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.Follow @frankthetank111
(Image from Business Insider)