A merger with the Sun Belt can't come fast enough for Conference USA.
As I pointed out last year in a pair of pieces, the current model of C-USA is not feasible for the long run. TV money is fading fast and the expense of fielding teams is increasing with each year.
While football has driven realignment over the last 15 years, the biggest problem for C-USA is the cost of travel for sports on a smaller scale.
Next week, the FIU baseball team has to travel to Beckley, West Virginia, to play Marshall in a three-game Conference USA series. That's a round trip of 1,770 miles as the crow flies.
The UTEP softball team wraps up its schedule with a trip to FIU in May – 3,286 miles.
The Marshall volleyball team has to travel to UTEP for one contest in November – 2,862 miles.
The Charlotte women's soccer team was required to travel to Denton, Texas, for a conference bout against North Texas back in October – 1,882 miles.
Those four trips add up to almost 10,000 miles of travel and a logistical nightmare.
Those are just four examples of the insane amount of travel required of student-athletes in Conference USA. For athletic departments across the conference, that mileage adds up.
Old Dominion owns the largest athletic budget in C-USA at $44 million and Louisiana Tech has the conference's smallest budget at $22.2 million, according to USA Today.
The current model of Conference USA is not set up to succeed for the long term.
Some fans recoiled last year at my idea of a C-USA/Sun Belt merger, referring to me as “Patty McCook” and calling the suggestion “stupid” or “ludicrous.”
Facebook is always good for the ego.
While fans may have their pride hurt by the idea of moving in a large conference with the likes of Texas State, Arkansas State and Coastal Carolina, it seems as if there is some support in C-USA for some type of realignment or merger.
Middle Tennessee athletic director Chris Massaro recently told Harry Minium of the (Norfolk, Va.) Virginian-Pilot that he's expecting changes.
“It's inevitable that there's going to be some type of consolidation among the Group of Five,” he told Minium. “I don't think we're there yet, but eventually we will be.”
It's hard to tell where the majority of the conference stands on the possibility of a merger, but there's no denying that it has been discussed.
A look back
Let's revisit my two ideas from last year:
▪ C-USA should dissolve and allow programs to form a pair of conferences that make more sense along geographic lines, likely bringing in Sun Belt and FCS schools to fill out the two new lineups.
I've argued in the past that Louisiana-Monroe shouldn't be allowed in the new conference because of its tiny $13 million budget, but it's hard to see Sun Belt members casting aside ULM unless it finally decides to give up and move back to the Football Championship Subdivision.
Here's what I think a Sun Belt/C-USA merger would look like at the moment:
SOUTHWEST: Texas-San Antonio, Rice, North Texas, Texas State, UTEP, Arkansas State.
MID-SOUTH: Southern Miss, UAB, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee, La.-Lafayette, La.-Monroe.
SOUTHEAST: South Alabama, Troy, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Florida International, Florida Atlantic.
EAST: Marshall, Old Dominion, Charlotte, Appalachian State, Western Kentucky, Coastal Carolina.
Each team would have an automatic crossover game for football like Southern Miss-South Alabama, MTSU-WKU, Louisiana Tech-Arkansas State and UAB-Troy.
The conference could easily be expanded to 28 teams with the inclusion of Liberty, UMass, New Mexico State and possibly an FCS team like James Madison or Sam Houston State.
In the 24- or 28-team conference, it would be easy to set up schedules for sports like softball or volleyball where teams rarely have to make lengthy trips within the conference.
If the conference offers a more regional aspect, the more likely rivalries will come to life. An FIU-North Texas football game does little for either program or the conference as a whole.