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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.