NEW ORLEANS – In previous Sun Belt Conference media day events, conference commissioner Karl Benson – as well as many Sun Belt programs – always seemed to have one eye looking over their shoulders.
Years of turmoil and shakeups throughout the national conference landscape left the Sun Belt scrambling as wave after wave of realignments slowly eroded the league’s makeup. Over the last few seasons, the Sun Belt has rebuilt, leading to what Benson hopes is a permanent upward trend.
“We’ve established a footprint and geography that will last a long time,” Benson said during his opening remarks at Monday’s media day at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. “We’re seeing growth throughout the conference. Presidents and chancellors are committed to building internally and we are seeing new facilities – both athletic and academic – that are making our conference strong.”
New Kids on the Block
Coastal Carolina was formally introduced to members of the media as the Sun Belt’s newest school on Monday.
The Conway, S.C. institution was officially admitted into the Sun Belt on July 1, and while Coastal Carolina’s football program won’t begin Sun Belt play until 2018 all other Chanticleer teams will begin league competition beginning this fall.
“The addition of Coastal Carolina further strengthens our footprint,” Benson said. “We’ll have a football program in Texas, one in Arkansas, two in Louisiana, two in Alabama, two in Georgia and two in the Carolinas.”
Conspicuously absent from that comment were New Mexico State and Idaho. The Sun Belt announced earlier this year that the conference’s western, football-only outposts will not be retained following the 2016 season. New Mexico State is still in search of a new conference while Idaho has announced that it will move its program down into the Football Championship Subdivision.
More Screen Time
As college football continues to boom, a recent concern had been whether smaller conferences could ever make themselves seen.
Sun Belt teams still don’t appear on network channels or in primetime slots, but midweek games and the addition of a contract with ESPN3 to air all league games has given the conference an avenue to viewers and potential fans outside of the league’s footprint.
“We’re now starting to be able to track who is viewing the games online and how many viewers we have,” Benson said. “It used to be that the younger viewers were the ones watching online. Now, we’re starting to see an older group accessing ESPN3.”
The 2016 season will again see ESPN3 covering all conference matchups. Benson added that an agreement to air an additional games throughout the basketball and baseball seasons is in the works and could be officially announced in the coming weeks.
Fifth Bowl Added
As recently as two seasons ago, the Sun Belt saw one of its programs (Texas State) forced to watch the postseason from the sidelines despite being bowl eligible.
Once a conference with just two bowl tie-in agreements, the Sun Belt added a third before joining with the Cure Bowl last season to make it four bowls. 2016 has brought about a fifth tie-in as a Sun Belt team will head west for the Arizona Bowl.
A Bright Future
During his opening address, Benson said that he had planned to focus on the fact that, for the first time, the Sun Belt had no worries about teams leaving for other conferences. That line of thinking isn’t quite as sound with the recent announcement that the Big 12 is looking to expand by as many as four teams, leaving plenty of speculation about who will be moving where.
Still, Benson is confident in what the Sun Belt has become.
“Obviously, If a (Power 5 conference) team made a call, our athletic directors would be foolish not to take call,” Benson said. “But we will know the Sun Belt has arrived when a peer conference calls and our athletic director says ‘no thanks’. That’s where I believe we are today.”
A big reason for that comfort and stability is the rapid growth of revenue for member schools. Revenue sharing generated less than $100 thousand per school just a few years ago, but the most recent round of checks coming from the Sun Belt offices were for over $1 million.
Among the biggest offseason announcements made by the Sun Belt was the plans to begin hosting a conference championship game starting with the 2018 season.
Few additional details have been released since the announcement, but Benson did offer some speculation to a key piece of the puzzle. With 10 teams scheduled to play in the Sun Belt in 2018, the league has the choice to either play a full round-robin schedule and pit the top two finishers against each other in the title game, or the conference can split into separate divisions and have each division champ advance.
“Right now, it’s looking like we might have divisions,” Benson said. “There are a lot of teams with non-conference contracts stretching pretty well ahead. That could be an issue if we tried (to play the round-robin) schedule.”
With some future decisions still up in the air, Benson referenced the Sun Belt’s newest member to clarify his vision for the conference.
“Coastal Carolina brings a lot of attention to the Sun Belt with its recent national championship in baseball,” Benson said. “That should show everyone in the Sun Belt that they can contend for championships. When we look at the Cotton Bowl (this season’s FBS access bowl), we should be thinking, ‘Why not us?’”
Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9408.