By Conor Gereg
The past two decades have reshuffled the landscape of collegiate sports, serving to belie geography, natural rivalries, and of course, common sense. The first realignment domino landed with a bang on July 1st of last year, appropriately adjoining UConn with the basketball-centric Big East Conference but UConn’s news will only be the first of many realignment moves we see this decade.
The Western Athletic Conference was gutted shortly after the turn of the 21st century, costing the once formable league some of its biggest brands. Schools like Boise State, BYU, Colorado State, UNLV, SMU, TCU, and Tulsa among many more who all departed for greener pastures, leaving the WAC a mere shadow of what it once was.
The WAC appears to be on a glide path back to relevance, albeit with lesser brands than it once held, and there’s a new pulse to go along with a realigned geographic center for a league that’s footprint looms far larger than the conference’s finances can possibly afford.
The conference appears poised to add four Texas schools and Southern Utah in a move that creates immediate stability. The WAC is set to incorporate Abilene Christian, Lamar, Stephen F. Austin, and Sam Houston State all within the next 18 months. An increased presence in the Lone Star State might be a basketball boon but there’s something else afoot.
“The change is all about football at the end of the day,” Lance Hartzler, Sports Editor of the Arizona Daily Sun, told College Hoops Digest this month. “Adding the Texas schools and making sure to poach teams that play football was key. The WAC wants football back, which will drive revenue.”
Reinforcing the WAC’s relevance on the gridiron is key in this move, a shift that brings the league membership to 14 schools and a chance to resume playing football at the FCS level for the first time since 2012.
With a focus on pigskin, the league’s epicenter is refocused. From Seattle to Chicago, the WAC perennially sits at the near bottom of the 32 conference ranks, and its membership has been geographically stretched beyond rationality. For a league that earns just a fraction of other Division I leagues, funding chartered travel for multiple athletic teams isn’t feasible without an eye toward more localized competition. For the time being that geographic presence of the WAC will be more clearly defined between Las Vegas and Houston.
Mid-Major Musical Chairs
While these talks haven’t completely cemented, the Western Athletic Conference’s potential growth will create a domino effect around the country as league’s look to replace what was lost. “Leagues like the Southland will need to fill spots or split,” Hartzler said, “while the Big Sky can fill Southern Utah’s [spot] or keep a lower amount [of membership]. League’s shrinking wouldn’t shock me”.
The basketball angle is especially appealing to hoops fans that have long since given up on the WAC, a league that’s failed to produce much competition for its headline program New Mexico State. Beginning July 2022, the Aggies will have Stephen F. Austin as a league member, a program that finished 151st in last year’s KenPom rankings. The addition of Abilene Christian, 137th in KenPom, adds yet more firepower to content with NMSU atop the standings.
The WAC is back
“This league was left for dead a few years ago,” said Matt Brown, publisher of Extra Points, a newsletter that tracks off the field movement that shapes college sports. “Now they have a legitimate pathway to a decent FCS football league and a strong mid-major basketball league.”
Growing the WAC membership to 14 also provides padding should the conference be victim to larger leagues looking to bolster their own membership. “Perhaps most importantly, they have flexibility. If New Mexico State leaves for an FBS league in the future, or if Seattle leaves, they’ll have options,” Brown added. “They’ll enter the next decade in a much stronger position to negotiate with D-II programs or other FCS leagues.”
Realignment comes at a cost. It appears the WAC’s pilfering of schools at the low and mid major level cuts deep to league’s the least afford to lose membership and dollars. “The biggest loser, is the Southland,” Brown said. “[The Southland] is going to kick the tires on adding a few other D-II schools from the Lone Star [Conference], or perhaps poaching from the SWAC or MEAC, but they just lost their anchor programs, and their remaining membership is really struggling financially. Don’t be shocked if they rebrand completely.”