The task at Southern Miss is a daunting one for new athletic director Jon Gilbert, but he doesn't seem to be a man who is easily overwhelmed.
The former Tennessee and Alabama assistant athletic director touched on many of the issues facing USM and Conference USA in an interview with the Sun Herald this week.
After getting to work at USM in late February, Gilbert has spent much of the last two months becoming familiar with staff members and crisscrossing the state meeting boosters.
“I felt I really needed to get out in the community and visit with people, listen to their stories,” Gilbert said. “I wanted to hear what they had to say about Southern Miss and the department and get a better idea of how to move forward.
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“I think one thing I've learned quickly is we've got a passionate fan base. I know talking to people outside of the Hattiesburg community and talking with people at other schools in our league, they really enjoy coming here because of the environment at our athletic events.”
While Gilbert described his interactions with USM fans as upbeat, there's little doubt he has faced questions about the status of C-USA and whether it's a viable home for the Golden Eagles in the long run.
The future of C-USA
In a Conference USA that's been watered down by realignment, USM is one of only two charter members remaining in the conference. The other is UAB.
With C-USA campuses stretching from Norfolk, Va., to El Paso, Texas, members of the media have questioned whether the far-flung conference can survive a combination of shrinking revenue and costly travel. Some of the suggestions include C-USA dissolving altogether or somehow merging with the Sun Belt to create a more regional outfit.
Gilbert is in the group of C-USA athletic directors who are open to changes.
“You want to be aligned with institutions that are like your own institution,” Gilbert said. “I've seen the numerous articles out there. I think that the idea of a regionally-based conference probably warrants discussion. I don't have a final resting spot of where that would be or what that would look like. Any time you can play schools that help drive revenue, you ought to look at that.”
Gilbert pointed to his recent four-game agreement for a home-and-home football series with Tulane as one example of how a regional rivalry can benefit both schools.
“They'll bring fans here and it's good for us when we go to New Orleans. Our fans like going there,” Gilbert said. “It's a good revenue game for both institutions. Match-ups like that are important to us.”
C-USA schools are set to receive only $200,000 each in TV money for the second consecutive year, a drop of about $900,000 from the previous deal, according to the The Virginian-Pilot.
C-USA will eventually have a chance renegotiate its TV deals, but the conference seems unlikely to get much of an upgrade next time around.
“I think the thing that has to happen from the TV revenue standpoint is, as a league, we have to make ourselves look the most attractive,” Gilbert said. “That means putting a competitive product on the field that people want to watch. That's how you help with driving the value. I know that's a simple answer, but that is really what I feel.”
ESPN, beIN SPORTS and CBS Sports Network are all set to carry C-USA football games this season. American Sports Network, which has carried more C-USA games than any network over the last three years, is merging with Campus Insiders and 120 Sports to form STADIUM, a new network that should have a much broader reach than ASN due to the fact that it will be live-streamed 24/7 on Twitter.
“All of intercollegiate athletes has to look at every avenue that can get our product in front of our fan base,” Gilbert said. “Deals like this are the wave of the future. I look at my children, they're 18 and 15 and watch Netflix more than they do regular TV. We all have to look at where the market is going. I don't think we can leave any stone unturned.”
The C-USA baseball tournament is in the first of a three-year deal that will make Biloxi's MGM Park the home of the event. However, the long-term future of the event in Biloxi was made uncertain this week after Overtime Sports CEO Tim Bennett, who lured the tournament to Biloxi, filed a lawsuit against Biloxi Baseball LLC and managing partner Ken Young.
Allegations in the lawsuit against Biloxi Baseball and Young include:
▪ causing event cancellations,
▪ interfering with Bennett's negotiations with potential clients, including C-USA,
▪ preventing use of stadium facilities, including the main box office.
Gilbert said that it's up to the conference on whether the events surrounding the lawsuit will impact the future of the tournament in Biloxi.
“I saw the article, but my expectation is that Biloxi will put on a first-class event,” Gilbert said. “I was down there for the Southern Miss-Nicholls State game and that was my first game down there. I thought it was a great venue with a great atmosphere. I think it will be a first-class experience for our student-athletes.”
The C-USA tournament will take place May 24-28 at MGM Park.
As for the C-USA basketball tournament, Gilbert is open to keeping the event in Birmingham for a fourth consecutive year. Frisco, Texas, is also one potential site and El Paso has put in a bid as well, according to The Virginian-Pilot.
“There will be discussions at our spring meetings,” Gilbert said. “I was obviously able to attend (the tournament in Birmingham) this year. There are certainly positives to that. We'll explore our opportunities as far as revenue and fan engagement.”
The biggest goal for Gilbert going forward will be finding new forms of revenue as USM continues to lag behind in C-USA and FBS when it comes to the athletic budget.
USM ranked 119th in all of Division I in 2014-15 at $24 million, according to USA Today. Only Louisiana Tech ($22.2 million) ranked behind USM in C-USA.
USM receives student-fee subsidies on a significantly smaller scale than the rest of the conference. USM received $8.8 million in subsidies in 2014-15. Eight other C-USA programs received over $19 million in subsidies that year with Old Dominion checking in at $28.4 million. ODU had a total athletic budget of $44 million, the largest in the conference.
“I think certainly Reed Green Coliseum needs renovation work,” Gilbert said. “I think that will be a large project that will involve a lot of people. My priority initially is to get our new academic center up and running. We still have some fund-raising left to do to meet the goal for the academic center.”