What’s next in the lifespan of Conference USA? A long-rumored merger with the Sun Belt Conference has merits, but it’s far from a sure thing.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put college athletics travel costs, particularly in non-revenue sports, under the microscope. There are no “one-size fits all” solutions, but there are countless theories being circulated about what comes next.
One such concept is a Conference USA and Sun Belt merger. Is it feasible?
Why it makes sense
The geography of Conference USA and the Sun Belt conferences has a sizable overlap. Conference USA stretches from El Paso, TX (UTEP) to Virginia (Old Dominion). The Sun Belt runs as far west as San Marcos, TX (Texas State) and out to Coastal Carolina on the East Coast.
If cutting costs truly is a significant driver, splitting the two conferences down the middle would prevent UTEP from having to fly to West Virginia and App State from coming all the way to Texas for conference games. Just about any way you slice it, a merger of these two leagues drastically reduces the geographic footprint of each new conference.
The fan interest could see an uptick in the process. More regionalized scheduling would lead to more intra-state matchups. Seeing Louisiana Tech square off with ULM would spark more local interest than seeing the Bulldogs face Old Dominion. The same would be true for the Eastern contingent of schools. Stands would be packed if Charlotte and App State faced each other on a regular basis.
What stands in the way?
Television contracts are the obvious initial hurdle. There’s a reason that the decade long rumor of a Conference USA-Sun Belt merger has yet to materialize.
Conference USA’s TV deals span CBS Sports Network, ESPN3, Stadium, the NFL Network and various streaming arrangements. Most of those arrangements are set to expire by 2023. The Sun Belt is two years into an eight-year deal with ESPN.
Then there’s the inevitable bickering about who goes with who. What happens to teams like UAB and Troy who could arguably swing to either side of the geographic split? Both new conferences will surely want the Birmingham market.
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Reaching a “fair” compromise that satiates 28 schools and four unique television partners seems … challenging, to say the least. That’s not to say it can’t happen, especially given these unprecedented times. But it does explain why a move that makes a lot of sense hasn’t yet gained meaningful traction.
And the people say…
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