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Conference USA’s Breakup is Getting Ugly

Southern Miss, Old Dominion, and Marshall want to leave Conference USA early — but the league is not about to let that happen peacefully. Strap yourselves in and hold on.

Across the wide world of college sports, conference realignment — or straight-up consolidation, in some cases — is always happening. Even if it’s not at the Power 5 level, schools switch leagues all the time, across NCAA divisions. It’s often not a problem, though sometimes it makes headlines when a bitter conference seeks to punish outgoing member schools or student-athletes.

What’s happening right now in Conference USA goes beyond that, with the league and three of its nine outgoing schools at a standoff regarding when exactly that exit is going to occur. Marshall, Old Dominion, and Southern Mississippi have all announced their intention to leave the conference this June. Meanwhile, Conference USA is still planning for those three to compete next year.

And neither side seems prepared to back down.

How Did We Get Here?

The dominoes began to fall over the summer when Texas and Oklahoma announced they were leaving the Big 12 for the SEC. That forced the Big 12 to expand, poaching football independent BYU and Houston, Cincinnati, and UCF from the American Athletic Conference. The American then back-filled by taking six schools from… yes, Conference USA.

Marshall, Old Dominion, and Southern Miss were not part of that group headed for the AAC, but they were left with a severely diminished league and sought refuge in the Sun Belt.

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That part happened in December, and according to CUSA bylaws, departing schools must give 14 months notice and forfeit two years of conference distribution revenue. So it seemed that those three would hang around until the end of the 2022-23 academic year.

It should be noted that schools rarely wait out the full notice period when they move. Usually, the school and conference get together, negotiate an increased exit fee, and part ways much sooner. That’s why it wasn’t earth-shattering when Marshall, ODU, and Southern Miss announced last week their intentions to leave this summer instead of waiting around.

Then, things got weird.

On Tuesday, CUSA released its full 2022 football schedule and — surprise, surprise! — Marshall, ODU, and Southern Miss were all included on it. Anticipating some blowback, the league tweeted the below statement and notably disabled the replies.

Did plans change?

It doesn’t seem that way. Here’s Marshall saying that it does not intend to compete in Conference USA next season, period:

As of this writing, the other two institutions have not come out with a statement, but Southern Miss said this last week:

“The University first advised Conference USA in early December 2021 of the University’s plans to terminate its membership in June 2022. Since then, the University has clearly and consistently repeated its intentions to the conference.”

Your big-picture takeaway, then? This isn’t going to get ugly. It already is.

What Happens Next?

Nobody wants awkward conference meetings, media days, or championships next year. The three schools in question will probably compete in the Sun Belt beginning this fall. The question is how much money it takes to get there.

There is precedent for situations like this getting messy. If you think back to the last seismic change to the conference landscape when the old Big East broke up and the ACC, Big Ten, and Big 12 expanded, Maryland’s move to the Big Ten left no warm feelings between the school and the Atlantic Coast crew. Haggling over an exit fee led to a 20-month legal battle that eventually forced the Terrapins to give up $31.4 million.

With fall sports about six months away, there’s no time for this to be drawn out. Lawyers and representatives from all parties involved will have to get in a room and hash this out, and the easiest way to do that is to make Marshall, ODU, and Southern Miss cough up a few more bucks. The three schools being clear of their intentions from the start, as Southern Miss indicated, and how routine the practice of leaving early has become, leave little actual ground for CUSA to stand on beyond that. There’s nothing here that hasn’t been done a hundred times before.

UPDATE 3/29/22: Conference USA has finally relented. The conference announced on Tuesday that it has reached an agreement with the departing schools for them to leave this summer and compete in the Sun Belt next season.

Is Conference USA Dead?

Not quite. The conference was already a far cry from what it used to be, back when Louisville, Memphis, Cincinnati, and Marquette ran the show. In football, it’s one of the weaker Group of 5 leagues. In men’s and women’s basketball, it’s a perennial one-bid conference.

With only five current CUSA schools still planning to remain, the league has already announced expansion plans that include adding:

  • New Mexico State
  • Liberty
  • Jacksonville State
  • Sam Houston State.

They’re additions that have plenty of potential — New Mexico State has been great in men’s basketball and Liberty has the resources of some Power 5 schools (plus a former SEC football coach) — but also plenty of questions to be answered. Travel will be a real concern in a league that will span from West Virginia to New Mexico, and CUSA doesn’t exactly command a lucrative media rights deal to make it worth the continued investment.

That deal itself is also a cause for concern. Conference USA took a huge hit in the latest round of media partner negotiations, losing 86% of its value over its previous deal. With some of the bigger brands headed out the door, the next deal could be even worse as the divide between the Power 5 and Group of 5 continues to grow.

Going forward, CUSA might look to expand even more, as an eight-team conference presents plenty of drawbacks — particularly in scheduling for major revenue sports. It would also be at the bare minimum to qualify as an FBS football conference at all. At issue, however, is that the options out there aren’t great; they may not be able to avoid dipping into FCS programs interested in making the major leap to big-time football. Reaching into Division II is technically an alternative, but not an appetizing one from a brand and business standpoint.

Whether CUSA decides to grow or stand pat, the current predicament at least makes it clear why the conference is trying to squeeze every last drop it can out of three departing universities.

Stay tuned. This conference custody battle is heated, but hasn’t reached its bitterest possible apex yet.

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