Sun Belt chief hails benefits of 10-team structure
NEW ORLEANS — Sun Belt Conference commissioner Karl Benson struck a celebratory tone Monday while discussing the impending departure of two of the league’s 12 teams.
Smaller will be better was the message from Benson, who left little doubt during the league’s annual media day that his preference is for the Sun Belt to maintain the 10-team, two-division structure it will have in 2018.
“We are not actively looking or have any signals out there that we would entertain any new members,” Benson said. “We got to 10 in a very methodical, thoughtful way. ... We have no interest in looking elsewhere.”
This season will be the Sun Belt’s last with New Mexico State and Idaho. Next season, the remaining 10 teams will be split along geographical lines into five-team divisions. In the West will be Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, South Alabama and Texas State. The East Division will contain Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern, Georgia State and Troy. The conference will host its inaugural title game in 2018 as well, with the division winners meeting at the home of the higher-ranked team.
That is when Benson envisions the Sun Belt being at its best. Its geographic alignment will be more practical, reducing travel burdens on teams and fans alike while also promoting regional rivalries, he said.
“We believe the structure we’ve created (for 2018) is the right structure,” Benson said. “It’s sustainable.”
There are some cases in which Benson may not be able to prevent growth. The Sun Belt has two non-football members, Arkansas-Little Rock and Texas-Arlington. If either of those schools adds football — something UALR is exploring — the Sun Belt would have to accept it.
If that happens, Benson doesn’t plan to search for a 12th football member to even out the divisions.
“The Big Ten was an 11-team football league for over 15 years,” Benson said. “They did just fine.”
Some other topics discussed during Sun Belt media day:
While Idaho has opted to return its football program to the second-tier Football Championship Subdivision, necessitating its departure from the Sun Belt, New Mexico State would have preferred to remain. However, its agreement with the Sun Belt as a football-only member in 2014 gave the conference the option to end the relationship. Now the Aggies are preparing for life as an FBS independent.
“We certainly would like to make some noise going out and set ourselves up for our future. We need to attract the attention of other conferences,” Aggies coach Doug Martin said. “We’d certainly like to be in a conference and we would like for all of our sports to be in the same conference.”
Martin said he understood why many Sun Belt members might not want to accept New Mexico State in all sports because of the travel time and costs.
The Aggies were predicted to finish 10th in the league’s preseason poll. Appalachian State is the favorite, followed by Troy and Arkansas State.
In recent years, Benson has urged Sun Belt teams to play no more than one game per season against a power conference team, at least two games against peer conferences and one game against an FCS program. In essence, he’s asking Sun Belt teams to limit the big individual paydays they get from playing Power 5 teams for the sake of building up win totals across the league.
The results have already begun to show, Benson said. Last season, six Sun Belt teams played in bowl games and four were victorious. Placing more teams in bowls means more money from agreements with the College Football Playoff, which last year accounted for nearly half of the Sun Belt’s $31 million in gross revenue.
“Our financial models are built on success in the College Football Playoff,” Benson said.
For that reason, he’s also urging Sun Belt teams to be cautious about scheduling Tuesday night games. He’s not convinced the benefits of national TV exposure always outweigh the challenges mid-week games create for teams and fans.
Benson likes the Sun Belt’s 2017 prospects for collectively outperforming the four other non-power conferences — the American Athletic, Conference USA, Mid-American and Mountain West.
He said the Sun Belt’s goal this season is to place a team in a New Year’s Day bowl game — and win it.
“That is a realistic goal — not in the future, but today,” he said.