American Conference Expands; Sun Belt Could Be Next
The 2021 edition of NCAA realignment continues with Conference USA losing six of its members to the American Athletic Conference.
The University of Alabama at Birmingham, Florida Atlantic University, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, the University of North Texas, Rice University, and the University of Texas at San Antonio will join the American Conference at a date to be determined later. Once those schools join the conference, it will bring its membership to 15 universities, with 14 of them playing football and basketball.
While the names of the universities joining the American--which positions itself as a sixth power conference in Division I athletics--may seem underwhelming, those will give the conference positioning in some of the major television markets in the United States. According to the conference's press release announcing the moves:
The American will have a presence in four of the top 10, seven of the top 25 and 12 of the top 51 Nielsen media markets. The league will have four teams in the state of Texas, two each in Florida and North Carolina and one each in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama, Oklahoma and Kansas.
“I am extremely pleased to welcome these six outstanding universities to the American Athletic Conference,” conference commissioner Mike Aresco said in a press release. “This is a strategic expansion that accomplishes a number of goals as we take the conference into its second decade. We are adding excellent institutions that are established in major cities and have invested in competing at the highest level. We have enhanced geographical concentration which will especially help the conference’s men’s and women’s basketball and Olympic sports teams. And we will continue to provide valuable inventory to our major media rights partner, ESPN, which will feature our members on the most prominent platforms in sports media. Additionally, we increase the value in live content options for CBS Sports, which features selected men’s basketball games from the conference.”
According to Yahoo Sports reporter Pete Thamel, those schools will make seven figures from the AAC's television contracts right off the bat.
Is Sun Belt expansion next?
The American Conference's announcement comes after speculation that it would add several Conference USA members to its roster.
Now, the expansion conversation is shifting to the Sun Belt Conference.
Yahoo's Thamel reports that six schools are on the Sun Belt's supposed wish list, including a former member of the conference.
Old Dominion left the Sun Belt in 1991, shortly before what was then the University of Southwestern Louisiana joined the conference. The additions of Marshall and James Madison would bring two known football commodities, one in the Football Bowl Subdivision and the other from the Football Championship Subdivision, into the conference. It would also provide Louisiana and South Alabama an additional regional rival in Southern Miss.
The Conference USA is fighting for some of those same teams. Per Thamel:
What's next for Conference USA?
In short: We don't know.
Louisiana Tech is making a case for its athletic program's future--with or without Conference USA.
Still, Louisiana Tech, Western Kentucky, and several other former Sun Belt members who fled for what appeared to be greener pastures in the Conference USA may be having buyer's remorse. What's more, the Sun Belt may not consider them for future membership. Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns play-by-play announcer Jay Walker summed it up best on Twitter.