Conference Realignment Update: MTSU has cold feet, MAC remains unchanged (for now?)
Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee remain in Conference-USA, and will not be joining the Mid-American Conference this cycle. So now what?
Welcome to The Ypsilanti Eleven! Closing a short-lived chapter in this year’s cycle of conference realignment, the Mid-American Conference will not be adding Western Kentucky or Middle Tennessee. It’s hard to say whether or not this will hurt or benefit the MAC in years to come, but not gambling on either school is a move (or non-move) that the league will leave hoping for the best in the future.
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News: There is no news
This feels disappointing. After the reporting on this made it feel like Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee to the Mid-American Conference would be the next move in this year’s round of conference realignment, the two schools will instead remain in Conference USA.
From MT’s president on Wednesday:
Over the past several weeks, as we have watched the landscape for Division I athletics evolve, MTSU has been proactive and diligent in evaluating our opportunities, always with the best interests of the University as the singular guiding principle. We greatly appreciate the interest other conferences have shown in our athletics program and in our university, as they are a testament to the overall excellence of our institution, both athletically and academically. However, after careful consideration and due diligence, I am pleased to reaffirm our commitment to Conference USA.
With the addition of four new members, C-USA offers a strong footprint in the South and Southwest, providing opportunities to develop new regional rivalries, while staying connected to traditional opponents that our fans want. Building on the conference’s storied history of success, I believe our continued affiliation offers our Blue Raider community the greatest opportunity for success and should enhance our fan engagement.
Working with our four remaining members, as well as our new partners, Conference USA is poised to rebrand itself as a premier conference in the Group of 5. We look forward to the opportunities that our expanded relationship will provide and want to assure our fans that, regardless of conference affiliations, our goals remain the same, as we pursue championships in all our sports.
Hours later, the MAC issued this press release, confirming that it will, in the end, not pursue either WKU or MTSU at this time.
The Mid-American Conference (MAC) announced today that it will not pursue membership expansion at this time. The decision was made after study of the collegiate athletics environment and dialogue among the directors of athletics and presidents of the 12 member institutions.
“Following analysis and evaluation by the membership, it has been determined our best interests are served in the Conference remaining at 12 full member institutions,” said Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher. “For some time we have been examining the FBS landscape, and certainly our discussions have been more focused over the past several months as our Conference was contacted by other institutions. While a number of institutions have expressed interest, we never requested any institution to apply for membership nor did we have a formal or informal vote concerning any institutions.”
“Our focus will continue to be on building upon the strengths of our Conference – providing a student-centered academic and athletics experience, celebrating long-standing relationships and rivalries, and maintaining our tight geographic proximity to one another,” Steinbrecher added. “Today’s announcement is intended to end the speculation that has been occurring.”
Recognizing the dynamic environment of higher education and intercollegiate athletics, the Mid-American Conference will continue to monitor the membership landscape.
Given the media’s drumroll last week, it felt like the addition of the 100 Miles of Hate rivalry would be a done deal at any moment. Word came out that MT’s hangup on the whole thing was financial, and that the exit fees of will-be-former C-USA schools are worth staying put in its conference. That, and there’s a whole thing about being geographically aligned with the league you play in. Tennessee isn’t a Rust Belt state. WKU, more geographically similar to the southern Ohio schools of the MAC and is generally good at sports (football especially), would’ve been a reasonable expansion school for the MAC. But a deal’s a deal. And the MAC — a league of ‘have nots’ — is very particular in the way it goes about expanding.
The last time the MAC was seriously involved in toying with new conference members, it was UMass who got to play football in the league from 2012-2015. It was a nice trial run for UMass, but the deal for the MAC was that it wanted to get UMass on board as a full member of the league instead of just one sport. UMass decided that it was happier as an Atlantic 10 school in all other sports, so now UMass is still hanging out as an FBS independent with their own particular desires.
So to see the MAC be so stingy this time around maybe shouldn’t come to be too much of a surprise if only because we’ve seen similar behavior very recently.
Where does the MAC go from here?
All 12 MAC schools just got put through the rigmarole over potentially adding two schools, but the move was ultimately never voted on because of MT’s lack of commitment to the MAC’s plan. Instead of adding a couple of formidable football partners (other sports too, but that’s besides the main point), it added none.
It’s hard to say whether or not this will help or hurt the league moving forward. These decisions to ultimately not expand with UMass or WKU without MT are hard to judge when we don’t know what the future of college football will exactly hold. There’s one common denominator in every single move surrounding conference realignment. Future TV deals will be up for renegotiations across the board, and conferences know that. Conferences are not adding schools unless they know that there’s a great selling point to pitch to the networks.
Maybe the stats will tell you that the MAC’s football prestige would only improve by adding WKU by itself. But the MAC might also understand that none of that matters if you can’t also sell the 100 Miles of Hate game to ESPN as a midweek game to showcase in November. The SEC, after all, started this whole shebang by adding the Red River Shootout.
MAC expansion might be on ice yet again, and it’s hard to imagine if (or when) that might change. There’s always a very short list of possible schools the MAC could expand to, and it’s easier to think of the possibilities as a Venn diagram with three sets. Set #1 is schools that that relatively fit within the MAC’s original geographical footprint (Note: Wiggle room here since the MAC was willing to give UCF, UMass, and Temple all tries over the years). Set #2 is schools that would be willing to change their current situations to play in a weeknight, attendance-be-damned league. And set #3 is schools that would noticeably raise the competitive floor in football. There probably aren’t a whole lot of schools left in the intersection of all three of those sets, but I can’t assume that the list of potential expansion schools is getting any longer by standing pat.
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