The next set of conference realignment shifts came at the end of last week, when the Big 12 Conference, stung by departures of Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC, announced the addition of four schools: Cincinnati, Houston and Central Florida from the American Athletics Conference and Brigham Young. Those schools will become members no later than 2024-25, according to the conference.
The question now becomes whether this will affect the Sun Belt Conference in any way. Conference commissioner Keith Gill issued a strong statement after the Big 12 news became official — and notably an hour before a similar statement was issued by American Athletic commissioner Mike Aresco — saying "if we identify a school that adds value to the Sun Belt, we'll certainly consider them for membership."
To help understand the current landscape and the nature of realignment conversations, the Journal contacted Karl Benson, whose career included expertise during realignment. Benson was Gill's predecessor as Sun Belt commissioner from 2012 to 2019 and is former commissioner of the Mid-American Conference (1990 to 1994) and the Western Athletic Conference (1994 to 2012).
Benson's main point throughout: the Sun Belt is in a much stronger position now than when he inherited a conference dealing with an evacuation of former member schools to Conference USA, which led to additions of then-FCS schools Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and, finally, Coastal Carolina in 2014 and 2015. He feels the league is in good position to hold onto its members schools and make a strong argument why the conference should be part of all of their long-term plans.
Q: When you look at the realignment landscape, what do you see?
"The likelihood that there will be a further domino effect that could reach down into the Sun Belt. The difference in 2021 versus 2013 or 2014, when the schools left for Conference USA, the Sun Belt has clearly separated themselves from Conference USA since then. And they have proven very strongly that the Sun Belt today is stronger and has preformed well, has a better television arrangement than Conference USA. So unlike in 2013, and '14, when the Sun Belt was threatened by Conference USA, I don't think that that exists today. So it's a matter of whether the American will look at the Sun Belt members as possible replacement teams for that. And to some extent, it's a testament to where the Sun Belt is today versus where they were in 2013 or '14 fighting for survival. And they being in a much stronger position."
Q: What would be your message from the Sun Belt right now?
"On one hand, you're trying to convince the existing membership that, in this case, try to convince the Sun Belt existing membership — and relationship is everything. And the relationship in 2010-ish with the WAC and the Mountain West: The WAC has gotten a lot better, a lot stronger, and the Mountain West had gotten weaker. And there was still this belief that the Mountain West was a stronger conference than the WAC. And so it was it was important to try to convince your membership that going to the Mountain West wasn't necessarily a step up.
"One of the challenges today is to explain to current membership that they are in a strong position, that they are trending upward. They've separated themselves clearly from Conference USA and the Mid-American Conference. And that to look at a 'lesser American' today may not necessarily be the best place for them. That’s the message to be said to the membership. And then you prepare that if there is movement, and if there are schools that leave, to have your plan together as to how to how to react, and how to get back into that replacement mode. And again, it's a testament to the [Sun Belt] universities and their athletics directors and football coaches and their chancellors as to what they created back in 2014, with the additions that they made with App State and Georgia Southern and Coastal Carolina, and how those replacement teams have certainly delivered. But again, there’s a dance on what comes first: Do you wait to see what the American does in terms of their membership? And then have your plan in place, and if the Sun Belt is is not affected, it's a matter of evaluating with the 10 football-playing schools that they have today. And whether there are any other schools that can add value.
"I think the Sun Belt has proven that the footprint that is has established, albeit from Boone, North Carolina, to San Marcos, Texas, that the two divisions, the two fives from the East and the West, have proven to be very workable point. Especially in a football standpoint, and that’s probably the dominant factor that you have to look at. What does this mean? What does this mean for Sun Belt football going forward?"
Q: Would the Sun Belt's standing have empowered you to be aggressive to try to add a school or two before the American Athletic?
"It'd be difficult. Again, going back to my days in the WAC there was an aggressive attempt to add BYU in 2010. And we're almost there. But what it required was for Fresno State, Nevada and Hawaii — Boise State had already left — but BYU wasn't going to come into the WAC until they knew for sure that it was going to be the WAC that existed at that time.
"The same thing holds true here, that you almost have to get through this and see where you are on the back end before you might be able to entice someone to necessarily join the Sun Belt. Is this an option as to what comes first — do wait to see or do you go out and try to convince somebody to join the Sun Belt today? Now, obviously, if there are inquiries of interest today, certainly they're going to entertain them. And I don't think there's any secret as to who the potential members may be, or who the schools that may want to consider the Sun Belt within the footprint. One of the things that we always talked about is what would happen if the schools who left the Sun Belt in 2012 and 2013, what if they wanted to come back to the Sun Belt? What would be the reaction?
"Again, the 10-team Sun Belt, and I don't know if we necessarily knew this at the time — we thought we had it. And we looked at the analytics, and we looked at the statistics and we've looked at the history — is that 10-team league delivers more teams that have winning records than a 12-or 14-team does in the percentage. The current revenue distribution of the Group of Five, and whether or not that will remain as is, the Sun Belt has has had a big advantage in producing those numbers: the computer numbers that determine the revenue share as a 10-team league. So I think you really have to keep that in mind.
"The 10-team Sun Belt has delivered over the last three seasons, in terms of separating themselves from Conference USA and the MAC. And that the Sun Belt, using those analytics, the Sun Belt is much closer to the Mountain West and the American then Conference USA and the Mid-American are to the Sun Belt. And I truly believe that part of that, or a big part of that, is the 10-team league. Nobody's asked me for my opinion. You're the first person to ask me for my opinion on that, but I think that would be one of my standard questions is, ‘What’s wrong with what the Sun Belt is today as a 10-team league?' And is there anybody out there that truly will add value? You don't want teams to come in and reduce that. Those current computer rankings that are used to determine the revenue distribution."
Q: As far as conferences replacing the market value they lose — for example, the Big 12 won’t replace the value of Texas and Oklahoma, and it’ll will be hard for the American to do the same with Cincinnati, Houston and UCF — how much would that weigh on your decisions now?
"The most important piece is how strong is their football program? What type of tradition does it have? Has it won before? Does it deliver its own market, forgetting about any other market? And App State is a perfect example of how to add value to a conference. We could bring in a team that has had history. And then once it got to the Sun Belt, it enhanced the value of the Sun Belt.
"Today’s assessment of media markets is, especially at the Sun Belt and some of the other Group of Fives, is pretty much meaningless today. The television contract of the Sun Belt is not going to be increased. I’ll say it facetiously here, but, the only school out there that can move the television needle would be Notre Dame. I mean, that's a pretty blunt way to say it.
"How does the Sun Belt improve its current (scenario)? How does it overtake the Mountain West? How does it overtake whatever might be the realigned American? The schools that are currently in the Sun Belt, as they get better, as they get stronger, as those two-point losses to Miami over the weekend become wins, that's how the Sun Belt improves its current ranking order in the hierarchy, assuming that the Group of Five even remains as it is. And that revenue distribution, and the postseason, the CFP? I mean, that's all based on, going forward, that there's a status quo in the overall FBS, and the NCAA for that matter. I said to somebody last week: the only thing you can think of right now, is that there is uncertainty."
Q: You hit on it a little bit here, but as far as identifying schools to potentially add to a conference, how do you decide? How does that conversation process start and pan out?
"A phone call, initiated by an athletics director, or by a president, informing the commissioner that his or her school is interested in membership is a strong indicator. The phone call going the other way, sometimes will hit. But the strongest indication — and again this is the conversation that I had with App and with Coastal Carolina and with Georgia Southern, was are you ready? Are you ready to make the move from FCS to FBS? That's the first question. The conversation that I had with James Madison in the spring of 2014 was are you ready to make the move from FCS to FBS? And we're talking about current FCS members in terms of if they’re ready to make that move. That has to be that.
"Any movement of Conference USA schools to the Sun Belt would have to be initiated by a Conference USA school."
Q: When you were a commissioner, and a member school told you they were interested in starting conversations with other conferences, did that come with the expectation that you already lost them?
"That's a fair question. And it's one that as a group of commissioners, we would talk about. That once the school has made a major decision, or once they've done their own internal review as to whether they look at another conference as being more valuable and more 'that's where they wanted to land,' it's pretty hard to keep them from going. Now the one example that’s out there, three years ago or so, the Mountain West invited Gonzaga ... And the West Coast Conference came back and made a pretty significant financial offer to Gonzaga that satisfied Gonzaga and they stayed.
"And it's possible to try to rearrange some financials but there's also an example that Boise State got a favored-nation television contract many, many years ago when they were toying to go with with the Big East at the time. And they stayed. It doesn't create a very positive working relationship. Texas had their own network. So have there been times when you've been able to buy back a school? Yes. But I don't think that necessarily the outcomes are real good when that does happen."
Q: When did you have to fend off poachers?
"When I first came to the Sun Belt in the spring of 2012, I went campus to campus — North Texas to Middle Tennessee to Florida International to Florida Atlantic — trying to convince them to stay in the Sun Belt. And I had a plan and a strategy that I shared with them. Once the final pieces were put in place in 2015, that was the addition of Coastal Carolina, after that, there wasn’t a lot of movement. Things were pretty quiet. The only conversation that existed in ‘16, ‘17, ‘18, ‘19 was a type of a merger with Conference USA (Benson later clarified that the merge was a realigning of the two conferences based off geography). And there were those discussions that started probably in 2016. But that again never reached a point where there was any formality in terms of considering that. And we read today that there are ADs on both sides of the Sun Belt and in Conference USA who are now suggesting again that type of organizational structure needs to be considered."
Q: If you were in the AAC's shoes, are there specific schools that you would target?
"I don't know what his strategy is in terms of replacement. I think that again, the Sun Belt has proven that it has created football universities that have delivered and performed and have become known entities over the course of the last two or three years now. And App State certainly has established itself and has put itself in that. You look at the history, just across the board of the Group of Five over the course of the last five years, all 65 Group of Fives — including Cincinnati, including Houston, and including Central Florida, and including Boise State — there's not a program that has had a better football performance than App State. So I'll leave it at that."