After 16 years, Marshall University athletics has bid farewell to Conference USA in favor of joining the Sun Belt Conference. It’s a good move.
In the world of college football, money talks. Division I college football long ago left the realm of being primarily an athletic endeavor and now operates more as an entertainment enterprise beholden to television networks and other revenue sources. Not only are the universities at the top of the heap raking in big bucks, but the NCAA now allows athletes to earn money through name, image and likeness (NIL) endorsements, also.
Schools such as Marshall don’t have the financial wherewithal to buy their way into the top echelon of the sport. These schools in the second tier of the sport must work smarter, which is what Marshall has been able to do over the years as the rich have gotten richer and the mid-majors fight for what’s left.
It’s not easy for second-tier schools to make the moves that are necessary to maintain their status, let alone climb the ladder. Conferences put golden handcuffs on their members to keep them from moving around casually. In Conference USA’s case, Marshall will now forgo its revenue distribution this year and next, which could cost the program about $3 million, President Jerome Gilbert said. Helping balance that is the Sun Belt’s waiving its usual $2 million admission fee for Marshall.
That’s a $1 million deficit, and it wouldn’t be easy for Marshall to swallow if not for the long-term benefits of moving out of a conference with an uncertain future and into one whose members are a better fit geographically and in their histories.
While football and men’s basketball get most of the attention and most of the money, other athletic programs offer an opportunity for Marshall to continue its climb toward national prominence. After Marshall joins, the Sun Belt will offer soccer. With one national championship in hand and a current No. 1 ranking, that should be a good recruitment tool for Marshall — not just in athletics, but in overall enrollment as well.
Marshall fans will have time to judge how their school stacks up against its new peers — not just in athletics but in academics. Marshall has nothing to apologize for there, and it has bragging rights in some programs, too.
Marshall had a good ride in Conference USA, but it was time to move on. It was fortunate to find a conference that wanted it for what it could bring to the table and not just because the Sun Belt needed another school to keep a network contract.
It’s not likely that Marshall will soon rise to the level of an Ohio State or an Oklahoma — the kind of place where officials want to have a school their football team can be proud of. Money talks, and it’s not easy for schools such as Marshall to have their voices heard off the playing field.
Decisions must be made, and this one was the necessary one.