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A proposal to regionalize three Group of Five conferences will be presented to Conference USA presidents Monday. The concept calls for C-USA, the American and the Sun Belt to realign based on the states and regions of teams in an effort to halt ongoing realignment and stabilize budgets at the Group of Five level.
The plan is also intended to convince AAC commissioner Mike Aresco’s conference to join the regionalization concept, thus eliminating the threat of Aresco picking off teams from the other two leagues to make up for the recent loss of three teams to the Big 12.
The concept will be presented by former Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and former Big 12 commissioner Kevin Weiberg. C-USA hired Delany as an advisor during realignment. Delany is being assisted by Weiberg, his former deputy Big Ten commissioner. Weiberg helped launch both the Big Ten and Pac-12 television networks.
When asked about the C-USA concept, an AAC spokesman told CBS Sports, “We have zero interest in that. That’s not in our plan.”
Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill took a similar stance: “We’re really not interested in a merger. We feel really good about where we are.”
The hope is that approval by C-USA presidents would potentially create momentum for other leagues to follow along.
“What we hope to be able to achieve some consensus about is go to the table with regional institutions that might want to return to some sanity, make it better for the athlete and less time away from school, build on regional rivalries,” a person involved in the process tells CBS Sports. “I can’t say that’s Mike’s league. It could be.”
The regionalization concept has been discussed since news of the migration of Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC broke in July. In mid-September, CBS Sports projected how the 32 teams could be split up in the three conferences.
C-USA sources were working behind the scenes on such a strategy before Delany was hired, CBS Sports learned.
“It’s more accurate to describe our role as developing attractive, sensible options in context of these preexisting regional concepts,” Delany told CBS Sports when asked about the proposal.
Unnamed sources spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the subject.
The redundancies of C-USA, AAC and Sun Belt membership are clear. The AAC and C-USA each have schools in Texas, Florida and North Carolina. C-USA and the Sun Belt each have teams in Texas, Alabama and North Carolina.
Just one example of how this could work would be a 12-team Southwest league that would include these teams from Texas and Louisiana: Arkansas State, Louisiana, Louisiana-Monroe, Louisiana Tech, North Texas, Rice, SMU, Texas State, Tulane, UTEP and UTSA.
The MAC and Mountain West are not included in the proposal. The 12-team MAC is already largely regionalized in the Midwest: Michigan, Ohio and Illinois. The Mountain West is staying intact after Colorado State and Air Force recently decided to reject overtures to join the AAC.
The Sun Belt has not made a decision on whether to expand, stand pat or go with regionalization. That leaves what is left of the eight-team AAC as the key player in the discussion. It could expand by two (or more) teams to make up for the loss of Cincinnati, Houston and UCF … or assimilate into regionalization.
“The first step is this,” said a source familiar with the C-USA talks. “Right now, the idea is, let’s just look at the map anew and see how we can maintain the assets [and] a place in the new NCAA.
“What a lot of us are thinking is it’s time to at least investigate the possibility of regionalization. We’re trying to figure out if there is a constructive collaborative situation that could be developed where we have more regional rivalries and cut down on travel time for students.”
Delany and Weiberg will also stress to C-USA presidents that stabilizing the three conferences in regions will allow the Group of Five to keep its access to the NCAA Tournament and an expanded College Football Playoff.
NCAA rules state a conference must have at least six members to get an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. There has been concern, since Texas and Oklahoma set their planned departure to the SEC, that realignment could mean a net loss of one or more FBS conferences if it got out of control.
Aresco previously told CBS Sports he is not worried about a clause in the AAC’s ESPN contract that allows the league to rework (lower) its payout if it lost UConn, Houston, Cincinnati and UCF. UConn left the league last year.
AAC sources have balked at projections the league lost half its media rights value when the Big 12 invited the three schools. AAC schools are currently averaging $7 million per year for media rights.
After failing to lure any Mountain West schools, sources said the AAC had set its sights East on some combination of UAB, North Texas, Texas State, UTSA, Appalachian State and perhaps others. There has also been buzz about Aresco going “big” and inviting up to eight schools to grow his conference to 16 teams.
“[Aresco is] holding onto a brand that has been undermined by Bob [Bowlsby, Big 12 commissioner] and rebuffed by Greg [Sankey, SEC commissioner],” said a source involved in the regionalization talks.
Regarding regionalization, that source added: “You can make a contribution to the sustainability of these conferences and these kinds of institutions in the Southeast and Southwest for the next 25 years, or we can continue the silliness that has produced these wide-ranging geographic assemblages that is not great for students, not great for costs and doesn’t give you any more access to NCAA basketball or the CFP.”
Projections are that regional rivalries would emerge from the concept, thus creating a bit of schedule strength as it relates to the expanded CFP. As proposed, the Group of Five would have expanded access in a 12-team bracket. The current proposal calls for inclusion of the top six-ranked conference champions followed by six at-large teams. The top four-ranked teams would receive a first-round bye.
A stabilization of the Group of Five at this time would allow commissioners to more easily distribute revenue when the time comes to reap what is projected to be a financial windfall from the expanded CFP.
Media rights have not been priced for regionalization, a source said. The Group of Five currently splits a 22% share of the $600 million annual CFP payout. Power Five conferences each get $66 million annually.
C-USA presidents are expected to meet by Zoom on Monday and then a week later in person to discuss the proposal.
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