It wasn't that long ago when Conference USA was considered head and shoulders above the Sun Belt Conference, but that era is long gone.
In the 10 years that followed the Sun Belt's decision to sponsor football in 2001, C-USA had the upper hand in most sports and had more fan support.
On Saturday, three C-USA members who departed the Sun Belt over the last six years will take on teams from their former conference in bowl games. WKU is the only C-USA program that is considered a favorite by Las Vegas — 6 ½ points over Georgia State in the Cure Bowl in Orlando.
Troy, which stunned LSU in Baton Rouge this season, is a 7-point favorite over North Texas in the New Orleans Bowl and Arkansas State is a 3 1/2-point favorite over Middle Tennessee in the Camellia Bowl, which takes place in Montgomery, Alabama.
C-USA got a head start on the Sun Belt as a sponsor of all major sports when it was formed back in 1995 by the likes of Louisville, Southern Miss and Cincinnati, but the gap between C-USA and the Sun Belt is nearly nonexistent at this point.
C-USA still features more large media markets, but that seems to matter little to the conference's TV partners. C-USA's TV revenue dropped from $2.8 million per school to $1.1 million in 2016 under the league's current TV contract, according to Harry Minium of The Virginian-Pilot.
Sun Belt members pull in about $100,000 annually in TV money.
Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson said Wednesday in a phone interview with the Sun Herald that he expects to see an increase in TV revenue under a new deal for his conference rather than the drop that C-USA fell victim to.
“We think we're just going to see just the opposite,” Benson said. “We believe that we're going to see an enhanced and broader TV contract.”
The Sun Belt currently has two years remaining in its TV deal with ESPN.
Benson’s big idea
As a former commissioner of the Mid-American Conference (1990-94) and the Western Athletic Conference (1994-2012), Benson has the reputation of a man who doesn't shy away from big plans.
He was the WAC commissioner in 1996 when the conference added six members to expand to 16 schools. That model, which stretched from Honolulu to Tulsa, eventually fell apart due to a variety of reasons, including travel costs, providing a cautionary tale for all other conferences that dare to go big.
When the WAC was mostly devoured by the Mountain West Conference, Benson became the commissioner of the Sun Belt in 2012.
Conference USA was going through major upheaval at the time, losing eight members to what became the American Athletic Conference. C-USA eventually added five Sun Belt members to fill out its 14-team lineup — FAU, FIU, WKU, Middle Tennessee and North Texas.
Benson arrived in the Sun Belt at just the time when C-USA was eying the conference for new members.
Benson's proposal to solve the problem at the time is an idea that's gained some discussion over the last year — merge Conference USA and the Sun Belt.
“I introduced the C-USA/Sun Belt merger back in 2012, but it did not receive any real support from (Conference USA),” Benson said. “This was before the Sun Belt members made their departure. As a result, I had to go another route, which is the route we have ended up in now.”
At that time, there would have been 21 schools involved in the merger. The two conferences now have a combined membership of 26.
Why not now?
The Sun Belt has added Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Texas State and Texas-Arlington (a non-football member) since 2013. The conference will feature 10 football-playing members when New Mexico State and Idaho are removed from the lineup for the 2018 season.
That will leave the Sun Belt with a sensible roster that has two members in Louisiana, two in Texas, two in Alabama, two in the Carolinas, two in Arkansas and two in Georgia.
While the cost of travel continues to be an issue for an unwieldy C-USA lineup, Benson likes the current model for the Sun Belt.
“I think we've created a better footprint,” Benson said. “With all due respect to the Florida schools (FAU and FIU), we've tightened up our boundaries.
“I'm real happy with what we've been able to do. I think that we're poised for the future very nicely.”
C-USA and Sun Belt programs are on par in many ways and often recruit the same student-athletes thanks to their close proximity.
Many C-USA schools are located closer to Sun Belt programs than they are to their own conference mates:
▪ Louisiana Tech and La.-Monroe are separated by 32 miles of interstate.
▪ Texas State and UTSA are about 50 miles apart.
▪ The campuses of Southern Miss and South Alabama are less than 90 miles apart.
▪ It's just a 2-hour trip from Appalachian State to Charlotte.
“It doesn't take a lot of imagination to ask the question as an outsider looking in,” Benson said. “If someone moves into the area, you're going to ask the question — Why doesn't Southern Miss play in the same conference as Troy and South Alabama? Those questions are always going to be there.”
Benson was asked what it would take for the Sun Belt and Conference USA to move toward some type of realignment of merger.
“I think we have to remember that membership decisions are made at the president and chancellor level,” Benson said. “It's not up to the athletic directors or commissioners.”
After the chance to merge in 2012 passed without backing from C-USA, Benson's focus at the moment is making sure the Sun Belt succeeds in its current form.
“In the Sun Belt Conference, the focus is to continue to develop the membership we have and to maximize the commitment that our current membership has made,” Benson said. “On the football side, our goal is to have the highest ranked champion (among the Group of 5 conferences).”