As is true with any conference, the landscape of the Mid-American Conference has changed over the years. Schools like Temple, U-Mass, Marshall and recent self-proclaimed national champion, Central Florida have all left the conference since Y2K was a thing. The most recent addition to the Mid-American Conference still a league member is Buffalo, who joined in 1998. The league might have avoided a potential disaster a few years ago when the Big 12 expressed interest in Northern Illinois and other MAC schools were mentioned as possible fillers in the American Conference.
Rumors of MAC expansion have been rampant in recent years with little to no actual movement. Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia had been mentioned for some time but was more closely linked to the Sun Belt Conference, and it is widely believed that the schools religious and political beliefs have hindered their efforts in finding a conference home.
Should the Mid-American Conference look to expand, it could look at some of its affiliate schools from other sports. Southern Illinois and Missouri State are MAC affiliate schools while playing in the Missouri Valley Conference. The MVC is recognized as a FCS football conference. Both joined the MAC in 2009 for men’s swimming. Both schools feature solid athletic facilities that would not be out of place in the Mid-American Conference, especially their basketball and football facilities. Both schools have had runs of success as division one basketball programs in the Missouri Valley Conference, which some would consider as a higher level of basketball conference than the MAC. The schools may not wish to leave their conference for that reason.
Perhaps more realistically, could be the addition of two more Michigan schools. Grand Valley State and Wayne State have been rumored to be preparing for the jump from the NCAA’s division two level. While adding two more Michigan schools might over-saturate the MAC in the Mitten State, they would provide the conference with even more ties to major markets, such as Grand Rapids and Detroit.
For Grand Valley State, the move has been rumored for years as they are as close to a national brand as possible at the division two level and a yearly contender for Director’s Cups, which are a measurement of the most successful division two athletic programs. GVSU for years has contended that they did not need to move up as they were seeing yearly success and building a brand without the costs of being a division one athletic department. However, longtime athletic director Tim Selgo retired from the position and the GLIAC faces questionable times as several league members have left for the GMAC. Moving up would give the Lakers the opportunity at a larger piece of revenues from ESPN. However, would a move up be beneficial enough for the Lakers? They would need a new or improved basketball facility, and their football facility, while nice, maybe a bit small for division one athletics. The school has already expressed interest in renovating their gym. The school has money to make the move and proud alumni boosters. Their student support is strong so their brand is likely strong enough to support a move and still have fans come out on cold a Wednesday night for the random MACtion game against Kent State but would it be worth their while to go from playing for national titles to playing for Quick Lanes bowl appearances? Other sports would be likely to see increased exposure. Losing strong rivalries against Saginaw Valley and Ferris State might not be ideal.
Perhaps more likely of the two is Wayne State University, located in Detroit. Wayne State is a former MAC member and in fact was a founding member of the conference, leaving before the league ever began play. Wayne State has been rumored as possibly moving up since the turn of the century but the economic downturn seemed to halt those discussions. Wayne State is an oddity as a major research institution in a major urban center while playing division two athletics. Wayne State just announced their most major investment to their athletic department with the announcement of a new 25 million dollar basketball facility, which will play host to the Detroit Pistons G-League affiliate. The University has one of the nicer baseball facilities in Michigan with Harwell Field and they have recently began renovating their softball field in addition to a new multi-sport indoor facility. Their football field would need to be upgraded for division one play. At the time of their announcement on the new basketball arena, school officials admitted that they were considering a move up to the division one level. As their brand and division two successes are not as immense as Grand Valley’s and lack of rivals, they are likely free to move up without as many concerns. The reasons stated above and the MAC’s strong ties to the city of Detroit makes Wayne State as the more likely school to move up.
While Grand Valley and Wayne State could move up to the division one level for all sports and play as a FCS school at the football level, there are no FCS members in the state of Michigan. The nearest FCS conferences would be the Ohio Valley, the aforementioned prestigious Missouri Valley, which could be hard to gain admittance, or the Pioneer League, which doesn’t offer scholarships. For sports other than football, it would be easier to find a fit. Area schools like Oakland University and Detroit Mercy play in the Horizon League while the Summit League would also fit into the geographical footprint. Maybe they could play other sports in one of those leagues while playing in the MAC for football, but the MAC has been against that arrangement in the past with U-Mass and Temple serving as examples. With the GLIAC struggling with its membership, Grand Valley and Wayne State may be forced into a decision, sooner than later.
To be clear, MAC expansion does not seem to be imminent. Even if Grand Valley or Wayne State decided to make the move, it would be a significant step up from the division two ranks to MAC play. Facilities would need to be upgraded and there is no telling if the MAC would even welcome the schools. It could make the MAC Michigan heavy and upset current members like Eastern Michigan, and Western Michigan. Although the major markets these schools represent could be too much for the league to pass up. It may take another conference shuffle with the power five schools or the demise of the GLIAC for Grand Valley or Wayne State to move up.