The Sun Belt Conference started sponsoring football in 2001. Since then the league has taken plenty of lumps in the hyper-competitive world of college football. Sun Belt teams routinely struggled against competition from other conferences and the enrollment of the league has been volatile as several waves of realignment have forced the league to regroup and re-brand itself over the years.
According to Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson, the conference’s time as a ‘little brother’ of other FBS conferences is over.
“Today is no longer about the past,” Benson said during his opening remarks at Sun Belt media day in New Orleans Monday. “Yesterday, the future was bright for the Sun Belt. Today, the future is now.”
There is no denying that the league — even while enduring its latest round of member additions and departures over the last few seasons - is as strong as it has ever been.
At the 2016 media day, Benson’s biggest talking point was that the Sun Belt had added a fifth bowl tie-in — up from just one guaranteed postseason berth in the early days. A big question was whether the league would have the talent and depth to get five teams to the six wins required to become bowl-eligible and fill those slots.
When the regular season was over, the Sun Belt filled all five slots and sent a sixth team to a bowl as an at-large selection. Even more impressive, those Sun Belt teams went 4-2 in their bowl matchups.
“We earned the number three spot in the (College Football Playoff) rankings for the ‘Group of Five’ conferences,” Benson said. “Not only did our teams show what they could achieve on the field, but the difference between the number three spot and the number five spot is about $3 million that comes back to our conference.”
And while win-loss records are left up to each team, money is a language that the entire conference speaks fluently.
For the second consecutive year the Sun Belt was able to cut checks to its member institutions in the neighborhood of $1 million. That may seem negligible when compared to conferences like the SEC and ACC which house schools with revenues nearing nine-figures, but considering that the Sun Belt was issuing $100,000 checks just four years ago, it’s easy to see why there is so much optimism in New Orleans this week.
Gross revenue for the Sun Belt has increased from around $11 million in 2013 to $31 million last season. A good chunk of that comes from the league’s partnership with ESPN to give its schools a much bigger audience each week.
Benson announced on Monday that ESPN will once again carry all games played at Sun Belt schools this season, making for a total of 68 broadcasts, not including additional televised games played at non-conference opponents.
The Sun Belt is under contract with ESPN through 2019 and Benson stated that the process has already begun to negotiate terms for extending the contract, as well as for ESPN to broadcast the Sun Belt championship game, which will be held for the first time in 2018.
“ESPN is going to continue to be the leader for broadcasting college sports,” Benson said. “We got in on the ground floor with their digital platform as the Sun Belt has been with ESPN since the launch of ESPN3.
“As a result, our fans are well-versed in navigating the online streaming content as the digital platform has become just as relevant as the linear platform.”
With growing success over the last few years, Benson stressed that the entire conference needs to look at how it builds its schedules in order to put the Sun Belt in a position to earn revenue and gain additional exposure each postseason.
In his ideal scenario, no Sun Belt team would play more than one ‘Power 5’ team each season, mixing in two ‘Group of 5’ opponents and an FCS challenger to fill out their four-game non-conference schedule.
“A few years ago, there was no model for scheduling,” Benson said. “There were teams with three P5 opponents on the schedule. I realize that schools need to earn revenue, but I think that this model can do that while allowing our schools to hit that benchmark of six wins.”
The Sun Belt briefly expands to 12 football teams this season as Coastal Carolina makes the move up from the ranks of the FCS. Next fall, the Sun Belt will be back down to 10 teams as neither Idaho nor New Mexico State had their agreements with the conference extended. Beginning in 2018, the conference will be split into two five-team divisions, with each division champion squaring off in a championship game.
Benson: 'Future is now'