While going after markets is the right stategy for the bigger conferences, for CUSA and especially the Sun Belt, it's a huge mistake. The only way for those schools to gain notice is by winning (upsets) and going to as many minor bowls as they can. Those conferences should be grabbing the best football programs. Who heard of Boise 10 years ago? Every one knows them now.
If we were having a conversation about conference expansion and I uttered the word “location,” you might roll your eyes. ”If San Diego State can land in the Big East and Florida State and West Virginia could land in the Big 12, location is irrelevant,” you might counter.
Ah, but proximity to current schools in a conference is probably the least important aspect of location during short-term feeding frenzies (long-term, proximity does seem to matter and we’ll have more on that later) . No, location matters in terms of a school’s nearest television market, it’s state’s population (for cable household purposes), and it’s recruiting grounds.
In 2010, we took a numbers-based look at possible SEC expansion. You can read that here. Last fall, we updated our data and took another look-see. You can start reading that series here. The final part of that series as well as links to all the parts in between can be found right here.
Today, Tony Barnhart of CBSSports.com examines many of those small programs that are announcing — daily it seems — that they’re planning a jump to the FBS level of the football world. Specifically, he looks at Charlotte, Georgia State, Old Dominion, Texas-San Antonio and Appalachian State (an FCS school that wants to follow those others up the ladder). What he found was that location, location, location matters more than just about anything else.
As Barnhart points out:
* Charlotte won’t play its first football game at any level until 2013. By 2015, it’s already set to join Conference USA. Why? Charlotte is located in he 25th biggest television market in the country.
* Georgia State will be playing its third season of football this fall and it will jump to the FBS level and join the Sun Belt Conference. Why? Because Georgia State is located in the Atlanta television market as well as the recruiting hotbed of Georgia.
* Old Dominion has been playing football for just three seasons, but it will be joining Charlotte in Conference USA in 2015. Why? ODU is located in a Top 50 television market (Norfolk) and the Tidewater section of Virginia is rich in high school talent.
* Texas-San Antonio played its first season of college football last year. It will play in the WAC this season before moving — sign of the times — to Conference USA in 2013. Why? San Antonio is the 36th biggest TV market in the country and I think we all know just how many recruits there are in Texas.
Sure they’re fledgling programs, but conferences are ready to snap them up because they provide inroads into good recruiting territory, populous areas, and sizeable television markets.
But then there’s Appalachian State. Located in tiny Boone, North Carolina — population: 14,138 — the Mountaineers will mark their 85th year of football this year. From 2005 through 2007, ASU won three straight FCS national titles. They knocked off Michigan in Ann Arbor in ’07. They led all FCS-level schools in attendance last season. And they’ve made it know that they want to take a step up in class.
Only no one’s called them. Conference USA and the Sun Belt would rather have the deep recruiting zones and television viewers provided by newborn programs than the proven football school located in a small, mountainous region of the Tarheel State.
As Barnhart points out, Appy State might still eventually land an invite into either C-USA or the Sun Belt, but as of now, those leagues are more interested in location than they are on-field proof of performance.
A year ago, we were bombarded with emails from West Virginia fans who were angry that we suggest WVU’s location wasn’t likely good enough to provide the SEC — or as it turns out the ACC — with what those conferences were looking for in terms of recruiting zones, total population, and television eyeballs. That wasn’t a knock on WVU’s program which landed safely in the more distant, but once again strong Big 12. It was simply a statement of fact.
And the fact is… location, location, location matters when it comes to conference expansion. Whether that’s at the top of the food chain or the bottom of the food chain, as Barnhart points out in his latest column.