No conference has taken it on the chin more during the era of realignment than Conference USA and this week's news of the league's paltry new TV contract is a potential death blow.
Harry Minium of the The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., reported details of C-USA's new TV deal on Tuesday. C-USA programs will receive $200,000 annually as part of the new two-year contract after previously getting $1.1 million.
Only the Sun Belt Conference has a worse TV contract with each of its schools getting $100,000.
The Mid-American Conference, which has long been considered a notch below C-USA in terms of competition, has a TV deal that earns its members $800,000. The American Athletic Conference schools get $2 million each and the Mountain West comes in at $1.7 million per program.
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According to the The Virginian-Pilot report, C-USA schools are set to share $20.5 million in revenue this year, a major drop in the projected $34.4 million.
C-USA will receive a decent bump in exposure in a new TV deal that includes ESPN, CBS Sports Network, beIN SPORTS and American Sports Network, but the money payoff has to be depressing for the league's athletic directors. The deal was negotiated at the worst possible time due to a shrinking cable subscriber base. The new TV contract was supposed to take a hit, but few expected it to be that small.
C-USA delivered Top 25 teams in football the last two years, produced men's basketball teams that won NCAA Tournament games the last two seasons and sent four squads to the NCAA baseball tournament this year. That all matters little in the eyes of cable TV executives.
On the field, C-USA is doing fine. Off the field, it is struggling.
C-USA was once considered the top non-power conference in football and regularly flirted with major conference status in men's basketball when its membership consisted of programs like Memphis, Cincinnati, Marquette and Louisville.
Those days are long gone and news of the minuscule TV contract begs the question - Is Conference USA worth saving?
In its current form, C-USA is an awkward 14-team league that stretches from El Paso, Texas, to Norfolk, Va. That's a 2,000-mile gap between the campuses of UTEP and Old Dominion.
C-USA's membership consists of programs still trying to gain relevance after making the recent jump to FBS, former Sun Belt members and others frustrated they can't take at least one step up to either the Mountain West or American.
It's gotten to the point where it makes no sense for UTEP to send its softball team to Marshall in Huntington, W.Va., for a three-game series, or vice versa.
With the cost of big time athletics on the rise and C-USA's revenues shrinking, it's hard to see the league going forward in its current form for the long run.
In my view, there are only two options for C-USA in this situation:
1. Dissolve as members form their own regional conferences.
2. Devour the Sun Belt to form a conference not that different from the defunct project from four years ago that was supposed to be the merger of C-USA and the Mountain West.
Under the first option, C-USA's two charter members, Southern Miss and UAB, could get together and convince schools like Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky to leave the conference. Those five schools could form a more regional outfit that includes Sun Belt programs like Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette and South Alabama. Georgia Southern and Troy could be thrown into the mix. (That would make for a fun conference baseball tournament in Biloxi, right?)
There is no longer a need to have 12 members to have a football title game so a 10-team league would suffice.
A new Conference USA
The second option of merging with the Sun Belt may be the best option to preserve Conference USA while also cutting down on travel and creating more regional rivalries. This would also lead to more hands in a shallow revenue pool, but it's not that big of a deal when you're not getting much money to begin with.
The C-USA/MWC merger was supposed to include 18 to 24 universities that would be separated into regional divisions. You could see something similar in a C-USA/Sun Belt merger that includes 24 schools separated into four divisions.
Here's how one hypothetical C-USA could look like following a merger:
WEST - Texas-San Antonio, Rice, North Texas, Arkansas State, Texas State, UTEP.
MID-SOUTH - Southern Miss, UAB, Louisiana Tech, WKU, Middle Tennessee, UL-Lafayette.
SOUTHEAST - South Alabama, Troy, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Florida International, Florida Atlantic.
ATLANTIC - Marshall, Old Dominion, Coastal Carolina, Charlotte, Appalachian State, UMass.
UMass would be a football-only member, but that could easily be resolved by including either Texas-Arlington or Arkansas-Little Rock, a pair of Sun Belt schools that don't feature football programs.
The teams could have an eight-game conference slate that includes five divisional games and one locked in cross-over game such as Southern Miss-South Alabama or Arkansas State-Louisiana Tech. The other two conference games would rotate each season.
A massive conference that includes 24 to 28 teams seems extremely awkward and probably not worth the outcome.
So we're back to No. 1. Conference USA would likely be better off splitting up and allowing teams to form their own common sense regional lineups. This would probably result in more programs dropping down to FCS like Idaho did earlier this year, but contraction may be the best thing to happen to the FBS field at this point.
I'm not saying that Conference USA is breaking up tomorrow or five years from now, but there has to be a discussion on whether it's healthy enough to go forward in its current edition.