News this week came down that the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga was approached by the Sun Belt Conference about the school's interest in joining Georgia Southern and Appalachian State in defecting from the Southern Conference to the wide-reaching FBS conference that is almost as big as the sun and as expanded as your Uncle Joe's belt on Thanksgiving.
It's fair to say that the UTC athletic department as a whole is as healthy as it ever has been. Before leaving for SMU last year, Rick Hart did a slew of good things to reconnect the Mocs programs with the community, and his support staff including Laura Herron, who is serving as the interim AD, and Matt Pope and sports information director Jay Blackman are top-notch.
That said, the Mocs are not flush with cash. Never have been, and likely never will be.
The big sports boosters of yesterday, the guys with the multicolored sports coat and the oversized hats, are gone or have cut back greatly -- and that's not just for UTC. That's all of college sports from the top down.
Sure, the Alabamas and Floridas and Ohio States are writing big checks with big pens, but those are the exceptions who have become the rulers of college sports. Even the Big Orange in Knoxville is having a fairly noticeable shortage of green of late.
For the Mocs, though, any move in conferences would be a massive undertaking that would further strain an already financially strained operation. That's simple and constant. That will be as true five years from now as it would have been if Herron had pitched it five days ago.
Without a full-time AD, there's little to no way UTC could have made that move right now. There are multiple layers to that, of course, but it also severely hinders the hiring process of a new AD to make that kind of decision. A new department head handed the challenges of leading UTC athletics -- and generating the much-needed funds to do so -- would and should expect to participate in a decision of that magnitude.
As for the future, it will be interesting to see what kind of additions the Southern Conference makes. The names being bounced around as potential invitees include East Tennessee State, Kennesaw State and Mercer. The one that could be very profitable in that group is Kennesaw State, which has an enrollment of 23,000-plus and, being right outside Atlanta, could be a bargaining chip in TV discussions. That's the key, of course: TV discussions and revenue, particularly for football.
Here's how the college sports model may play out for football over the next decade (the other sports will remain relatively similar since they fall under the NCAA negotiation umbrella in terms of championships broadcast rights):
n The four or five big football conferences will expand to at least 14 teams and possibly 16.
n The college football playoff that starts after the 2014 season will expand from four teams to eight sooner rather than later. And it could go to 16 just as quickly.
The eight-team model will be dictated by the big schools, and we could see it being a stipulation that the big conferences get to split seven bids (each of the conference champs gets one, the rest at-large) and everyone else gets to compete for that one wild-card spot. While that seems out of balance, do not expect the SEC, the Big Ten, the Pac-12, the Big 12 and the ACC to want to share more than that. And if they are forced to do so, they may form their own thing, and no one wants that because that will rework the entire structure.
So the other schools will work out a split for that last spot. And while it sounds like just one spot, an eight-team college football playoff would be a TV deal worth something like $5 billion over 10 years. So if there are 60 big-boy schools and 60 mid-major schools in the pot, the 60 mid-majors could be splitting $62.5 million ($500 million divided by the eight spots). Plus the ability to get into the football title dance would make the TV rights of the smaller conferences a great deal more marketable.
It's hard to see a long-term financial model that works for the FCS, especially since the one niche it has was being the only Division I football subdivision that decided its champion on the field, and that no longer will be true in 21 months.
Contact Jay Greeson at email@example.com