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Thoughts and figures on Appalachian State's move to the FBS
Appalachian State greeted the Sun Belt on Wednesday, which for some was a welcome ray of sunshine amidst the backdrop of snow on the ground and flurries in the air on a 34-degree day in Boone.
It has been a winter-like wait – especially for those fans who felt their sleeping giant was left behind in the 1970s when then-football-peer East Carolina bolted the Southern Conference to pursue bowl-bound dreams. And they’ve seen what Boise State, a one-time FCS opponent, has done on a larger stage and what Charlotte, without a program, got to do.
And, at times since the decision was made nearly two years ago to seek a home in the NCAA’s top division, it seemed as if the Mountaineers might be left behind again. But they found a taker in the needy Sun Belt.
ASU administrators seem confident that all will work out well, and that it’s a viable move.
“This was not something that was just done overnight by any means,” Kenneth Peacock, ASU’s chancellor, said.
Of course, not all ASU fans are enamored going from the proverbial big fish in the small pond to a little one in the big lake. Fish analogies prevalent, they hope the Mountaineers don’t flop. The SoCon and the FCS have been safe havens, and productive ones – netting rings and trophies and titles on both conference and national levels.
The move to the FBS and a new league will be a big undertaking. But, regardless of what is thought of the Sun Belt, a smaller fish itself compared to the whale-like power conferences, the Mountaineers now can count themselves as part of big-time football at the FBS level. They’ll leave an FCS pond with a water level diminished over the years as result of many of its top programs moving on.
The Mountaineers have had their bags packed for a while now. That’s a good thing, because they’ll be doing some traveling.
The Sun Belt has expanded its footprint significantly – going as far west as Idaho and New Mexico (State). Appalachian is now the northern outpost of the Sun Beat’s Eastern realm. There is a lot of geography involved here.
The Southern Conference took up a lot less real estate. But the Mountaineers have left the claustrophobic building – some might say escaped – with a feeling that it had outgrown a league that has welcomed smaller private schools with smaller stadiums in recent years. Football attendance figures bear that out, with the Mountaineers dwarfing their SoCon rivals and doing about all they could do at the FCS level.
But travel in the spread-out Sun Belt will be a challenge, although it’s an issue that cost projections apparently have accounted for.
In the SoCon, six of the Mountaineers’ 11 opponents were no more than a three-hour drive away. In the Sun Belt, the shortest drive is 5½ hours to Atlanta.
The average SoCon road trip: 220 miles. The Sun Belt: 665.
But it might not be as formidable as Mapquest seems to indicate.
Flights for football and some for basketball will be chartered, which will actually probably save travel time as compared to bussing. Most of the teams will fly commercially.
Not all sports do home-and-away or round-robin scheduling. Men’s and women’s track and men’s and women’s golf have only one conference meet. And men’s soccer and wrestling will presumably stay in the SoCon.
And, with two divisions, the Mountaineers’ schedules will be weighted to the closest opponents. ASU will be part of an Eastern Division that includes Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Western Kentucky and the two Alabama schools – Troy and South Alabama.
And, if a team leaves, which seems to be a frequent occurrence these days, the door might be open for another new member in the Mountaineers’ neighborhood.
“I think that if one school leaves, the backfill could be a potential grand-slam home run for us,” Charlie Cobb, ASU’s athletics director, said. “It could be a single, too. You never know.”
But, there will be some trips to San Marcos, Texas (1,226 miles away) and other distant venues. For those that can go, the Sun Belt’s basketball tournament will have a new home in New Orleans in ASU’s first season in the league.
There has been some squawking among some Sun Belt members about the league’s footprint going from a size 9 to a 13.
But Karl Benson, the Sun Belt’s commissioner, said that he didn’t have any trouble getting to Boone.
“There is this reputation that it’s hard to get to Boone, but I came to Boone a week ago kind of under the radar to meet with chancellor Peacock and to take my first visit,” Benson said. “I grew up in Charlotte. It’s less than 90 minutes. I said, ‘wait a second, this isn’t that hard.’ I’ve been in conferences where Utah State is 80 miles from Salt Lake City, the University of Idaho is 100 miles from Spokane and Troy (Alabama) is not an easy place to get to…. I think it’s exaggerated. I don’t think it’s an issue at all.”
But it might take some getting used to.
When and what will happen:
For all practical purposes, Appalachian has begun its transition to the FBS. The official start date for the two-year transition period is June 1. The Mountaineers will begin to add football scholarships over the summer, going part of the way in 2013 toward 85 for 2014.
2013 – ASU will play in the Southern Conference for the final time. In football, the Mountaineers will not be eligible for a SoCon championship, even if it finishes in first place in league standings, or the FCS playoffs because it will be beyond the FCS limit of 63 scholarships. All other sports will be eligible for conference titles and postseason play for 2013-14.
2014 – ASU, which will officially be a Sun Belt member on July 1 of 2014, will play in the Sun Belt and all sports will be eligible for league titles. The football team, however, will not be eligible for a bowl game because it will still be in transition. All other sports will be eligible for postseason play.
2015 – The transition will be complete for the 2015-16 season with no eligibility restrictions for football.
What the Sun Belt doesn’t have:
Men’s soccer, wrestling and field hockey – three sports that ASU currently has.
ASU’s field hockey team will continue to compete in the NorPac. Charlie Cobb, ASU’s athletics director, said that he expects men’s soccer and wrestling to remain in the SoCon. There is precedent for that. In SoCon wrestling, four teams – Campbell, Gardner-Webb, Southern Illinois-Edwardsville and VMI – compete as associate league members.
The only sport that the Sun Belt offers that ASU doesn’t have is swimming and diving.
ASU’s annual athletic budget is project to increase from 16 million to about 20 million. Plans are for increased revenue at the FBS level to help offset the additional cost, which will include more travel, more scholarships and eventual salary and staff upgrades.
The income increase will come from a variety of sources.
Sun Belt revenue sharing is expected to increase the till by about $1.5 million a year. That money will come from television contracts – the Sun Belt has a multi-year agreement with ESPN as well as a partnership with Comcast/Charter Sports Southeast and Cox Sports Television; a BCS share given to non-AQ conferences; and NCAA proceeds including basketball tournament and bowl payouts shared by Sun Belt members.
On the ASU front, there will be continued income from student fees and an aim and hope to raise more money from donors to fund scholarships as well as some debt-refinancing factors and potential to earn more for non-conference road games to help the bottom line.
One relatively small increase in income as result of the move to the FBS is that ASU is now set to receive $1 million for playing at Michigan in 2014 rather than $850,000.
ASU’s entry fee to join the Sun Belt is $1 million, which can be spread out over a three-year period. The Sun Belt’s exit fee is also $1 million.
Cobb believes the move to the FBS will lead to an upgrade in scheduling in terms of non-conference opponents.
“Can we play start playing Marshall in more sports?” Cobb said. “We haven’t really been able to do that because of this delineation of FBS and FCS. Obviously, Charlotte is a conversation for us. We’re going to try and play home-and-away in basketball in the next two years. Hopefully other opportunities will open up.
“Marshall and App haven’t played each other in football in (11) years, and the only reason we haven’t is because Marshall became an FBS program.”
Cobb also said that ASU still hopes to maintain and play some traditional geographic rivals, such as Western Carolina, in the future.
By Tommy Bowman, Winston-Salem Journal