Conference realignment might actually be slowing down or even coming to an end.
Nearly two weeks ago, reports emerged that the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders and Western Kentucky Hilltoppers — current members of Conference USA — were being considered as additions to the Mid-American Conference.
One of those schools has decided to spurn realignment and stay put.
Per an official statement by MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee released Wednesday morning, Middle Tennessee State will not be changing conferences. The Blue Raiders are committed to Conference USA.
“Over the past several weeks, as we have watched the landscape for Division I athletics evolve, MTSU has been proactive and diligent in evaluating our opportunities, always with the best interests of the University as the singular guiding principle. We greatly appreciate the interest other conferences have shown in our athletics program and in our university, as they are a testament to the overall excellence of our institution, both athletically and academically. However, after careful consideration and due diligence, I am pleased to reaffirm our commitment to Conference USA.
“With the addition of four new members, C-USA offers a strong footprint in the South and Southwest, providing opportunities to develop new regional rivalries, while staying connected to traditional opponents that our fans want. Building on the conference’s storied history of success, I believe our continued affiliation offers our Blue Raider community the greatest opportunity for success and should enhance our fan engagement.
“Working with our four remaining members, as well as our new partners, Conference USA is poised to rebrand itself as a premier conference in the Group of 5. We look forward to the opportunities that our expanded relationship will provide and want to assure our fans that, regardless of conference affiliations, our goals remain the same, as we pursue championships in all our sports.” — Sidney A. McPhee
MTSU athletic director Chris Massaro told Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel that while the MAC had appeal, Conference USA is ultimately a better fit for the Blue Raiders.
“When you weigh it all out, there are a lot of advantages to staying in C-USA,” Massaro said. “Our fans, they point more to the South. There was a consensus of that from our fan base.”
Why it matters
Middle Tennessee State’s decision doesn’t only affect MTSU. Per the Athletic’s Chris Vannini, Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee State were seen as a package deal, meaning the Hilltoppers will likely remain in Conference USA as well.
“I’ve been told WKU would accept the invitation if it comes, but MTSU has been less interested in the move from the beginning. The cost of the $2 million exit fee plus the MAC’s entrance fee could also be a hindrance, and the money gained by C-USA’s distribution of those exit fee gains is a short-term reason to stay. Still, the stability and exposure of the MAC are greater.
“It’s unlikely the MAC invites one and not both. So that needs to be worked out. MAC athletic directors largely favor inviting the schools, but there has been a lot of due diligence to go through. It’s not a “transformational” move, as multiple sources have phrased it. MAC schools also need reassurance that their conference payouts through TV and other revenues will not decrease. It could still go either way.” — Chris Vannini
Retaining both the Blue Raiders and Hilltoppers would be a major win for Conference USA. Realignment had left the conference with only five of its original 14 members — Louisiana Tech, UTEP, FIU, Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky — and staying a viable FBS conference appeared to be a tall task.
In the wake of all those departures, C-USA has added schools — Liberty, New Mexico State, Jacksonville State and Sam Houston State — and with the retention of MTSU and WKU, the conference will have nine members, as well as the opportunity to add more, considering reported interest from both UConn and UMass.
“With the addition of four new institutions last week, Conference USA remains a great fit for Middle Tennessee,” C-USA commissioner Judy Macleod said in a statement. “We are very pleased that they have decided to reaffirm their commitment to C-USA as we continue to move forward as a conference. While several institutions have indicated interest in joining our league, we will use this time to be deliberate and strategic in exploring any potential additional expansion.”