Like it or not, college athletics is driven a lot by “conference narratives.” You know, the narrative that the Big Ten is always super deep and thus deserves 13 teams in the NCAA Tournament (even though they all lose early). Or, that the SEC deserves all four spots in the College Football Playoff even though all of its teams play three or four cupcakes in the non-conference.
Perception of conference strength should not, in theory, carry over year to year, but it does because we are human beings and we trust our history more than advanced metrics sometimes.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, the most important thing we learned about conference strength this year should be this: Conference USA is having one of the most efficient postseasons that any conference has ever had — in recent memory.
As I sit here typing this, the league is a staggering 17-1 against other conferences.
Charlotte, the league’s fifth-place team, won the 16-team CBI as the three seed. (Also, shoutout to Rice, C-USA’s sixth-place team who upset No. 5-seed Duquesne and came two points short of upsetting No. 4-seed Southern Utah.)
Record against other leagues: 5-1.
North Texas and UAB, teams that were hardly considered for NCAA Tournament at-large bids, each won their first four games of the 32-team NIT, some against teams that were perceived as “bigger snubs” like Clemson, Oklahoma State and Wisconsin. They met in an all-C-USA title game.
And, of course, FAU. Before this year the Owls had absolutely no postseason success to speak of in their young history —now, all of a sudden, they have risen up to win the league with an impressive 31-3 mark, then rattled off four straight wins in the Dance to make a shocking final four (shocking relative to preseason expectations; NOT to their regular season performance.
For conference commissioners of one-bid leagues, this is the dream scenario on the hardwood, having your champion, again, 31-3 (!!) but seeded ninth (poopy, selection committee), take out top-four seeds from the Big 12 (which has produced the last two national champs) and the SEC (which gets way too much favoritism in the college landscape) and a red-hot conference champion from the American (an in-between high-major and mid-major that you’re trying to get on equal footing with as best you can.) And, having your two next-best, who fell short of NCAA Tournament bids, demolish their way into the NIT Championship game to show that, yeah, maybe, they should’ve gotten at-large bids all along.
Maybe this time next year, your conference will get some more respect, solely on the dominating impression they left this year. (Yeah, each year is supposed to be analyzed on its own, but we know that’s not how it works. Ask Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s, Memphis or literally any Power Conference.)
Except there’s one problem.
Literally every single team I just mentioned as having some postseason success this year is leaving Conference USA over the summer.
Gone — and perhaps all the respect you might have built for future years is gone as well.
And, of course, for that C-USA commissioner, Judy MacLeod, it hasn’t been an easy time for her over the last couple of years. Don’t forget, of course, that Marshall, Southern Miss, and Old Dominion all left just last year for the Sun Belt. That’s nine teams over just two years. (I still blame Texas and Oklahoma for all this.)
The mass exodus isn’t new for the relatively young conference that only formed in 1995 from the merging of the Metro and Great Midwest Conferences; really, its entire existence has been marked by heavy turnover.
Its initial era included some rather big names: Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette, DePaul, Memphis, and Houston amongst others. The former four teams jumped ship to the Big East as part of the conference’s first mass exodus in 2005, along with smaller but basketball-focused Charlotte and Saint Louis heading for the A-10, and TCU (who joined in 2001) leaving for the Mountain West.
Not to worry. Conference USA re-tooled with Central Florida, Marshall, Tulsa, SMU, Rice and UTEP. But it lost big in 2013-14 as part of a realignment period that touched most leagues — it lost Houston, Memphis, East Carolina, Tulane, UCF, Tulsa, and SMU in a two-year span.
Once more, C-USA simply reloaded. In came FIU, Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee, Louisiana Tech, FAU, North Texas, Old Dominion, UTSA, and a second stint from Charlotte. Many of those teams were elevated to a new exposure level with their move to Conference USA. Now, only the former four of those teams remain, and two original members in Southern Miss and UAB are gone as well.
Why did they leave this time around? Well, money. For some, money saved by a tighter geographical footprint, and for others, money generated by a more lucrative ESPN deal (though Conference USA responded this past fall with a new deal, partnering with ESPN and longtime partner CBS Sports Network).
And any conversation about money in college athletics has to start, when applicable, with football. The American seems to have been viewed as the next conference just below the Power Five (6?) and above the other four that make the group. And while Conference USA seems to have been left behind a bit, the Sun Belt has been getting stronger in recent years. C-USA has had to resort to playing its entire conference schedule mid-week to gain exposure.
But the NCAA basketball tournament is a huge source of revenue as well. Since 1991, conferences are rewarded for each game one of their teams appears in (before the championship game) with one “unit”. Every team earns at least one unit for its conference by appearing in the first game. If a team were to win two games and then lose in the Sweet 16, it would earn three units for its conference.
A “unit” is paid out over six years and its value varies year to year, but according to Sportico, this year each unit will be worth roughly $2 million. The SEC earned the most units this year at 17, so it will distribute roughly $34 million to its members over the next six years. Most smaller leagues of course, go one and done, so they would take back a mere $2 million to be distributed amongst every single team in the conference.
By bursting through to the Final Four, FAU earned five units, the maximum possible for a team not coming from the First Four. That’s roughly $10 million, paid out over a six year period. It’s a little bittersweet for them, because as far as unit funds are concerned, they won’t see a penny of it. They will no doubt see increased revenue from donors, boosters, perhaps increased college applicants, and the move to the AAC, but the money that they generated from their big run stays behind in the C-USA, making for a bit of a complicated dynamic.
Which brings us to our next point.
Who’s a winner in this dynamic?
Financially, in the short term, C-USA’s remaining members are definitely winners, especially its four incoming members. Florida Atlantic reeled in roughly $10 million for its members, paid over six years, which means each year for the next six years, the conference reels in about $1.67 per year for 2023’s units, in addition to the money pulls in on units from prior and future years.
The C-USA last sent more than one team to the NCAA Tournament in 2012, and even though its representatives have done decently well — the conference’s sole participant advanced to the Tound of 32 in six of nine tournaments before this year, five of those six from a 12 seed or lower — the units gained this year would be twice as much as any other season, with a larger money pool as well.
Conference USA keeps those profits despite FAU and North Texas (who won an NCAA Tournament game in 2021) moving forward, and they will have fewer teams. The conference has 11 members this year (down from 14 last year after three jumped to the Sun Belt over the summer) and will drop to nine next year, with six teams bolting for the American and only four immediately replacing them (L*b*rty, Jacksonville State, Sam Houston State, and New Mexico State). Kennesaw State will join the year after next to bring it to 10 teams, but one less team means a few hundred thousand dollars to go around.
Forgetting for just a moment that next year the conference will only have nine members, once the league moves to 10 in a couple of years, if the money is to be distributed evenly, that means each school will get roughly $167,000 per year for 2023’s units, so long as the conference doesn’t add any new members. If FAU had only won, say, their first tournament game this year, each school would be getting roughly $67,000. I’m not intimately knowledgeable with the power of each dollar in college athletics, and I know that football TV earnings tend to dwarf revenues even from basketball, but I imagine an $100K per year over a six year period, just because one basketball team won three more games in March, isn’t anything to sneeze at.
It’s not immediately clear what agreements the incoming members struck with the C-USA regarding shares of units already in place at the time of joining, but they will more than likely get something sizeable, even if it’s not as much as the existing members. Not to mention of course, they are coming from leagues that didn’t exactly have huge paydays. Liberty, Jax State and Kennesaw come from the ASUN; Sam Houston and NMSU from the WAC. And though the exposure is bigger, the expenses are big too, especially those coming from FCS leagues, which play by different financial rules. Immediately, they can have more money to devote to patch up those expenses in recruiting, facilities, travel, or anything else they choose.
Of course, the teams that jumped to the AAC aren’t exactly too concerned. The AAC has a more lucrative media rights deal, and way more active units, thanks to Houston, Memphis and others.
How about from a competitive standpoint? Who comes out ahead?
The American has to be feeling a little bit better about itself heading into its next phase. It lost three of its biggest brands in Houston, Cincinnati, and UCF. All have seen success on the football field in recent years, and on the men’s hardwood, Houston has turned itself into a powerhouse, and Cincinnati has a winning tradition.
No incoming team is going to immediately replace a Houston or Cincinnati, but people will think differently when they hear “Florida Atlantic” or “North Texas” moving forward than they might have in the past.
Look at Loyola Chicago, for instance. It followed up its awesome Final Four run in 2018 with at-large-level bids out of the Missouri Valley Conference in 2021 and 2022. The ‘21 and ‘22 teams had great merit on their own, but there’s no doubt that 2018 run helped boost their perception in the nation’s collective conscience. It gives them more leverage in scheduling as well.
Conference USA won’t benefit as much from any perceived reputation jumps from its teams this postseason. But that’s not to say that C-USA is being replaced by a bunch of scrubs, either. On the men’s basketball side, New Mexico State has been a powerhouse in the WAC (before taking a slight detour this year that it hopes is very temporary), and Sam Houston had one of the best seasons outside of leagues that were in the conversation for multiple bids. Liberty has annoyingly been a force in the ASUN, Kennesaw State has a growing student population and its men’s basketball team broke through this year, and Jacksonville State has had a strong FCS football program for several seasons now.
If they can put together another postseason in the near future that can come close to this one, it may start a trend in peoples’ minds. “Remember how Conference USA dominated the postseason that one year? Well, look at them this year, they’re doing it again. That’s twice now; maybe they need a bit more respect next time around.”
Sure, some may point out that the teams that made the run in 2023 aren’t in the league anymore, but for many, the conference’s ability to outperform expectations in the postseason may stick.
Still, that’s a pretty abstract gain for the ever-evolving C-USA. It’s no doubt left in an awkward position this year. For its part, Conference USA has been nothing but supportive of their teams in the media.
❓— Conference USA (@ConferenceUSA) March 31, 2023
Two down, one to go #CUSAMBB pic.twitter.com/Gn0kS6dGVn
“It’s bittersweet,” MacLeod recently said to The Athletic regarding FAU’s upcoming departure, “but they’re in our league and we’re going to enjoy it, celebrate them and enjoy the ride with them.”
The real winners, as they should be, are the schools themselves that are making waves. Four years ago, North Texas had just three regular season league titles, three NCAA Tournament appearances, and three first round blowout losses. In just four seasons, North Texas amassed a 94-35 record, two regular season crowns, a Tound of 32 appearance in the Big Dance, and two of the biggest snubs of the last two years, which they paid off this year with an NIT Championship. They’ll get a chance to prove themselves in a new league, along with UAB, who is going for a bit of a program resurgence after an NCAA bit followed by an NIT final appearance.
As for FAU, if they had a mediocre year this year, they would have entered the American as the single least accomplished program in the NCAA Tournament. Now look at them. They’re two games away from winning a national championship. Who knows where they’ll be able to go from here? Really, if you look at all of the unexpected Final Four runs in recent memory — George Mason, VCU, Butler, Loyola, Wichita State — each one of those teams elevated their profile significantly, played in higher conferences and boosted their position on the national landscape. FAU’s conference jump was already in the works, but there may be places for them to go yet.
Like we’ve said at the start of college basketball season, there’s a lot of change ‘a-coming. And lots of stakeholders may have been in less than favorable spots at many points along the way. But when a couple of teams go on magical runs — or maybe more accurately, finally get the chance to prove themselves — things can change for the better in a lot of different places.