The Conference USA (C-USA) is on the hinges of collapse. Nine of its fourteen members have announced their decisions to part for better conferences, ones with more money and/or exposure. Now, the conference has to formulate a plan to remain in existence before they lose the rest of their schools.
It has been a tough couple of weeks for the long-standing group-of-five conference, founded in 1996. First, the announcement came that six schools would part with the conference to join the American Athletic Conference (AAC), replacing the three schools that recently announced their departure for the Big 12. In the following two weeks, Southern Mississippi first announced their departure for the Sun Belt conference, quickly followed by Old Dominion and Marshall.
Currently, there are five schools still waiting to make decisions regarding the future of their athletic departments.
- Florida International
- Louisiana Tech
- Middle Tennessee State
- Texas El-Paso
- Western Kentucky
How can the C-USA save itself?
Start making decisions – now
Part of the reason why Marshall decided to leave the program was because of the lack of optimism surrounding the C-USA. The Herald-Dispatch reported that sources with knowledge on the move explained that Marshall officials felt that stability was a major issue.
The C-USA was waiting on the Marshall decision before proceeding to decide how many schools they wanted to invite. I think that this hesitancy led them to lose Marshall. If the C-USA had a plan and had made it known to Marshall before their meeting, I think there’s a strong chance that they could have retained the school.
Now, you have bigger problems. The Mid American Conference (MAC) is currently circling the pickings. THE MAC! When was the last time they were a threat to expand and take mid-south schools? Ever? While they have a better media rights package, that’s because they agree to play on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights to get national exposure.
They have to have some semblance of a plan. Do they want to play an eight-team league? A ten-team league?
Reportedly, there are rumors of a rebrand as well. These are the decisions that they have to start making, NOW.
Rework C-USA television contracts
I’ve discussed this aspect multiple times on this website throughout all the conference realignment coverage. The television contracts that the C-USA holds are not beneficial to schools, which is why the Sun Belt is so attractive of an option.
The C-USA has a media rights deal with CBS Sports and Stadium. It’s a small money deal and includes very few perks for the conference as a whole. First off, it’s often hard to find CBS Sports Network, where the C-USA games are aired. Several major streaming packages do not include the network as a part of its lineup, including Sling TV and Philo. Then, when the games are aired, they have to split time with the Mountain West, which makes it difficult to air games on the channel. The Mountain West in recent years has been much more popular and successful than the C-USA.
The Stadium Network is also hard to find and is not on most streaming or cable packages.
The AAC, the Sun Belt, and the MAC all have television contracts with ESPN, and both have seen multi-year expansions on those deals over the last three years that extend them to at least 2030. Both the AAC and Sun Belt’s contracts included expanded airing time on the marquee networks – ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPNU. Even if a game is aired on ESPN3 or ESPN+, the exposure and accessibility are better than CBSSN and Stadium.
The C-USA has to be willing and open to rework some of their media rights agreements and try to land some ESPN exposure. At this point, I don’t think there will be too much of an argument from CBS Sports.
Add new C-USA members
The C-USA has to start making decisions on who it wants to add to its conference. On top of that, they need to start “leaking” the schools that they are talking to. As of now, every “leak” is getting shot down.
As of now, we know that there are three schools that have a mutual interest in the conference. New Mexico State, which left the Sun Belt to go independent a few years ago, is interested in joining. They have struggled tremendously since going independent. However, there is no offer.
UConn, who recently left the AAC, is also interested in joining the conference. It’s been a nightmare for UConn trying to be independent. They’ve recently joined the Big East as a basketball-only member, but other sports, especially football, have been a giant mess. The issue with UConn is geography. It’s hard to justify the school potentially having to fly west four times a year for conference play, especially if the conference remains an eight-school league.
Liberty, perhaps the most controversial school in the country, is a necessity currently. Liberty has the biggest athletic department currently available as an independent and has seen immense success in recent history in several sports. Because of its online school involvement, Liberty has the fifth biggest enrollment in the country (45,935). Their recent success would be a huge get for the C-USA.
Target FCS schools and take the build-up slow
The last mistake that the C-USA must not make is to attempt to use the prestige that it has built as a contributing factor to why schools should join and/or stay with their conference. No one cares at this point. The schools that they are looking to add at the FBS level are in the bottom rung of the class. It’s a full reset for the C-USA to undertake.
Because of this, they should target FCS schools looking to move up to the FBS level. There are many programs looking to do it that could fit the geography. Sam Houston State was specifically mentioned in a CBS report on the topic. They are the defending national champions in the FCS and fit the western geography with UTEP and New Mexico State very well. That would also help keep Texas as a state of influence in the conference, which is arguably the richest football state in the country. To help shape out the West, Weber State would be another great school to reach out to.
The C-USA should reach out to other schools in the area as well, such as Jacksonville State, Southeastern Louisiana, and perhaps East Tennessee State. It’s already been reported that Missouri State is no longer in consideration.
The C-USA has no direction currently and needs to start establishing it
Right now, the C-USA is acting as a conference with no direction and it has no idea what it is doing. That needs to change if they want to stay alive. They need to pick a direction. How do they want to proceed? How many schools are they shooting for? What kind of a league do we want to be?
I don’t think it matters what the C-USA decides to do. They just need to pick something and go with it before it’s too late.
To me, the obvious choice at this point should be to rebuild with FCS schools that want to work their way up into the ranks. It’s time for a complete overhaul of the conference. It has to be, with a vision and a future ahead of it.
Don’t lose MTSU and WKU to the MAC. That would be so embarrassing. Figure this out and move forward.