Sun Belt expansion leaned into regional rivalries. Can it become the top G5 conference?

NEW ORLEANS – Ricky Rahne wasn’t sure if he should say the word, but the Old Dominion head coach figured it would get the point across.

“I know I’m not supposed to use this word, but in college football, hate is good,” he said. “Hate is passion. Indifference is terrible. “

The mood at Sun Belt media days felt different than the rest of college football. There wasn’t fear of losing members in realignment or explanations for why a cross-country conference made sense for anything more than money.

Instead, there was a lot of excitement over how much they hated each other – in a good way – and a belief that this could become the strongest Group of 5 conference.

The Sun Belt was one of the last FBS conferences to be impacted by conference realignment last year, but it was the first to implement it. Marshall, Southern Miss and Old Dominion have joined from Conference USA for the 2022 season, and James Madison moved up from the FCS level, giving the SBC 14 members. Non-football members UT-Arlington and Arkansas-Little Rock have already departed.

The SEC and Big Ten expanded with major brands. The Big 12 and American Athletic Conference backfilled with the best available competitive or financial options, expanding their geographic base. The Sun Belt, on the other hand, doubled down on regional ties, with programs that mostly have a strong football history. The Appalachian State-Marshall rivalry is back. So are App State-James Madison and JMU-Old Dominion. Southern Miss is within driving distance of several new conference-mates in the states of Louisiana and Alabama.

It’s been a hit. In The Athletic‘s Group of 5 reader survey earlier this month, 73 percent of the more than 400 Sun Belt fans who voted rated the league’s new membership as a five out of five. Commissioner’s Keith Gill’s approval rating basically doubled from a year ago. Gill, the first Black commissioner in FBS history when he took the job in 2019, received a contract extension through 2030 earlier this week.

β€œFolks are excited,” Gill said. β€œOne, the regional rivalries matter. Folks will play teams they have a history with. That’s important. Proximity also matters. They can actually travel to the games. And the quality of football, we’ve got really good winning traditions in our mix now with passionate fan bases. “

It helps financially, too. Along with easier travel, App State sold out of its nearly 11,000 football season tickets. Troy is nearing a school record in season tickets. Southern Miss could sell its most in a decade. JMU expects to hit a school record. Georgia Southern is nearing a record despite coming off a 3-9 season. Others are strong, too. The Sun Belt was one of only three FBS leagues to see an increase in attendance from 2019 to 2021, according to CBS Sports. At a time when attendance is dropping nationally – at its lowest since 1981 – the Sun Belt will almost certainly have an increase again this fall.

β€œOur fans will travel to Huntington, our fans will travel to James Madison,” App State head coach Shawn Clark said. β€œThat’s what big-time college football is about. This is way above my pay grade, but how many fans from USC will travel to Rutgers? How many UCLA fans will travel to West Lafayette? … We’re three hours from (almost everyone in our division). “

Falling attendance and the increased television value of football have driven most of the realignment across the country. And there is a television value boost for the Sun Belt. Gill announced that the league’s ESPN contract through 2030-31 would expand and add financial resources with more football and basketball games on linear TV (a specific number wasn’t given), plus more than 6,000 non-revenue sports games on ESPN +, including more than 1,000 baseball and softball games each. Other sources in the league said that television revenue increase will essentially keep each school whole at last year’s number while splitting the pie 14 ways instead of 10 or 12 before. That television number is believed to be around $ 1 million each, a source said, with the total conference payout at least double that.

Could the Sun Belt expand even further? Gill didn’t rule it out when asked, but he also downplayed anything serious.

β€œIt’s one of those things where you’re never closed for business,” Gill said. β€œI think we’re really good at 14. I don’t anticipate any expansion, but if an opportunity came up, we’d be crazy not to consider it. It’s folks in our footprint that have quality football programs that can create regional rivalries that excite our fans. “

Other sources in the league said Louisiana Tech, Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee were among the expansion options a year ago. In some circles (but not all), the departures of WKU and MTSU from the Sun Belt to C-USA a decade ago left what are still some hard feelings. The same goes for former Louisiana Tech AD Tommy McClelland’s 2020 comment dismissing the idea of ​​a Sun Belt-C-USA merger, adding that Louisiana (Lafayette) should try to β€œmove up” to C-USA, extending a longtime beef with other Louisiana G5 schools.

The Sun Belt’s focus on the four schools it ultimately added happened quickly, and the league felt they were the four best options anyway. It helped that Marshall recently won a men’s soccer national title, Southern Miss is a top-15 baseball team and JMU’s softball team played in the Women’s College World Series last year. The league is now quite formidable in baseball and men’s soccer especially.

β€œIt’s very similar to the SEC,” Marshall head coach Charles Huff said. “You can tell they’ve taken that model and streamlined it down to them. The organization, the leadership is in line. “

Louisiana won the Sun Belt in 2021 and finished ranked for the second year in a row. (Andrew Wevers / USA Today)

The Sun Belt began sponsoring football in 2001. For a long time, it was viewed as the weakest FBS conference. It didn’t have a football team reach the Top 25 until 2016. A decade ago, the league had just two bowl tie-ins. After the mass migration of schools to C-USA, its future was unclear. Then-commissioner Karl Benson turned to the FCS to add successful programs like App State and Georgia Southern. He learned from the mistake of chasing TV markets in the 1990s while leading the 16-team WAC. This time, he added schools that had passionate fans.

That strategy continued under Gill and has paid off. The conference had two preseason Top 25 teams last year and Louisiana finished 16th. Gill said the league will soon announce a sixth bowl tie-in. Billy Napier turned down SEC head-coaching interest and stayed at Louisiana for multiple years, knowing he could keep winning and wait for an even better job. After a 13-1 championship season last year, he’s at Florida.

β€œI was here when this was a stepping stone and people were trying to move on,” said new Louisiana head coach Michael Desormeaux, a former UL player and longtime assistant. “To see the plan the league has had with commissioner Gill and before that, not going after markets, but going after football tradition, it’s created a really impressive league and now you have people that want to get into it.”

With the departure of Cincinnati, Houston and UCF to the Big 12 next year, the top of the Group of 5 could open up after years of AAC football dominance. The AAC and Mountain West have more resources and more television money. Coaching salaries are far higher in those leagues. But the Sun Belt has grown dramatically over the past five years, built on a hotbed recruiting region and programs that had winning infrastructure in place. Becoming the top G5 conference is among the Sun Belt’s top talking points.

Rahne said Old Dominion averaged more than 1,000 miles of travel for football road games last year. The geographic situation in C-USA led to indifference from fans. This year, travel will be cut in half. He said that when he and his wife walk their St. Bernard dog in the morning, they now see flags of schools ODU will play. As college football charges into an uncertain future, the Sun Belt has bet on proximity. It has bet on the known over the unknown. It has bet on the love of hate.

“Let’s be honest, our fans have some hatred for some of these teams,” Rahne said, “and that’s a good thing for college football.”

(Top photo: Reinhold Matay / USA Today)


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