestly, I thought he made a pretty good point when he explained why he wasn’t in favor of football
My transcription here isn’t perfect, so please forgive this paraphrase, but when asked, Grand Canyon President Brian Mueller pointed out that many other FCS programs have been sponsoring football for decades and decades, and have established a pattern of fan and donor support. It’s very difficult and expensive to build all of that again from scratch, and he felt trying to do so would detract from the school’s basketball-centric identity and mission.
On paper, you’d think if anybody could pull this off, Grand Canyon would be a good candidate. Thanks to a substantial distance learning population, GCU has plenty of money. They already have a fanbase that supports live events. They’re in a growing metro area and don’t face massive in-market competition. And yet, they don’t think it makes sense.
I honestly think that’s the right move. The track record for building football completely from scratch and then finding success and fan support over the last twenty years isn’t great. Conference USA brands, schools that enjoy more resources and exposure, have mostly struggled in this department. It’s not impossible, but it’s just very hard, and if you’re already doing well elsewhere, it just may not be worth the money. Especially now.
What about Chicago State?
I wrote earlier this week that Chicago State was expected to announce they were leaving the WAC in 2022. On Thursday, the school confirmed that timetable. In their press release, the school says they plan to remain a D-I institution.
Looking ahead, Chicago State Athletics is focused on building a competitive foundation across our programs that is a part of #OurChampionshipEra as Chicago’s only Southside NCAA Division I institution
The press release also states that “Chicago State University is actively exploring conference options for the future.”
As of right now, I don’t think there are any particularly likely options at the D-1 level, but it is also likely that there will be additional conference realignment before 2022. Could something happen that could create a spot for Chicago State? It’s unlikely, but at least possible. Winning some games and projecting more institutional and financial stability certainly couldn’t hurt.
My biggest takeaway? These moves aren’t just about football. They aren’t even just about containing travel costs. They’re about identity.
I’m not sure how this story ends, but for now, it’s hard to think of this press conference and this expansion as anything other than a massive success story.
Five years ago, it was an open question as to whether this league was going to survive. The league had no unifying geographic, institutional or competitive identity. Everybody either looked like a candidate for getting poached or a candidate to drop out of college athletics altogether.
Now, the league is in a position of relative strength. They’re going to have options over future expansion candidates, and now have the membership depth to survive departures.
And most importantly, we know what the league is now.
For starters, this is a Texas league. The WAC has more D-I schools in Texas than any other conference, and could very well have even more. The league will use divisional play for many sports, meaning some of these new additions could potentially play almost an entire regular season without leaving the state.
It’s also a Utah league. They have more Utah schools than any other conference. That portfolio includes the largest school in the state (Utah Valley) and the fastest-growing metro in the state (St.George and Dixie State). Given how the US population is shifting, especially away from places like my beloved Rust Belt and towards the South and West, Utah and Texas are pretty good places to have in your footprint.
It’s going to be a real basketball league. Led by New Mexico State, the WAC enjoyed a league RPI in the 15/16 range over the last two seasons. Long-term, the league would like to reach as high as 12, which would put it in the conversation to occasionally earn an at-large NCAA Tournament bid. That’s an ambitious goal and one that would require significant improvement from schools like Lamar and Southern Utah, but not an impossible one. This should be a solid college basketball conference.
All of this stuff is important! It’s important to media partners, and it isn’t an accident that the WAC’s contract with ESPN is about to expire. It matters when you’re trying to market your league to fans, corporate partners, and the general public. It matters when you’re trying to maintain stability, and grow a shared history. Your league has to be more than just a collection of schools that want to play each other. You need a shared mission, purpose…something in common besides “we want to stay in D-1.”
Not everybody has that right now. I believe that the leagues that don’t have those institutional connections and share history will struggle to sell tickets, and even struggle to retain membership. We’ve seen that throughout college athletic history.
I don’t think the WAC’s story is finished. I expect additional membership changes over the next several years. It’s entirely possible systemic changes in college athletics could upset whatever grand plans they’re building.
But they’ve given themselves a chance. That’s exciting for them, exciting for their member schools, and exciting for their fans.
They know what they are. And that’s an important first step.
Just a few other small announcements and we wrap up and head into the weekend:
1) I’m rejiggering my publishing schedule a bit, both to get this last bit of WAC news in, and to give space for some other stories I have planned. My goal is to share our next community interview early next week. Moving forward, it’s possible this isn’t a weekly feature, but it will be very regular.
2) I still have a few more signed copies of my book, What If for sale. They’re $16, and I accept Venmo (Matt-Brown-EP), PayPal or good ol’ fashioned mailed check. Please DM me or email [email protected] if you’d like a copy.
3) I have a lot of readers working for universities right now. Awesome! I absolutely love to see it. Remember, I give bulk discounts to schools that have at least six subscribers. Please shoot me an email to [email protected], and I’d be happy to set up your 50% discount code. That code is good for athletics staff, students, academics…anybody.
Thanks again for your readership and support. It’s lonely out here as a one-man operation!
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