Posts Tagged ‘MVC Expansion’

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Ever since the Big 12 decided to not propose to anyone after its Bachelor-esque expansion process back in the fall of last year, we have had one of the deadest periods in conference realignment news of any substance in this century. At least for the Power Five conferences, the world has entered into an era of stability. Until some combination of Texas, Oklahoma and/or Kansas decides that they no longer want to stay in the Big 12, it’s difficult to see much movement in the near future at the Power Five level.

However, the stability at the top has allowed for the non-power conferences to reassess their own long-term plans. The American Athletic Conference was the league that was most at risk in the Big 12 expansion process with Houston, Cincinnati and UConn being heavily discussed as potential invites. Now that the Big 12 has given the AAC a reprieve, the Group of Five league’s members know that they’re legitimately in this particular home for the long haul whether they like it or not. As a result, this is the first time since the AAC was formed in the wake of the collapse of the old Big East football conference that its member schools are truly looking at their respective futures within the AAC as opposed to outside of it.

Over the past few weeks, there have been an increasing number of reports from various outlets that the AAC is interested in adding current Missouri Valley Conference school Wichita State as a non-football member*, culminating in a report from Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated from this past Saturday that the AAC and Wichita State are engaged in expansion talks with mutual interest.

(* A pet peeve of mine in conference realignment stories is when there’s a reference to “basketball-only” membership since it wrongly implies that a school is being added only for basketball. Instead, such school is being added for all sports for which the league sponsors except for football, which is why it is really a “non-football member.)

I’ll be honest: I have been a long-time skeptic of both the AAC wanting to add non-football members and Wichita State’s chances of escaping the MVC. On the AAC side, the divide between the old Big East’s football and non-football schools was a major factor in the eventual dissolution of that league and the memories of how the Catholic 7 (Georgetown, Villanova, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Providence, Marquette and DePaul) split off to form the current Big East have still been fresh. From the Wichita State angle, they always seemed to be a classic fan favorite for expansion based on on-the-court performance but not a university president favorite with respect to academics and TV markets (similar to Boise State football). Interestingly, unlike most non-power conference schools, Wichita State actually didn’t have an issue with financial resources. When Shocker basketball coach Gregg Marshall was being courted by Alabama a couple of years ago, Charles Koch (most well-known with his brother David as the duo in charge of Koch Industries and arguably the most powerful and influential fundraisers for the Republican Party and conservative causes) spearheaded a group of boosters to make Marshall one of the 10 highest-paid coaches in the country. However, the stances of the AAC and MWC to not add non-football schools (at least up until apparently now) and the lack of institutional and geographic fits with the Big East, Atlantic 10 and West Coast Conference meant that the MVC was looking like Wichita State’s only realistic choice.

As a result, the AAC backing off of its stance against non-football members will end up being a Godsend for Wichita State assuming that this proposed expansion is finalized. Wichita State was going to have to start looking at initiating an FBS football program in order to find a different league… and even if they were to do that, it would have been no guarantee that they would have received an invite from the Sun Belt (much less the AAC or MWC). The fact that the Shockers are in position to be able to get into the AAC without needing to go through the extremely risky and expensive process of starting up an FBS football team is everything that the school could have possibly wished for outside of a non-football invite to a Power Five conference.

For the AAC’s part, the proposed addition of Wichita State indicates that football can no longer be the only conference realignment consideration for leagues that are outside of the Power Five world. The Group of Five leagues are earning less TV money with both football and basketball than the new Big East is with just basketball alone, which shows that a strong college basketball brand still has value in the marketplace compared to a weaker college football brand. Even if TV money isn’t taken into account, the Group of Five leagues are inherently going to be more reliant on revenue from NCAA Tournament credits (which rise when each conference member advances a round in the Big Dance) compared to the Power Five leagues since those basketball dollars are going to be a larger share for them compared to College Football Playoff dollars. Indeed, Thamel and others have pointed out that Wichita State won’t likely add much to the value of the AAC’s TV contract, but it can certainly drive a lot of conference revenue in the form of winning games in the NCAA Tournament (which earns additional credits).

So, several years after hybrid conferences were declared by the public at-large to be dead, it’s possible that those league formats could be making a comeback. The Mountain West Conference would certainly look better if it could add this year’s national runner-up Gonzaga, although the West Coast Conference is in a much stronger position to protect its membership due to the presence of BYU and the uniform institutional fit of all members being private schools in the West (similar to the Big East on the other side of the country). (Personally, I don’t believe that the WCC is poachable unless the Big East to decide to go waaaaaaay outside of its current geographic footprint.) In terms of the prospects for other recent NCAA Tournament darlings, Florida Gulf Coast has had the Shocker-esque problem of being a non-football school that’s a geographic outlier, but they could fit really well with Conference USA if that league were to entertain a hybrid membership again. Plus, FGCU is located in the Fort Myers-Naples market that is one of the fastest growing metro areas in the country and a massive amount of wealth due to its significant snowbird population with little direct spectator sports competition.

Meanwhile, the single act of Wichita State leaving the MVC for the AAC can have a significant ripple effect throughout the non-football Division I conferences. When Creighton left for the new Big East in 2013, the MVC looked heavily at replenishing its membership with Illinois-Chicago (UIC) and Valparaiso from the Horizon League prior to settling upon Loyola University Chicago. My impression is that the MVC will look at both UIC and Valpo again since strengthening that league’s Chicago area presence is likely a top priority for that league’s presidents. While MVC fans might prefer to add better on-the-court options that might be located in smaller markets (such as Murray State, South Dakota State or North Dakota State), there’s a much bigger picture in play here: the MVC schools themselves cannot survive without as many tuition-paying students from the Chicago area specifically as possible. With public school budgets getting slashed and private university enrollments falling outside of the elite tier, the competition for tuition dollars is only getting tougher as the number of college students declines overall. Illinois has turned into the largest net exporter of students to out-of-state colleges of any state in the country. The three biggest beneficiaries of this net outflow from Illinois just happen to be the states of Iowa, Indiana and Missouri… which happen to form the MVC footprint along with Illinois itself. In essence, the Chicagoland area is to general student recruiting as the state of Texas is to football recruiting and the MVC schools need to keep growing their share of that pool. Therefore, the MVC gaining even a handful of extra impressions per year in the Chicago region by playing a school like UIC can be critical to, say, Drake and Evansville (much less in-state Illinois schools like Bradley, Illinois State and Southern Illinois). The MVC is going to be a one-bid league going forward if Wichita State leaves no matter who it can realistically add (e.g. adding A-10 schools such as St. Louis and Dayton is NOT realistic), so the leadership of that league is likely going to focus much more on off-the-court factors compared to on-the-court performance. That also means that it would be a bit surprising if the MVC decided to replace Wichita State with multiple schools to go up to 12 members (as keeping the membership total at 10 would maximize per school payouts of NCAA Tournament and other conference-level revenue).

If the MVC poaches from the Horizon League, that could put schools like IUPUI (from the Summit League) or Belmont (from the Ohio Valley Conference) in play as targets. It will be interesting to see just how much realignment will ultimately occur throughout the Division I ranks simply based on Wichita State being added as a non-football member to the AAC.

What impact does all of these potential moves have on the Power Five conferences? We’ll have more on that soon.

(Image from Business Insider)

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After Iowa State lost within the opening hours of the first round (sic) of the NCAA Tournament, I didn’t even bother checking my bracket (IlliNIT Blues) until yesterday since I had figured my horrible Final Four prognostication skills (having had first weekend losers Iowa State and Villanova in addition to Kentucky and Wisconsin) would leave me in smoldering ashes. So, I was quite surprised to see that I’m second place in my work pool and nearly in the top 5% of the ESPN brackets nationwide. Granted, my entry is guaranteed to have a Harrison Ford-piloted crash like the 1969 Cubs (or 1984 Cubs or 2003 Cubs or 2008 Cubs) since my points possible remaining are extremely low (as in Illinois basketball scoring in crunch time low), but it goes to show you how there’s still life even when half of your Final Four is gone within a 72 hour period.

As noted in last week’s post, the conference realignment front is fairly quiet these days for the power leagues with the exception of the prospect of Arizona State joining Big Ten hockey. However, there are some rumblings in the non-FBS Division I conferences that are basketball-focused, so let’s get the lay of the land:

(1) Big East Expansion (or lack thereof) – The Big East has the ability to poach any non-FBS Division I school that it wants (which is something that not even the Big Ten or SEC can say at the FBS level). Every school from the Atlantic 10, West Coast Conference, Missouri Valley Conference and any other non-FBS league would take a Big East invite immediately. From there, any Big East expansion would have a massive trickle-down effect on the conferences below them. However, the Big East is sort of in the same position as the Big 12: it really does want to expand (regardless of what their respective commissioners and other PR people might say publicly), but the issue is that there aren’t 2 glaringly obvious candidates. As I’ve stated previously, St. Louis University seems to be the main lock for a future Big East invite regardless of how they might be performing on-the-court at any given time. SLU has the TV market, academic institutional fit as a private Catholic university, geographic location as a bridge between Creighton and the rest of the league, and facilities that the Big East is looking for as a total package. So, the primary issue is finding a partner for SLU, which isn’t as clear. Dayton has played very well on-the-court with a great fan base along with being a private Catholic school, but its TV market isn’t as attractive, Xavier is close in proximity, and there’s going to be consternation within the league about adding two Midwestern schools (as opposed to finding at least one Eastern expansion candidate). VCU has also been great on-the-court and has a desirable location, but it’s a large public school that isn’t an institutional fit with the rest of the Big East. Wichita State (which we’ll examine even further in just a moment) has the same institutional fit problems as VCU with a much less desirable location and TV market. Richmond is a great academic school with a solid basketball program, but it competes in the same market as VCU with fewer fans and a lower national profile. Davidson is similar to Richmond and has the advantage of the Charlotte market, but has a very small enrollment and alumni base (albeit wealthy and academically elite).

If I were a betting person, SLU and Dayton are still the odds-on favorites to eventually get into the Big East once it decides to expand. I feel that the fact that VCU is a public school ultimately tanks their candidacy even though they are attractive on virtually all other factors that the Big East desires in terms of location, TV market, fan base and location. Wichita State has never been a realistic Big East candidate since their issues are much broader beyond being just a public university (as you’ll see below). Richmond might be able to wedge into the mix if they can get some more high profile NCAA Tournament runs – as of now, their on-the-court attributes are going to matter more than their off-the-court attributes (which already fit well with the Big East).

For now, the biggest emerging challenger to Dayton for spot #12 in the Big East is Davidson. The small number of students at Davidson isn’t optimal, but the Big East has always been more of a TV league dependent upon casual large market fans as opposed to an alumni-based league (unlike the Big Ten and SEC). Davidson is within the Charlotte TV market, has legitimately elite level academics, performs well on-the-court, and would address the wariness of Georgetown, Villanova and St. John’s of adding two Midwestern schools. So, keep an eye out on Davidson on the Big East expansion front.

(2) Wichita State: Nowhere to Run – The non-FBS school that I get asked about the most lately regarding switching conferences is Wichita State (and that has accelerated this past week with their current Sweet Sixteen run). I certainly understand the fan love – as you can see from my bracket, I have the Shockers going to the Elite Eight (and as far off as I was on Iowa State, I was equally convinced that Wichita State would come out blazing against Kansas). However, as much as Wichita State was wrongly underrated by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee this year, the school is overrated by most sports fans as a conference realignment candidate. When I started writing about conference realignment with the Big Ten expansion index, my credo was always: “Think like a university president, not like a sports fan.” Wichita State is a perfect example of the disconnect between the thought processes of sports fans and university presidents. Sports fans see Wichita State as a school with great fans and astounding on-the-court success with a recent Final Four appearance and a memorable takedown of Kansas to get to the Sweet Sixteen this year. However, university presidents see Wichita State as a non-flagship public school that’s ranked in the 200s in the U.S. News rankings that’s located in a small TV market with little recruiting value (whether for athletes or “regular” college students). Remember that university presidents care just as much about what a school brings to the table when it’s awful on-the-field/court compared to how well it’s performing at its peak. Wichita State is a classic case of looking great for fans when they’re playing well, but it’s extremely tough for university presidents to see their value when they’re not playing well (as they’re not bringing academic prestige, an institutional fit, a major TV market, etc.).

Just look at the conferences that would be a step up from the MVC for Wichita State. The Big East, as noted above, is one of the most institutionally-aligned conferences outside of the Big Ten and Ivy League, where all members are private urban schools with a basketball focus. As a result, Wichita State simply isn’t a viable Big East candidate. The Atlantic-10 has some public universities, but it’s still more similar to the Big East as being private school-centric and the league may very well retrench from the Midwest if/when the Big East takes SLU. The American Athletic Conference (AAC) and Mountain West Conference (MWC) don’t seem interested at all in adding non-football members, so Wichita State won’t be considered. Even the West Coast Conference (which is a geographic stretch for Wichita State) has the same type of private school lineup as the Big East.

Unfortunately for Wichita State, it doesn’t matter how well the Shockers might perform on-the-court. Much like the power conference invite prospects for UConn (who has been an elite men’s and women’s basketball power), the off-the-court issues prevail in conference realignment and, as the old adage goes, “It takes two to tango.” Wichita State can want to leave the MVC all that it wants, but the conferences hold the power here. It’s not Wichita State’s choice to make to leave, so its only realistic option is to strengthen the MVC.

 (3) MVC Expansion and UAB (and the Chain Reaction for the Horizon League and Others) – Fortunately for Wichita State, the debacle of UAB getting its football program stripped by the University of Alabama power brokers in Tuscaloosa (with new allegations that it was a predetermined decision that was railroaded through the UAB leadership) might end up having a solid UAB basketball program that just scored a huge upset of my Final Four pick Iowa State fall right into the laps of the MVC. Conference USA appears to want to have all members to have football, so the league may kick out UAB for having had the misfortune of being governed by self-interested political appointees from a more powerful campus. As a result, UAB’s future conference membership for basketball and other sports is in flux, with Al.com reporting that there is mutual interest between UAB and the MVC. As horrible as the UAB football situation has been, the MVC would be about as good of a landing spot for the UAB basketball program as it could reasonably expect and, in turn, UAB is about as good of an expansion candidate that the MVC could realistically invite.

If the MVC adds UAB, the league would be unlikely to stay at just 11 members. This means that it will have to find a 12th school somewhere, which could then cause a chain reaction throughout many of the non-FBS conferences below them. When the MVC was exploring expansion a couple of years ago and ultimately decided upon inviting Loyola, the league had explored UIC and Valparaiso of the Horizon League heavily. This makes sense from a university president perspective – all 3 of Loyola, UIC and Valpo are located in the Chicago market, which is where a disproportionate number of MVC students and alums live. (A notable exception to this is Wichita State, which doesn’t have much of an alumni presence in the Chicago area.) The basketball fans within the MVC would probably prefer a pure on-the-court-focused addition like Murray State (although Valpo does have some on-the-court bona fides), but I’d expect MVC school #12 to be another Chicago market school. The demographics of the MVC generally look like the old Big 8, which isn’t sustainable for a league for the long-term. The irony is that Wichita State, the most important school in the MVC, would likely be unhappy about another Chicago area school, yet the rest of the MVC membership knows that Wichita State can’t go anywhere else for the reasons set forth above (which means that the most valuable school in the conference might have the least say in expansion matters).

This prospect of MVC expansion might be why the Horizon League commissioner has already said that it’s in the “active phase” of expansion and the league would likely expand in the near future. The Horizon League has already been interested in schools like Northern Kentucky (currently in the Atlantic Sun) and Belmont (an Ohio Valley Conference member) and the conference may need to also backfill in the event that it gets raided by the MVC (which could put Summit League schools such as Nebraska-Omaha into play).

As you can see, even one move by a smaller conference like the MVC could end up triggering large repercussions throughout Division I conferences. If the Big East were to expand, it could cause mass-scale change for non-FBS conferences on the level that we saw in 2010-2013. Of course, if the Big 12 were to expand, then all bets are truly off throughout college sports.

(Image from Fox Sports)

I’m finally back from a spring break vacation in Arizona (80 degrees for the White Sox spring training game that I attended last Wednesday compared to 30 degrees for Opening Day in Chicago yesterday), so let’s get a few updates since I haven’t posted in awhile:

(1) Big Ten Divisions – It appears that the Big Ten office is heeding the calls for the “Keep It Simple Stupid” approach of dividing the soon-to-be 14-team conference into East and West divisions, with Michigan State heading East with Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers and Maryland, the West having Illinois, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota and the only debate being where Indiana and Purdue will be placed.  IU-PU will then be the only protected cross-division rivalry.  Assuming that this comes true, my message to the Big Ten office is the following: THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU!  While I initially advocated Michigan State being placed in the West with both Indiana-based schools in the East, the newly rumored setup was the next best alignment from my perspective.  The Pac-12 was smart in not trying to force any protect cross-division games outside of the California-based schools playing each other annually, so it’s great that the Big Ten reportedly will only keep the Old Oaken Bucket as protected while the West can continue to rotate through Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State more often in this KISS alignment.  (Note that it’s a heck of a lot less heartburn for the West schools to see Indiana or Purdue falling off the schedule more often compared to Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, which was likely a large driver for Sparty getting placed in the East.) It still makes a lot more sense in my mind for Indiana to head to the East since it’s (1) actually further East than Purdue, (2) a school with a disproportionately large East Coast student population and (3) better for competitive balance purposes.  The only reason that I can think of for IU pushing back on an Eastern placement is that it knows that it will never break its Rose Bowl drought competing in a division with resurgent Michigan and Ohio State programs.  Regardless, the Big Ten seems to finally be making the right choices on its divisional alignment.  Let’s just hope those right choices also extend to burying the Legends and Leaders division names next to Jimmy Hoffa*.

(* The Meadowlands aren’t that far from Rutgers, so it would still be in the Big Ten footprint.)

(2) Sweet Missouri Valley Conference Expansion – The “new” Big East consisting of the old Catholic 7 schools poached Butler and Xavier from the Atlantic 10 and Creighton from the Missouri Valley Conference right before the start of the NCAA Tournament, which is likely going to trigger a massive realignment of the midmajor non-FBS conferences.  While the MVC is celebrating Wichita State’s Final Four run, it is also the league most openly pursuing expansion/replacement options as of now (Missouri State’s president actually Tweeted that he’s out visiting interested expansion candidates)*.  Various reports so far indicate that the MVC has had some conversations with Oral Roberts, UMKC, Loyola (Chicago), UIC** and Valparaiso.  The latter three Chicago area schools don’t surprise me at all: I Tweeted a few weeks ago that my gut feeling was that those programs plus Belmont would be at the top of the MVC list if Denver wasn’t going to be considered.  (Reading between the lines in this interview by MileHighMids of Denver’s athletic director, it appears that the MVC would have been interested in Denver if the school were to add more sports, but the AD isn’t willing to commit to that right now.)

(* For a great analysis of potential MVC candidates using Google Maps, check out this anonymous posting.)

(** For disclosure purposes, my parents met at and graduated from UIC, with my father then spending over 3 decades working at that campus. I don’t have any real rooting interest in the UIC Flames sports teams, but I’ll admit to having an affinity for the institution overall with my family connection.)

Perusing some MVC message boards and blogs, I’ve generally seen fans vomit over these choices with calls that they could either (1) do better or (2) stand pat at 9 schools.  It reminds me of the recent UCLA basketball coaching search*, where much of the fan base seemed to be incredulous that they couldn’t lure the likes of Brad Stevens or Shaka Smart and had to settle for the protector of a rapist… er… Steve Alford.**  The MVC fans seemed to have hopes for the likes of SLU and/or Dayton (the former of which is definitely going to be in the Big East, where it’s just a matter of when, while the latter likely will be there but has to sweat it out a bit with Richmond as a competitor for spot #12) and are now facing the reality that the realistic candidates aren’t nearly as desirable.

(* For what it’s worth, I believe that UCLA is an elite program with only Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, Indiana and those rat bastards from Duke being in the same class. However, the Bruins’ lack of a sexy hire was the result of an elitist approach to job security by the school and fan base. That is, they just fired a guy in Ben Howland who went to three Final Fours, pulled in a top-ranked recruiting class last year and won the Pac-12 regular season championship this year.  At most schools, that record warrants a lifetime contract – Shaka Smart is going to be able to parlay a single Final Four run into perpetuity at VCU.  I fully understand how many UCLA fans believed the trajectory of the program was going in the wrong direction with Howland and a change might have been needed simply for the sake of a change, but they might have failed to understand how top level coaches in stable positions aren’t exactly enthralled with the prospect of taking a job where a 3-time Final Four coach got canned right after winning a conference championship. Hence, the pool of interested parties was much more shallow than anticipated.)

(** I highly recommend Black Heart Gold Pants blogger Patrick Vint’s message to UCLA fans about Alford on Bruins Nation.)

From my perspective, the MVC isn’t going to be able to add any real home run additions on-the-court. Belmont has the best performance over the past few seasons of the potential candidates, but geographic fit seems to be an issue in that case and their attendance figures have been subpar.  As a result, the MVC likely needs to concentrate on attacking its worst weaknesses as opposed to attempting to replace the irreplaceable Creighton in terms of basketball performance.  To me, that worst weakness is that fact that Wichita is the MVC’s largest TV market at #69 overall in the US.  Those of you that read me regularly know that I’m not in favor of expansion only for the sake of additional markets, but in the case of the MVC, having Wichita as your largest market is Charles Barkley turrible. Even if some of the candidates in large markets aren’t necessarily great TV draws, the MVC is eventually going to need them for recruiting purposes for long-term survival.  (This is why even if SLU and Dayton end up leaving the Atlantic 10 on top of Butler and Xavier, that league is still in much better position going forward with its footprint.) That means that a school like Murray State, which has had solid attendance and on-the-court performance, might appear to be desirable for MVC fans but not so much for the conference’s university presidents.

As a lifelong Chicagoan, I have a particular interest in how the MVC is going to proceed since I firmly believe that it should have a better presence in the Chicago market than it does today. Illinois State, Southern Illinois and Bradley all predominantly draw students from and send alumni to the Chicagoland area (with Northern Iowa and Drake also sending large contingents to the region, too).  However, the MVC doesn’t draw the coverage that it ought to considering the in-place fan base since it lacks a direct Chicago presence (which is critical unless you’re the University of Illinois or Notre Dame).  Therefore, it’s not a shocker that two city schools (UIC and Loyola) and a university on the periphery of the metro region in Northwest Indiana (Valpo) are being visited by the MVC powers that be. The MVC leadership likely recognizes what I see in that Chicago is a large market that can be legitimately leveraged by the conference.  It’s not so much that the MVC thinks that UIC or Loyola can “deliver” Chicago in a way that Illinois, Northwestern, DePaul or Notre Dame are able to, but rather that the critical mass of MVC students from and alums living in the area can give the league a solid presence akin to what the A-10 has in Philadelphia or Washington, DC. The MVC doesn’t have any type of major market anchor right now and that’s increasingly going to be a negative risk factor if it’s not rectified.

I haven’t forgotten that ORU’s crosstown neighbor of Tulsa just got invited to the “Old” Big East (or Conference TBD) today. I’ll have more thoughts on that the status of that league in a separate post. Until then, enjoy the Final Four!

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

(Image from mgoblog)