San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

August 12th, 2013
Commentary: Is the Sun Belt a step down for the Bobcats?

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Continuous seismic realignments in college athletics is the new normal. Texas State is in as good a shape as it can expect for as it begins a new season in a new conference.

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The name of the game isn’t really football. It’s television. For Texas State fans wondering if this year’s move to the Sun Belt Conference is plus or minus for prestige, that means two things.

First, image does seem to be everything in this constant realignment of college football programs with conferences, but the images don’t last very long, so everything becomes nothing very quickly. The Western Athletic Conference is a good example. Venerable league. Been around for 50 years. Good rep. The computers say that, on the field, the WAC was the best of all the non-BCS conferences in 2012.

It’s 2013 now, and the WAC is gone, as a football league.

So, if you can think of places where you’d rather be than the Sun Belt, at least the Sun Belt is some place. Besides, it might not be as bad as you think, and if it does hang around for a while, it’s going to be under a different image.

The league has taken up with the consultants on a “re-branding” strategy. The league’s commissioner, Carl Benson, is forthright about it: He is competing against the other non-BCS conferences: Conference USA, the Mountain West and the Mid American Conference. But even that field is shifting. Benson used to mention the WAC in that breath. He knew the WAC was dying as he breathed it, because he actually bolted his former position as commissioner of the sinking WAC to run the Sun Belt. Now, Benson can replace “WAC” with “American 12” or whatever becomes of the football Big East, which also is a casualty of the times.

If your athletic department is smart enough and fast enough, there’s always another game to enter and more money to be made. Got a little school with a decent basketball team? Move up to Division I and get in on the riches of the NCAA Tournament. Got a ten-team league that already feeds the NCAA Tournament? Expand to 12 schools so you can have a lucrative conference championship football game. Got a 12-team league with a conference championship football game? Add a couple big markets you don’t already have, so you can increase your television footprint.

And if your athletic department isn’t constantly checking the wind, something can blow before anyone sees it. One reason the WAC went away was because member schools thought it would go away. Texas State fired the first shot, officially, by announcing its move from the WAC to the Sun Belt, but that came after realizing that the WAC would not hold. Proaction is survival. Reaction is despair. WAC members Idaho and New Mexico State, partly due to the dismal states of their football programs, now are in reaction mode. They have no place to play football.

As time moves along, a hierarchy of conferences emerges, based on which has the prestige — and earning power — to poach schools from which. The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) really started it some years ago by swiping Boston College and Miami from the Big East, but that was only possible because the Big East expanded from the success of its basketball base to become a football league for its schools that have football. That created two groups within the conference — one football and one without it. The schools in the conference had less in common, instability ensued and an established league looking for new blood saw blood in the Big East.

Now, the Big East needs new schools so it can stay viable in football. so it dips into Conference USA, which runs to the west. And as long as the Big East can’t be eastern anymore, it might as well become western, so it poaches from the Mountain West. For a good football program in a big market, like Texas Christian up in the Metroplex, it’s a buyer’s market. In the blink of an eye, TCU has moved from Conference USA to the Mountain West to the Big East to the Big 12, which is an automatic BCS bowl qualifier. The big time! But not so fast, because the Big 12 isn’t exactly the top of the food chain. It has lost programs to the expanding Big Ten, Pacific 12 and Southeastern Conference (SEC). Neither is the ACC, which loses Maryland to the Big Ten next year. No mystery. Maryland’s athletic department is struggling to pay the bills and the Big Ten is more lucrative.

The chain of change continues, finally reaching the Sun Belt Conference as of next year. With Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Louisville the Big East and escaping to the ACC, the Big East undertook a massive compensatory expansion, filching Memphis, Houston, Southern Methodist, Central Florida, Tulane and East Carolina from Conference USA, and adding Navy, formerly an independent. In so doing, the Big East, having lost market positions in Boston, New York, Pittsburgh, Miami and Louisville through the years, has replaced them with market positions in Houston, Dallas, New Orleans, Memphis and Orlando while strengthening its position in Washington, DC.

Now, Conference USA is out of most of those markets, so it dips into the Sun Belt for Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Middle Tennessee State and North Texas, thus positioning itself in Miami, Nashville and the Metrpolex. And what’s the Sun Belt supposed to do? It takes Texas State, which is positioned in Austin and San Antonio, and Georgia State in Atlanta as full members, while adding Texas-Arlington in a non-football capacity to get back into the Metroplex.

Which league is more prestigious? The Sun Belt has never been as prestigious as the WAC. But the WAC doesn’t exist anymore, and the Sun Belt does. The Sun Belt isn’t as prestigious as Conference USA, but what does that really mean? Whatever Conference USA once was, it no longer is, and the same can be said of the Sun Belt.

Here’s how each conference did last year on the field:

vs. ranked team vs BCS-qualifying
vs. non-qualifying
Sun Belt 2 10 3 18 10 7
Mid-American 5 11 9 23 9 7
Western Athletic 1 4 3 7 13 12
Independents 0 4 4 8 12 11
Conference USA 0 10 2 23 10 13
Mountain West 0 10 2 12 9 13

By the numbers, the Sun Belt isn’t right there with the MAC or the WAC, but it has Conference USA beat, as well as the Mountain West … and the WAC is gone. Texas-San Antonio moved from the WAC to Conference USA. Is that a better move than the Sun Belt? It isn’t obvious. Conference USA has more, larger markets than the Sun Belt, but that makes Conference USA a less-stable league. Instability breeds jitters. Once athletic departments start feeling jitters, they look for circumstances that aren’t as jittery. That’s how the WAC came apart, that’s how the Big East came apart, and Conference USA is more likely to come apart that way than the Sun Belt. And already, reputations aside, as the above chart shows, the Sun Belt is better on the football field than Conference USA.

True, the Sun Belt is losing schools to Conference USA next year. Those schools were a combined 16-30 in 2012, including 0-6 against ranked teams, 1-7 against major conferences and 2-3 against the non-qualifiers. Subtract those schools and the Sun Belt was 1-3 against ranked teams, 2-11 against the BCS conferences and 8-4 against the non-BCS leagues. Addition by subtraction, perhaps, though 2013 is another season. Based on 2012, though, the Sun Belt is no worse off for losing them, and Conference USA is no better for gaining them.

So, maybe the football really is better in the Sun Belt, but the name of the game is television. On the whole, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, North Texas and Middle Tennessee State might have been bad football teams (though 8-4 Middle Tennessee wasn’t), but Miami, the Metroplex and Nashville are good television markets in the Southeast, and it’s still better to have poor positions in those markets than no positions in them.

Then again, those positions can change again in a hurry. So long as there’s a better deal at the top, there will be better deals all the way down the chain.

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