After weeks of “will they or won’t they?” Middle Tennessee State University announced on Wednesday morning it will staying put in Conference USA and forego an opportunity to join the Mid-American Conference.
The announcement ended what many were calling a potential death blow to the conference, which lost nine of its 14 members to, collectively, the American Athletic Conference and Sun Belt.
“We greatly appreciate the interest other conferences have shown in our athletics program and in our university, as they are a testament to the overall excellence of our institution, both athletically and academically,” MTSU president Sidney McPhee said in a statement. “However, after careful consideration and due diligence, I am pleased to reaffirm our commitment to Conference USA.
“Working with our four remaining members, as well as our new partners, Conference USA is poised to rebrand itself as a premier conference in the Group of 5. We look forward to the opportunities that our expanded relationship will provide and want to assure our fans that, regardless of conference affiliations, our goals remain the same, as we pursue championships in all our sports.”
While McPhee spun his decision as a way to maintain the school’s Southern-region rivalries and rebuild C-USA, the reality is it was a decision fueled by money. Staying put made the most financial sense for MTSU.
The university is set to begin the first phase of its $66 million athletics facility campaign, which includes building a new student-athlete performance center, upgrading Murphy Center and building a new indoor football practice facility. As such, MTSU could not have easily afforded to pay the $3 million exit fee to leave C-USA and then pay an additional $5 million fee to join the MAC.
Instead, MTSU will receive $5 million to stay, presumably coming from the $20-plus million in exit fees C-USA will get from the departures of Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice, UAB and UTSA (AAC) and Marshall, Old Dominion and Southern Miss (Sun Belt) that can be divided among the five remaining league members.
“Right now, their [annual] athletic budget is somewhere between $33 and $34 million, last time I checked, so you’re looking at adding 15-17 percent of your athletic budget in one year just by staying,” a source close to the situation told the Post.
MTSU’s decision to stay put not only affected the university but it also shaped the future of Western Kentucky athletics as well. The MAC reportedly wanted both MTSU and WKU, but not just one.
Western is — and has been — ready to move on from C-USA ever since the AAC poached six teams nearly three weeks ago. However, the MAC released a statement shortly after MTSU’s announcement stating the conference would not be pursuing expansion.
“Western Kentucky wants to move on, but I don’t know how they’re going to do it without having Middle Tennessee as a travel partner,” the anonymous source said. “If Western Kentucky was offered (to join) the MAC without Middle, we would’ve had a press release (by now). Western is ready, and they have boosters in Bowling Green that are not afraid to open up the pocketbooks and let their money speak.”
Now that the dust has settled, Conference USA currently has nine members for the future — one above the NCAA-mandated eight-member minimum for an FBS conference. The conference will eventually be comprised of Florida International, Jacksonville State, Liberty, Louisiana Tech, MTSU, New Mexico State, Sam Houston State, UTEP and WKU.
Conference USA Commissioner Judy MacLeod didn’t rule out the possibility of adding another member or two now that MTSU and Western Kentucky will be staying. The conference has been rumored to be interested in adding UConn (football only) or UMass.
"With the addition of four new institutions last week, Conference USA remains a great fit for Middle Tennessee," MacLeod said in a statement. "We are very pleased that they have decided to reaffirm their commitment to C-USA as we continue to move forward as a conference. While several institutions have indicated interest in joining our league, we will use this time to be deliberate and strategic in exploring any potential additional expansion."
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