Mid-American Conference Expansion: Possible Options Should the MAC Want To Expand

Patrick McDermott

If the MAC decided to recommit to conference expansion there's a few schools that would make great fits, and one that seems like a near lock.

By now you likely have heard the news that the MAC and UMass have decided to part ways. Following the completion of the 2015 football season UMass will cease to be a football affiliate of the MAC.

The MAC is saying it has no plans to further pursue expansion, and that makes sense.  Three times in the last 12 years the MAC has experimented with adding football-only members to grow it's TV presence, and three times it's failed.

This decision gets the MAC back to it's geographical core, balances out the divisions and stabilizes its image. It's easy to see why the MAC is saying it has no plans to expand in the near future, but if you've followed the MAC you know history suggests otherwise.

Since 2002 the MAC has only had 12 members for football once, 2006, and not by its own choice. UCF bolted with Marshall for Conference USA after the previous season. The next year the league added Temple as a football only member, before the Owls bolted for the Big East in the spring of 2012, just months before UMass was to join as the 14th member in football.

It could very well be that the MAC has just realized that going football-only isn't the best way to go about expansion as it's less permanent. This move could be a necessary step towards changing the league's approach to expansion.

Why would the MAC, which has failed three times prior, continue to pursue the expansion route? Well, there's a handful of key reasons:

  1. Revenue: In a conference that features some of the highest subsidized athletic departments in the nation every bit of revenue counts. There's no bigger cash cow in college sports than TV. The MAC is currently a regional conference, which is great for fans, but bad for the bottom line as evidenced by the paltry TV deal with ESPN. A league with interests in only a select few markets is less interesting for the national cable networks. By expanding out into new TV markets the MAC creates more of a demand for its product and improves its prospects at the bargaining table when its deal expires following the 2016-2017 season.
  2. Recruiting footprint: By reaching out into new markets not only would the league boost its TV prospects it would also expand its recruiting reach. The MAC is already in the strong recruiting states of Ohio and Michigan, but has a harder time breaking into some other states, such as Virginia, where it has no current presence. A member school in a new territory provides the league a presence and helps the other members get into that region for talent searching purposes.
  3. Security: The NCAA currently requires a conference have 12 members to field a conference championship game in football. There are obvious financial benefits to these games and losing the opportunity to host one should a current member decide to leave would be a painful hit. By expanding now and adding a few more teams the league would create an insurance policy against any teams who would decide to leave in the future.
  4. Academics: Believe it or not academics do play a part in conferences. Look around the MAC, there's a reason all the schools are academically similar: they can provide resources to one another while collectively boosting each other's reputations academically. Adding new schools with strong academic presences would only help the league.
  5. New Rivalries: While at first adding new blood does little in the way of building rivalries, if done right it can work. Take NIU and Ball State for example. Neither has a true close geographic rival. They try to make a rivalry between themselves work, but it's not the same as Miami-Ohio or BG-Toledo. Buffalo's in an even worse situation. UMass could have worked had the Minutemen actually competed, but now the Bulls are sitting along the shores of the Great Lakes with no best friend to keep them company.
So where would the league likely look to expand? Well Eastward seems like the most logical direction, as it's been the focus of the MAC's last few expansion attempts, and it could get the MAC into some bigger markets. There are of course some options for West or South, but East seems the most likely direction the MAC will go.

Here are a list of candidates that make the most sense:

James Madison:

The Dukes make the most sense out of all the options. The MAC is likely looking for full-members in future expansion deals and JMU is more than willing to move all of its sports to a new league. As we previously mentioned back in October, JMU has already completed an FBS feasibility study and seems determined to move on up.

The Dukes compete in all of the MAC's required sports, and its football program would be better than the bottom feeders right from the start. James Madison already has FBS level facilities, with plans to expand them even further. The program also fields competitive men's and women's soccer programs, a good women's field hockey program and a fantastic women's basketball program. WMU women's basketball team has won 25 or more games in every season since 2008-2009 when it won just 24. The Dukes would strengthen an already deep women's basketball conference and make it harder for the NCAA tournament to snub the league with at-large bids.

The Dukes don't seem to want any part of the Sun Belt, and have made it clear they plan on moving up. C-USA is full which leaves the MAC as the only viable option for JMU. It appears the only thing stopping this move from happening is an actual offer, which could likely be coming soon.

As for markets, Harrisonburg, Virginia isn't the most attractive TV market. But, the Dukes have alumni scattered throughout the South, including the D.C. area and would still provide the MAC with a better TV reach than it currently has. Academically JMU is also a great fit. It fits the same mold as the other MAC institutions and is ranked No. 6 amongst regional universities in the South.

Towson:

Adding the Tigers would be a strong addition for the MAC. It'd move the conference into the Baltimore market, a huge East Coast TV market that would surely help the MAC out money wise.  If the conference wants to move East there aren't many markets it could get into that make better sense than Baltimore.

Towson would be five hours from the closest current MAC member, but, if it joined in tandem with JMU, would be a fantastic get. The two have been rivals for some time, are only two and a half hours apart from one another. Not to mention Towson's football program is coming off a loss in the FCS national championship game and has a strong basketball tradition that would be more than welcomed into the MAC. The Tigers would be able to be competitive in both sports and wouldn't need long to develop into a challenger for conference titles.

The problem with Towson is it's unknown fi the university has any desire to move up to the FBS level. There has been no FBS feasibility study conducted yet and the program would need to do some serious upgrades facilities wise to make it happen.

Delaware:

This one keeps being mentioned but it's hard to take it serious until the administration makes some mention of being interested in moving up to the FBS.  The Blue Hens are a successful FCS program, but they seem absolutely content with staying that way. They've not once said anything about wanting to move up, and haven't conducted an FBS feasibility study.

Of course Delaware could be waiting for the right offer, and maybe the MAC would be such a fit. Delaware would instantly boost the league's basketball offerings, and would compete in the middle levels of football initially. Plus, Delaware would get the league back into the Philadelphia market, which was lost when Temple flew the coup.

Again though, Delaware would need to upgrade facilities (though only slightly) and convince its board that a move would be beneficial for the school. The fan base is there, but it's unknown if the administration has any desire in taking the next step competition wise.

Eastern Kentucky

Should the MAC decide it wants 14 and can't get another member in a major Eastern market, EKU would make some sense. The Colonels have already begun internal discussions over what would be necessary to make the move. Facilities would need some minor improvement, but the real thing inhibiting EKU's move at the moment is a lack of athletic budget and possible lack of support from the administration.

EKU's current athletic budget is somewhere around $10 million, well below the MAC average. The facilites would need some upgrades as well, but the Colonels wouldn't be a terrible fit if they were committed though. There'd be some obvious growing pains, but EKU has a strong track record of success at the FCS level as a member of the Ohio Valley Conference. The men's basketball team has had varying levels of success throughout the years, but would likely be a middle of the pack MAC team at first.

Richmond, Kentucky isn't necessarily close to any good TV markets though, so it wouldn't be the best move for TV money.

Liberty:

Another Virginia based school that's been mentioned by some.This move has an almost zero percent chance of happening. First off, not only is Liberty a complete clash with the rest of the MAC in terms of the type of institution it is (private, religious) it's also pretty much locked in as the Sun Belt's newest member. A source close to the Flames' athletic director tells me the deal is pretty much done between the two parties, meaning Liberty could be off the market very soon.

Appalachian State:

This move would have made some sense a few years ago as the Mountaineers were the hottest program in the FCS and clearly wanted to move up. Well, they are moving up, to the Sun Belt. This makes the likelihood of App. State joining the MAC slim at best since the school would have to pay a penalty to bolt the Sun Belt so soon.

But if the MAC could somehow sway the Mountaineers into making the move it wouldn't be a bad addition. The football program is strong and though it would obviously have an adjustment period it would fare far better than UMass has.

It would also put the MAC in North Carolina, a state that's not on Ohio's level in terms of football recruits but is certainly better than Massachusetts. The market wouldn't be a huge addition as the school is in the middle of nowhere (halfway between Charlotte and Knoxville). But it would still be a branch into the southeast region which would help a little bit thanks to App. State's alumni base in that region.

ODU, WKU and Middle Tennessee State all fall into a similar hole. Would have been good gets for the MAC but have already lost out to C-USA.

Marshall

HA! Yeah, right.



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