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Is it time for the Mid-American Conference to expand, retract or stay put?

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It’s been a couple years since we last discussed the possibility. Have any developments been made?

GoDaddy Bowl - Toledo v Arkansas State Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images

We’ve talked in the past on here about the MAC’s options moving forward after UMass departed the conference in 2015. When that happened, we looked at potential candidates for expansion, assuming this was the conference’s mission. The list seems to have been a pretty good one; one candidate on that list, Liberty, will play independent-level FBS ball starting in 2018.

So, why are we talking expansion again? Well, it’s simply because it’s a spectre that just lingers in the back of the mind. Always there, but never acting. At least, until last season.

Northern Illinois was a potential target to be included in the Big 12 expansion before that ultimately proved to be an excuse to have 19 free catered lunches and it gave the MAC (whether it wants to admit it or not) some nerves about what the conference might look like if NIU did indeed move. It wouldn’t be the first time NIU left, but it would probably be the most impactful on both sides.

Ultimately, what it comes down to for the MAC is whether or not it sees expansion as the only economically viable option for the conference moving forward. All indications have been that commissioner Jon Steinbrecher has been extremely conservative on expansion candidates, especially since the failed UMass experiment. Every MAC Media Day, he’s asked about the possibility and he says something to the effect of “if they fit the right profile, we’ll consider it.”

There’s a few things I take away from that statement:

  • The school must fit the geographic footprint.
  • The school must not be a member of a “better” basketball conference.
  • The school has to have a good media market.

This was reflected in the conference’s prior moves with Marshall, Temple and UMass. All three fit the footprint, all three were in good media markets and only UMass failed the “better basketball conference” rule. But for one reason or another, all of those moves failed.

Temple had more ambitious plans and left for the Big East/American as soon as possible. Marshall had enough with the MAC and burned every bridge it could to be in Conference USA. UMass balked when the MAC approached them to be a full member, which put their coveted Atlantic-10 basketball membership in danger.

Other Group of Five conferences have decided expansion is the answer.

The American Athletic Conference, to even out its revenue sports, added Wichita State in basketball and all other sports excepting football to the conference.

Conference USA added Old Dominion, Western Kentucky and UAB (again) in recent years as well in an effort to keep up with losses suffered from previous expansion as well.

With this in mind, it appears that many conferences are positioning themselves to gain once EXPANSIONPALOOZA: THE SECOND ONE begins after the Big 12’s grant of rights expires in 2024.

It makes sense to expand from a survivalist standpoint. Add more teams, that means more potential revenue for the conference and its members in the form of NCAA Tournament berth appearances, New Years Six games, bowl games and other sorts of money games.

The right additions could also add to the conference’s profile from a national standpoint by strengthening the perception of the strength of schedules. This was a major problem in football this year, as WMU finished with a sub top-10 ranking despite being the only undefeated team in the regular season.

If the conference is worried about keeping up its regional strength, it only needs to look to strong programs that are already within the footprint. Above all, if the conference chooses to expand, it needs to make things easier, not harder. (Read: no UCF’s.)

But, you know, there’s other options, too.

The Sun Belt Conference recently added Coastal Carolina to further cement its foothold on the Southeast, while shedding the dead weight of Idaho and New Mexico State starting in 2018.

A reduction strategy could make sense for the MAC, especially if they believe they’re in a position financially that would require such a drastic action. It would, of course, be an extremely unpopular option, as the conference has more or less looked the same since 2004.

The two schools that could most easily be removed in this (again, extremely unlikely) scenario to keep up a geographic footprint of full members would be NIU and Buffalo. NIU has already been a target for expansion and has not denied interest in jumping up in the past. Buffalo, meanwhile, makes sense from a geographic standpoint, as they’re an outlier on the map. The university’s recent financial struggles, which resulted in the shuttering of four varsity sports, could certainly be used as an argument to remove the school as well.

And then, there’s the option of staying pat and hoping the situation changes in seven years to the point where member institutions don’t have to worry about any major change.

The MAC is still in the middle of its 10-year, $113 million megadeal with ESPN to broadcast its games nationally in a conference-friendly deal that includes big payouts per institution (around $670,000 annually per school per year) and free infrastructure. That deal takes the MAC to 2026-2027, so they’re certainly in a bit more stable situation than fellow G5 conferences, especially with the news that Conference USA’s TV partners might be trying to get out of the deal.

But its stability might be a killer, especially if EXPANSIONPALOOZA: THE SECOND ONE happens and one or more MAC schools are picked up in the chaos and fury. Even now, the conference stands at an unfavorable pool of candidates, especially with Old Dominion, already an affiliate member in other sports, going to Conference USA.

The pool would be narrow, with James Madison, Illinois State, Indiana State and little else in the way of FCS schools with full required programs ready to go. Schools such as Oakland and Youngstown State would be a good fit in basketball but have nothing to offer anywhere else. Adding a school like North Dakota State is a pipe dream at best.

A lot of the FCS schools that would be good fits belong in the basketball-centric Missouri Valley Conference or Horizon League. One could consider the Ohio Valley COnference as well, but only Eastern Kentucky seems eager to make a jump to the FCS level from that group of schools, which doesn’t serve the MAC any unless they have a travel partner.

In terms of FBS independent schools, the choices aren’t great either. In 2018, that list will be New Mexico State, UMass and Liberty, none of which really do anything for the MAC. One could hope that Conference USA falls apart and the MAC could grab some of the leftover teams that fall in the geographic footprint, such as Western Kentucky or Middle Tennessee State. (No, there isn’t a chance in hell that Marshall would consider a MAC membership, don’t even say it.)

So, in short, I suppose what I’m saying is that it’s a difficult question to tackle at the present. Given the current circumstances of college football leadership, where Power FIve conferences have more say (and power) than ever, G5 conferences, such as the MAC, will inevitably have to face such questions about their respective survivals.

The next seven years will be pivotal in preparing for the worst, even if one hopes for the best.