Contests involving Bulldogs, Demons and Warhawks on the field, at the track and on the courts are entertaining, but not as intriguing or impactful as the games being played via e-mail, Zoom, WebEx and cell phones.
While the teams at Louisiana Tech, Northwestern State and ULM are aiming for wins and championships, their athletic directors are continuing to twist and turn through unsteady territory minus a scoreboard. The biggest game is conference realignment, which will shape the new era for college sports in Ruston, Natchitoches and Monroe.
ULM’s got the Alfred E. Newman mindset. What, me, worry? The Warhawks’ membership in the Sun Belt Conference has never looked better. The Sun Belt swiped Southern Miss, Old Dominion and Marshall from Tech’s Conference USA flock, and added stout FCS member James Madison, too.
That’s the good news for ULM. The flip side is the Warhawks’ neighborhood is getting richer and the look up the budget ladder is steeper now.
Nearby in Ruston, the C-USA lineup will soon look a lot different. Whether that’s in 2022-23, or 2023-24, will depend on lawyers arguing and judges ruling on exactly when the departing members can shift to the Sun Belt. It’s nothing that a negotiated, decimal-point buyout can’t resolve.
NSU hopes the Southland Conference has staying power. Although Texas A&M-Commerce is moving up from Division II with plenty of money and street cred, and Southland staple McNeese decided to stay put last fall, the league is still fragile. McNeese dreams of an invitation to move up to FBS status, and pines for a wink and nod from CUSA or the SBC. Tech’s conference might need shoring up, but it’s hard to fathom McNeese not looking like McLeast to the reconfigured CUSA collection. The 14-member Sun Belt isn’t receptive.
There’s no instability, just looming prosperity for Grambling. With the surge of support and attention that HBCU institutions are realizing, the Southwestern Athletic Conference is strong and getting stronger.
While ULM has to cope with the rising price of poker, it knows who its conference cousins are. That’s not true for NSU or Tech.
Sure, there are core membership groups, with newbies arriving. But both leagues crave strength in numbers, and currently lack it.
After six CUSA members charted their course for 2023 arrival in the American Athletic Conference (Tulane and pals), last fall’s defections of ODU, Marshall and USM were disastrous.
By adding four members, CUSA will survive with nine, but two of the schools relocating for 2023 (Jacksonville State, Sam Houston) are moving up from FCS, while another (New Mexico State) has never found its footing in FBS. Liberty has Power 5 financial resources and will immediately contend in football and basketball, at least.
Cue the 1970s Gloria Gaynor hit, “I Will Survive,” as CUSA’s new anthem, even if this version is a little off key.
Considering Northwestern, its conference hashtag has shifted from #SouthlandStrong to #SouthlandUnsteady. Following five of 13 members bolting last summer, Incarnate Word is the latest departure, heading out in July to join (at least for now) Stephen F. Austin, Lamar, and Abilene Christian in the Western Athletic Conference. UIW’s exit is offset by adding nearby A&M-Commerce, a Division II stalwart in football and basketball.
The Southland’s dilemma could be remedied by the suddenly plausible return of SFA (financial problems, and dipping enrollment) and Lamar (never enthralled by the move west). The realities of WAC-ky travel to Seattle, L.A., Salt Lake, etc., are sinking in. The Southland’s other ideal: at least a couple regional Division II programs like Arkansas Tech, Central Oklahoma and West Texas A&M decide to follow Commerce into Division I.
All of these hypotheticals could be moot before 2025, once the major powers have a monstrous new TV/streaming deal set, rooted in football, but maybe folding in March Madness, which if so, would shatter the NCAA as we’ve known it.
There are 358 Division 1 athletic programs; the elite 65 are in Power 5 conferences. The majority does not rule. The D-I lineup will likely look quite different, with more separation than has existed in decades.
Don’t be shocked by minor-league sports at the top. With the dawn of NIL benefits for college athletes, Power 5s are basically there now, although they have minimal control, and that makes them uncomfortable. Refining that landscape will trigger another reshuffling, ultimately producing stable conference affiliations down the line for Northwestern, Tech and their peers.
Don’t expect quick solutions. The big boys choose when to start the dominos tumbling.
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