Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Sun Belt looking to 12 again?

Shortly after UT-Arlington joined the Sun Belt Conference (in the world of realignment, it seems so long ago), they were able to make some moves to get to twelve playing schools after losing some members to other conferences. Early in 2013, Georgia Southern and Appalachian State finally got the invite they craved to leave their long time homes in the Southern Conference to go to the SBC. To cover UTA and UALR in the football side, NMSU and Idaho football programs, left without a home after the WAC imploded (remember that one Maverick fans), were given a life raft by the SBC and all of a sudden, the Sun Belt had 12 all-sports and 12 football schools. Then Western Kentucky was offered an invite to Conference USA (I'll leave out my thoughts on that one) and the grand 12/12 with even divisions went with out the door with WKU.

Since that time rumors have floated that the SBC was going to add certain schools, with the list including, but not limited to, Liberty, James Madison, Missouri State, Eastern Kentucky, New Mexico State and Lamar. Nothing was ever concrete, and I never heard anything from an official source, either in person or in media productions.

Well, at least until now.

Sun Belt Conference officials within the last week or two have visited Coastal Carolina University, Eastern Kentucky University and are going to visit New Mexico State this week. 

While the football side of things grabs the headlines, this is big news and has a huge impact for UTA. The ability to schedule travel partners, which require a max of two plane rides and busing in between the schools, will greatly reduce expenses. In the case of UTA, that means money that is able to be spent elsewhere.

Without travel partners, there are two ways to schedule, randomly, as was the case last year, or try to match travel partners where they exist now, as is the case this year, let me explain why neither is ideal.

Last years basketball schedule was very odd. The Mavs made six road trips within conference play. They visited every state that has more than one SBC school twice. On a Thursday they played at Texas State, then went to South Alabama, a month and a half after visiting Troy. That Troy game was a solo road trip, as was Georgia State. Sometimes, decent travel pairs were there, as was the Appalachian State-Georgia Southern road trip. But for the most part, there was no rhyme or reason to the schedule. It was enough for the Athletic Departments to seek a way to reduce the travel costs, hence this years schedule.

This years schedule, where every school is paired with a natural travel partner, except for App, who is paired with a bye week, isn't ideal either as it brings up a logical problem, App will face more rested competition (though I think that term is overused and the actual experience is overrated). It also leaves a hole in the schedule. Problem can be rectified by pairing your travel partner with App, but that can have some drawbacks in stretching the schedule longer and increasing the duration of the trip for the farther out schools (like UTA).

Also, 11 creates a weird situation in which schools have to play 20 conference games for the home-and home round robin or creating uneven divisions in order to shorten the conference schedule.

12 conference members is historically the best. Having an even number of teams in a division allows for easy travel pairs and 15 conference games in sports where there is a home-and-home format. 14 leaves one extra in each division without a travel mate and 16 historically has been too many mouths to feed and the conference breaks up (the WAC in the '90's being the most recent case). I would be willing to bet, especially if the TV bubble pops, the 14-team SEC and Big 10 will see some strain because of their size.

I know talking about cost containment isn't sexy, but I feel that will be the future of the non-power 5 conferences. Going to more regional based conferences will be the best bet against the money and power grab by the bigger conferences. Going regional also would foster better rivalries and opportunities for fans to travel. Playing Texas State or Little Rock is more exciting to the fan base here than Appalachian State, Georgia Southern or Georgia State (mens basketball success not withstanding).

So while I do think expanding is a good thing, I must stress that it has to be the right school. Going to 12 for the sake of 12 is a mistake. The school needs to be competitive as possible, have a meaningful contribution in select sports, have a budget that is competitive and fit in academically with everyone else. Anyone that doesn't offer something other than being a member should be excluded. So with that, let me offer some commentary about the three schools.

Coastal Carolina

The obvious is they fit the current footprint. I dislike seeing conference maps with holes in them and this would fill a hole on the eastern boundary and just leave Mississippi with no SBC representation.

They've won the Big South's Commisioners Cup two years in a row and 11 times overall. Big South isn't a basketball powerhouse, but they have won the conference tourney the last two years and been in the NCAA's or NIT four times in the last five years. Their baseball has hosted a regional four times, a super regional once and have averaged 37 wins the last five years. A feather in the cap is men's soccer, a sport no other expansion-candidate school offers and they finished #21 in RPI this past year.

Biggest question mark is facilities, but it really isn't that big. Football plays in Brooks Stadium, a brand new, very attractive venue that is on the small side. At a capacity of 9,214, it has been promised to be expanded to 20,000 immediately if the SBC offers an invite.The Chanticleers exceeded capacity three times last year, so it isn't hard to imagine there is growth potential for the sport. Basketball is played in a new, field house-type venue called the HTC Center. It seats 3,600 and like the football venue, they average a higher capacity than schools with similar sized venues. At 2,300, the arena is close to full more often and the Chants would have been second in the SBC last year for average attendance. Baseball plays in the Charles Watson Stadium a beautiful, high quality 2,200 capacity stadium. It would immediately be a top half SBC venue. Aside from capacity upgrades to their football stadium, every athletic facility is on par with SBC venues.

Finally, the stat I care least about, but seems to have a wow factor, CCU's budget is just over $20 million in the 2013/14 year. That would put them behind Texas State, Georgia State and South Alabama in the SBC. I caution against that number because different schools report it different ways and some states even have different requirements. If the cost of a scholarship is twice as high as the next school, do they really spend more on athletics?

Eastern Kentucky

EKU sits just outside the footprint, but only marginally. They won't fill a hole in the map and are virtually the same distance to Appalachian State as CCU. However, they are further from the Georgia schools than Coastal is.

They are competitive in the Ohio Valley, winning three of the last four Commish Cups. Football is generally near the top of the OVC, but they haven't made a strong run in the FCS playoffs in a while. Basketball is solid at best and I believe they'd be a middle-of-the-pack caliber team in the Sun Belt. The OVC is a better conference than Big South, but not by much so it's hard to compare CCU's success to EKU's. Baseball is certainly lacking, in both results and attendance (136 per game, yikes!). Speaking of... EKU's overall attendance is bad. UTA without football was roughly 25,000 behind EKU in total attendance of all sports. You'd expect two football games to equal 25,000. Taking out football, EKU drew over 15,000 less than UTA did with one more sport, and I don't think UTA can rest on its laurels.

Their facilities are dated, but have been promised or are in the process of renovation. Roy Kidd, their football stadium, is already undergoing a renovation as they are completely redoing the visitors stands, adding coaches office and football locker rooms with it. The indoor sports play in Alumni Coliseum, a dated facility built in 1963. It certainly won't be the worst place in the conference, but it certainly isn't in the top half. Having never attended a game there, my research has uncovered a lot of comparisons to the older basketball places at Duke or Kansas (and presumably SMU) when the place has fans. They at least averaged over 2,700 for the sport last year, and like CCU, it would have been good for second in the SBC. Turkey Hughes Field houses the baseball team and despite a couple of recent renovations, it makes Clay Gould circa 2000 look good. Same can be said of their softball field as Allan Saxe circa 2000 looks like Gertrude Hood. With minor exceptions, their athletic venues are 1970's built or older.

As for budget, they are in the mid $13 million range. Enough to put them middle of the pack among SBC Universities.

New Mexico State

Geography does not bode well for the Aggies here. The travel partners problem is not solved and is actually made worse. They are 600 miles from Texas State, the nearest SBC school. It would split the natural partner pair in the west as there are two Texas Schools, two Arkansas schools and two Louisiana schools. Were they located in Mississippi and everything else were the same, they'd have been accepted as SBC members a few years ago. Being far away and in New Mexico is rough. If there was a Conference USA opening, I'd think they'd be a natural fit with UTEP nearby.

NMSU won the Commissioner's Cup for the first time this year in a water-down WAC as they claimed 11 conference championships out of the 19 the WAC offered (and NMSU doesn't sponsor three WAC sports). There's no need to analyze their football program or facilities as they are already Belt members in that sport only. Their basketball team would immediately elevate the RPI of the conference at the rate they have been the last few years. They'd also be the top drawing team in the Belt by a couple of thousand based on last years numbers. Add in the fact that the Pan American Center is a great place for their indoor sports and really makes NMSU an attractive candidate. Baseball had a very down year, but they did really well in the womens sports. Overall, their programs are well attended, though football needs work. Their non-football total attendance would have been second in the SBC.

Budget wise, they are great, above most SBC schools, so that isn't an issue. In fact, they be number one, just ahead of Texas State's $29 million.

Balancing all that, I think CCU gets the nod. I like the geographic compactness and 12, as mentioned, is historically a very stable conference number. Completing a travel partner to reduce costs is another bonus. Their facilities are new and they have the money to do what's needed now for those not up to par. The sports are competitive and have a tremendous upside.

I really like NMSU. They were really good conference mates when UTA competed with the Aggies in the WAC and hope their is a spot for them. I'd be all for them joining if there's a team in the future in the "west" that departs. Just think this scenario is against them.Their facilities are high quality, their teams are competitive and their sports are highly attended.

I was for EKU a year ago, but I just think overall CCU is a better choice. I don't like that they have older athletic facilities that need work. They also aren't as competitive in key sports, like baseball. Their attendance is awful. I hesitate to say attendance will increase with a change in conference as some people suggest that fans just don't care about the current lineup of schools. NMSU and CCU both have much better attendance against similar "meh" opponents. NMSU sold out Pan American Arena against Chicago State to make a point. To illustrate issues with EKU's fan support, there has been one game this century (none the past ten years) at Roy Kidd Stadium that has made the top 10 in attendance. The top four are from the 1970's. To me, that shows a program in stagnation. Maybe they are tired of an admin that hasn't put much effort into athletics, but it isn't because EKU has been putting winners on the field.

Ultimately, I think the Sun Belt will go with one new member and that will be Coastal Carolina. They have the facilities, or the ability to upgrade the facilities, are competitive and decently attended. They fit the geographic need and have the ability to foster rivalries with several schools.

I also like the idea of adding all three, but I just don't see a 14-team conference working. But I'd be all for it if it were to allow New Mexico State into the fold. From everything I've gathered, I'm pretty certain that's not what the SBC is looking at doing.

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