The CAA: a tale of 2 conferences

With rumors of conference realignment coming to the CAA conference swirling, commissioner Tom Yeager is hoping to raise the conference's exit fees from the paltry sum of $250,000. The rumors started with a CBS report that VCU and George Mason, both recent Final Four participants, had been in contact with the Atlantic 10 — both schools and the commissioner later denied that rumor. Things stretched into the world of CAA football when CBS began reporting that new member Georgia State would be a candidate to move to the Sun Belt Conference.

Yesterday, the Georgia State rumors became a bit closer to reality, with CBS reporting that the Panthers would be invited to the conference. The Sun Belt commissioner denied that report, but admitted that there was a continuing dialog and that he was planning on visiting Atlanta soon

Late Tuesday night, a student radio station at Northeastern University reported via Twitter that a vote would be taken next week on the matter of the conference's withdrawal provisions. According to their report, the exit fees could be increased from $250,000 to a seven-figure sum (between $1million and $1.5 million). The veracity of the report could not be immediately confirmed, but commissioner Yeager has been open about his intention to bring such an action to a vote.

A review of the CAA constitution and bylaws reveals that the conference is actually two separate corporate entities that share a commissioner. The CAA conference and The CAA Football are both Virginia non-share corporations governed by their respective memberships.

The withdrawal fee for each conference is currently $250,000, meaning that a school withdrawing from both the all-sports CAA and the football conference would have to pay $500,000 to exit. The provision of the all-sport conference has no exceptions and also calls for the departing member to forfeit any claim to conference assets or revenue distributions that had not been paid.

For football, however, there are a few special cases. An institution may withdraw from the football conference without incurring a fee if it, (1) no longer sponsors football, (2) moves to the Bowl Subdivision, or (3) reduces the number of football scholarships to 50% or less of the FCS maximum for at least 3 years.

That provision means that most of the recent CAA football departures have done so without paying a fee to the conference. UMass moved to the Bowl subdivision, while Hofstra and Northeastern dropped the sport entirely, exempting all three from the fee. Rhode Island, joining the NEC in 2013, is perhaps the only candidate to pay a fee, but even they could avoid it by offering just 31 scholarships during a three-year period.

Georgia State would also be eligible to have their football exit fee waived. For the other 9 schools, however, the slow leak of schools from the football conference might seem concerning.

The all-sports CAA conference can't vote in a withdrawal fee increase for the football schools. Unlike the Big East's set up, since the CAA Football conference is a separate corporate entity, each football-member institution is a full member of the football conference with full voting rights on issues pertaining to that conference. That means that a separate vote of the CAA Football schools would be necessary to increase the exit fees for departing football schools.

Any vote to alter that provision would require a vote of two-thirds of the eligible voting members (which means members in good standing who have not withdrawn from the conference). With 10 football members in good standing, the CAA Football conference would need 7 votes to enact such changes — though Georgia State, negotiating a move up, would likely abstain, meaning that 6 votes would likely pass a motion.

With schools like Villanova, James Madison, Old Dominion and Delaware looking to keep their FBS options open, don't expect any alterations to the withdrawal-fee-waiver provision. In fact, that waiver is a telling reminder of the growing ambitions of the CAA football programs.

The fees exist as a deterrent to keep members from making lateral moves to other FCS conferences that offer a full slate of scholarships. That wasn't much of a threat in the past, but with the Patriot League's decision to adopt a nearly full-scholarship model for football, there may be renewed concerns about Maine and New Hampshire's interest in continuing as members.

Those are just two schools, however, and assuming that the conference has at least 9 eligible voting members, they would not be able to vote down a fee increase without the support of at least two more members. None of the other schools in the CAA seem poised to make lateral moves, however, and given the bind that the withdrawal of those two New England schools would put the league in, an increase could be on the horizon

All it would likely take is a vote of 6 members of the CAA Football conference to hold the New England schools hostage. A seven-figure withdrawal fee would make it more likely that Maine and UNH dropped the sport altogether than move to the Patriot League. That, in turn, would give CAA Football an opportunity to try and rebuild.

The most obvious expansion solution remains to add Stony Brook to the CAA Football mix. The Long Island school is a clear misfit in the Big South conference. In the Northeast, there are few full-scholarship FCS programs to choose from, but Stony Brook is one of them. They have a big budget for FCS football, won the Big South three straight years and have recently reloaded their roster for 2012 with FBS transfers. The Seawolves have one of the most ambitious FCS programs in the northeast and would replace Hofstra as a football presence on Long Island.

Beyond Stony Brook, the CAA could look to some Patriot League programs like Fordham, who added scholarships a few years ago despite the Patriot League prohibition and have therefore been banned from winning their conference title. They have not made the NCAA playoffs since 2007, however, and have not had a winning season since. The Rams have some football ambitions and would provide another northeastern presence and a large media market.

Any other option would be a conversion of a non-scholarship or low-scholarship program. The CAA could also coax other all-sports members to start football programs, but all of those schools are south of the Mason-Dixon line or recently dropped the sport. That said, the all-sports CAA could expand with other northern options that would opt to add football after joining.

All members of the all-sports CAA conference are entitled to start a football program and join the CAA Football conference if they submit a formal application and operational plan for approval to the football conference before July 1, 2017 (all other prospective additions require a three-fourths vote of membership).

Regardless, the CAA Football conference is in a uniquely troubling spot right now. Though FCS conferences do not hold title games, the CAA would work best as a 12-team league with northern and southern divisions, allowing the travel concerns of schools like Maine to be eased by scheduling most games regionally. Technically, however, it could work as a 9-team league with a heavy Virginia footprint.

A withdrawal fee increase is a duct-tape solution, but duct tape can solve a lot of problems in the short-term. Longer term, CAA Football needs to plan more thoroughly for its future.

Updated 6pm: Commissioner Yeager has now confirmed that a vote on exit fees will be held on Tuesday, at least for the all-sports league.

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