The great "UMass-MAC" experiment received an expiration date: 2015.
News broke Wednesday afternoon that the Mid-American Conference and UMass have mutually agreed to part ways following the 2015 football season. The Minutemen will play out the next two seasons as a football-only member before moving on to new pastures.
When the team agreed to join the conference as a football-only member back in April 2011 it was under a two-year deal. The MAC held a clause in the deal to offer full membership after those first two years. If UMass declined the MAC would let UMass remain a football affiliate for two more seasons before ending the relationship.
The first two full seasons in the conference saw the Minutemen go a combined 2-22 (2-14 MAC) with wins over teams that finished 1-11 and 0-12 respectively. It was a rocky start as an FBS school to say the least. The team battled members of its own school over whether or not it should stay in the FBS, dealt with a player-mistreatment scandal and fired its second-year head coach all in the first 24 months of being in the MAC. It struggled to get people to make the long drive to Foxboro to watch the team compete in Gillette Stadium and was ranked near the bottom in several national statistics in both seasons.
Yet earlier this winter, with the two years up, the MAC exercised the ultimatum clause in their deal. On Feb. 17, 2014 the conference's Council of Presidents extended an offer of full membership to the Minutemen. Citing a study the University is conducting about the viability of current and future conference alignments, UMass opted to turn down the offer, saying joining the MAC as a full member would strain the athletic budget and pose issues for the student athletes.
So the Minutemen are going to ride out these next two seasons as an affiliate member, take their helmets and move on. It's a solid move by the Minutemen, as joining the MAC would actually be a step down from their current basketball alliance with the Atlantic-10 Conference, a much more prestigious and competitive league. The Minutemen will seek an alignment that better suits the school's interests, but what does it mean for the MAC?
There are a few immediate impacts, the most obvious being that the conference will drop back down to 12 teams in 2015, barring some unforeseen moves, and balanced divisions.
For the current 12 members it also means that after 2015 they'll get to split up UMass' share of the TV deal pie. It does mean one less easy game on the conference schedule, but also a potentially better reputation nationwide by removing a program that thus far has been a black-eye on the league.
This will also bring balance to a conference that has been unbalanced for some time. The MAC has had uneven divisions since 2007, making things a bit confusing for fans. By riding the unbalanced nature from the conference it gives the league a more stable image as all of the current full-members have been in for at least 16 years. With its current TV deal contract set to expire following the 2016-2017 athletic year stability could be a valuable bargaining chip.
But there's another possible option: This could actually lead to future expansion.
According to Brett McMurphy of ESPN, the MAC said it is unlikely to seek additional members. But we've heard that before. It's been a long time since the MAC has been happy with just 12 teams.
From 2002 to 2005 the MAC had 14 members, with UCF serving as a football-only member. But following the 2005 season UCF left along with Marshall, a full-member, cutting the MAC down to 12 teams for the 2006 season. In 2007 things got funky again when Temple joined as a football-only school giving the MAC 13 teams. The MAC announced the addition of UMass in 2011 as a way to balance out to an even 14, but Temple unexpectedly announced it was leaving for the Big East before the 2012 season (UMass' first season in the MAC) began.
As mentioned before the TV deal is nearing its end date, and the MAC has struggled to get fair value out of its current deals (each school nets around $100,000 a year from the current deal with ESPN that runs through 2016-2017). Part of the problem is the markets the conference is located in. Now with the loss of UMass the conference is overwhelmingly located in the Ohio and Michigan markets. While there are some big TV markets in these states, the conference's national reach isn't wide enough to merit a heftier deal.
We've seen how the thirst for TV revenue has shaped the college landscape recently with the Big 10, predominantly located in the Mid-West just like the MAC, branching out into the East coast region. If the MAC wants to present a more attractive product to the networks one way to do so would be to get its foot in wider reaching markets - the only way to do this is to expand. With three years to work with, and a track record to prove it's not unlikely, it's not hard to imagine that the MAC may try to expand. It'd make financial sense for the MAC to try to bulk up and reach out onto the Eastern coast to bring in some new blood as full members.
Though based off this move with UMass and the fact that the conference's attempts to expand via affiliate membership has failed three times now it'd be hard to imagine the MAC accepting any new members that don't join for full sports. The problem with the UMass relationship was it was completely one-sided. UMass got a league to play in, but the MAC got a bad football program, with no interest from its local major market. By being only a football member the MAC didn't get the benefit of UMass' reputation in other sports, most notably basketball, all the MAC got was a smudge on its resume by adding another bottom-dwelling FBS squad to its ranks.
If the MAC chooses to go the expansion route again it will need to look for a more complete relationship. Something that benefits the rest of the conference.
There are still several FCS level schools looking to make the immediate jump to the FBS level, and several that seem to be open to the idea of joining as full members. It could be possible that this UMass decision allows the MAC to go snag two future full-members sometime in the coming months or years before the TV deal expires in order to maximize the revenue it can get out of a new deal.
Of course nothing is definitive right now, and the MAC is obviously saying it's happy with 12 and likely won't comment otherwise. That's to be expected. But if history is to be trusted and if the situations unfolding around college football are to be read it would appear this UMass decision could be just the first in a move to build the conference up all around and secure a better TV gig in the future.