Rumors are swirling about conference realignment between the mid-major conferences as a result of Temple's move to the Big East. Butler is believed to be talking to the Atlantic 10 about a move to that conference, while rumors emerged this week that the CAA might lose VCU and George Mason to the A-10 and Georgia State to the Sun Belt (as part of a quick move to FBS). The Sun Belt could also take Charlotte away from the Atlantic-10.
VCU has denied that they have been talking about switching leagues, as have George Mason officials and the CAA commissioner, but those denials were anything but rock-solid. According to Brett McMurphy of CBS, though the denials are facially correct — there are no "formal" invitations or discussions — there have been talks through third-party channels.
Currently, the CAA has 12 members in the Olympic sports and 11 members in football. The football conference will drop to 10 members in 2013, when Rhode Island moves to the Northeast Conference. Only six of the 10 football members are all-sports members, with Richmond playing its other sports in the Atlantic-10, Villanova in the Big East, and Maine and New Hampshire in America East.
The departures of VCU and George Mason wouldn't have an immediate impact on the football conference, but the ripple effect may be felt nonetheless. The CAA spans from Boston to Atlanta in its all-sports membership, but the football conference is increasingly becoming a Southern league — a problem that could be alleviated or exacerbated by expansion.
If Georgia State leaves the CAA to join the Sun Belt in all sports, the football conference will be down to 9 members — a workable number, but perhaps not a desirable one, as it would decrease the television inventory the conference can offer. More importantly, it would eliminate a major TV market and might leave the CAA's television partner (NBC) unhappy.
As it stands, the CAA has the only national television broadcast contract in FCS football.
Football-only members, Maine and New Hampshire have been significant geographic outliers in the CAA since Northeastern and Hofstra dropped the sport and Massachusetts and Rhode Island decided to move to FBS and de-emphasize the sport, respectively. Now, Villanova is the nearest football member to Maine, 9 hours and 40 minutes away by car.
In the BCS conferences, like the Big East or Big 12, that sort of travel is mostly inconsequential. Teams fly to more games at that level and have budgets and revenues that are substantially larger than what any FCS school is able to afford. Villanova, for example, will often have to choose whether to fly to Rhode Island or William & Mary, or between James Madison and Old Dominion. This season, Villanova will be forced to fly to Maine and Georgia, likely keeping the rest of their road trips on the ground.
So, if the CAA is looking for additions to the conference in football, members in the northeastern states would seem to make the most sense. One option would be Stony Brook, a Long Island, New York-based school, that finished at the top of the America East conference in basketball (losing in the conference tournament final) and finished the football season in the top-20. Stony Brook is a member of the Big South conference for football, where they have been a tremendous geographic outlier.
Adding Stony Brook in all-sports would drop the America East conference to 8 full members and would affect the conference that the two northernmost football-only members call home.
The only other full-scholarship program in the northeast currently is Fordham, but the Patriot League schools are adding scholarships to football across the board. That factor could keep Fordham as a loyal member in the Patriot League. They are an Atlantic 10 school in all other sports, where they have been a rather consistent doormat in basketball.
The CAA is also reportedly interested in Charlotte, but the 49ers have been flirting with FBS conferences recently.
One blogger has suggested that the CAA could target Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina as all-sports members, which would bring the football conference to 12 members. That move would add a huge football brand in Appalachian State and give the conference a solid foothold in the Carolinas for football. It would also significantly add to the travel burden of the New England schools and wouldn't do much to stabilize the football league, as Appalachian State has publicly proclaimed a desire to move to FBS — if someone (anyone) invites them.
So, regardless of what Georgia State does, Maine and New Hampshire will potentially be looking at some difficult decisions in the near future. With the Patriot League adding scholarships, those schools may find a better geographic fit within that league. If the MAC conference looks to add another member to complement UMass, a few of their potential candidates would be schools from the CAA.
If VCU and George Mason, the CAA's only recent Final Four programs, were to depart, it would significantly-weaken the CAA's basketball product. The football conference has been a flagship at the FCS level, but if expansion causes them to take on geographically or competitively inconvenient programs to improve their only revenue sport, it could seriously-dilute the football product.
As associate members, Villanova, Maine, New Hampshire and Richmond won't have much say in how expansion goes for the CAA. The conference has added weaker members before and built them up — Towson being the prime example — and has recently added an Old Dominion program that started from scratch and comported itself very well in its first season. Those successes were built on the overall strength and reputation of the league, however.
Where would the league be if successful programs at Maine and New Hampshire left for a better geographic fit? What if James Madison, Old Dominion or Delaware got the call to move up to an FBS league? All three would consider such an invitation, though different pundits disagree on whether they would ultimately accept. Georgia State hasn't played a single season of football as a member of the CAA and has already produced an FBS feasibility study that concluded that they would be a good fit for the Sun Belt conference — signaling their desire to leave the league as well.
The economics of FCS football aren't for the faint of heart.
"I have a friend that jokes that FCS is ‘not-for-profit’ football," CAA commissioner Yeager said in July. "Institutions are sponsoring the sport for lots of reasons that go beyond the dollars and cents of it; Villanova dropped it at one point back in the 80s and then reinstated it; Division II and III play it and there is even less of a financial return."
The CAA wouldn't be likely to move the entire operation to FBS status, however. For one, not all of the CAA football schools are prepared to make the financial commitment to such a move. Even if they all agreed, there would be other difficulties.
"Lets pose that question," Yeager said about the CAA football conference reclassifying to the Bowl Subdivision. "We’ve got a great TV package, we’ve got great rivalries, it all kind of flows until you get to the postseason. You’d have to invent a couple more bad bowl games, because the present ones are already spoken for.
"When you are going through the playoffs, you’re national champions, you didn’t just win the International Bowl in Toronto that nobody went to. So that’s the debate. We’re comfortable in our skin. I think the FCS can be in the 20-30,000 seat [range] in attendance and be very good."
For Villanova football, that means that the shifting is happening both above (Big East) and below (CAA) the program.
The move to join the Big East is still on the table, but that conference is looking to balance its divisions with another western member first (Jon Wilner has reported that Air Force is still in play now that Navy has signed on for the move). That means that for Villanova to join, there would likely have to be a 16th football member lined up — and unless Notre Dame has a massive change of heart, it will need to be out west.
UPDATED 3/28: CBSsports.com is now reporting that Georgia State is a leading candidate to be invited to the Sun Belt Conference and that they could begin FBS football play as soon as 2014. They are unlikely to be the last CAA team to depart for the Bowl Subdivision.
Charlotte, starting a football program that will play its first season in 2013, could be joining them in the Sun Belt, leaving the Atlantic-10 behind. The A-10 hopes to announce its own expansion move(s) "within the next month or two."