Rising Above: Sun Belt Conference celebrates successful 2017-18, sets sights on future

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While the Sun Belt Conference isn’t celebrating Christmas early this year, the league’s 12 member universities will receive a nice present later this month.

And it will be a present that the Sun Belt schools wouldn’t have expected to be under their tree just five years ago. But now, they are the beneficiaries of financial windfalls due to membership in the Sun Belt both in actual dollars and in other no-less-tangible benefits.

“Five years ago at this time, Sun Belt schools were getting less than $100,000 per year from their membership in the Sun Belt,” Commissioner Karl Benson said in announcing a record distribution of funds to league members for a fifth straight year. “In a couple of weeks, they will each get a check from the conference that will at least be 10 times that.”

That represents an increase of 17 percent in the last 12-month period. Over five years, payouts to league members increased by 104 percent in 2013-14, 77 percent in 2014-15, 23 percent in 2015-16 and 34% last year along with this year’s improvement.

The funding for the end-of-year payouts comes from several sources, but chief among them are the league’s success against its peer conferences in bowl games and its success in recent NCAA Basketball Tournament appearances.

The Sun Belt has gone 8-3 in bowl games over the past two years – a 4-2 record in 2016 and a 4-1 mark from its five bowl-bound teams last year. That winning percentage (.727) is the best among all of the nation’s 10 Division I conferences in the past two years, and over the past four years no conference ranks higher in bowl winning percentage than the Sun Belt.

The league also had the most bowl wins and best winning percentage among its “Group of Five” peer conferences, including victories over teams in the two top-rated leagues in final computer rankings over those two years.

It is a safe assumption that no other Division I league can boast end-of-year payouts to member institutions that average a 50 percent annual increase over the past five years.

“The conference has reached a point where our member universities are benefitting financially from their membership in the Sun Belt,” Benson said. “People always talk about the value of being in conference x , y or z. And there are always many benefits, but when you can add a significant financial piece to that list that wasn’t there before, you can really then compare yourself to your peer conferences.”

And because of this increase in financial benefits, the Sun Belt can now boast that it is on par or perhaps even better than some of our peer conferences.

Benson is also quick to point out that the commitment by the league’s Presidents and Chancellors and Athletics Directors have been the driving force behind the financial successes that he expects to continue in upcoming seasons. The expansion of a long-standing agreement with ESPN, the addition of a football championship game and the recently-announced men’s basketball initiatives are part of what makes Benson optimistic and very bullish about future of the Sun Belt as it now enters into a new era.

The league’s new era includes the recent decisions by the conference leadership to use an innovative scheduling model that makes sweeping changes to conference and non-conference schedules in men’s basketball and format and location of the conference tournaments for both men’s and women’s basketball to set up a “final four” format at the New Orleans-based Smoothie King Center.

“We have focused so much on football the last five years, we have to remember the Sun Belt was founded as a basketball conference,” Benson said of the 1976 creation of the league. “We need to get back to being a top-12 basketball conference, and that’s the impetus for this strategic plan. We have to take advantage of our assets. Our presidents and chancellors know that the sports that have financial upside are football and men’s basketball, and we need to capitalize on that.”

The conference has already capitalized on expanding its long-standing relationship with ESPN, one that has been in effect since the network was launched in 1979. The league and ESPN announced in March an eight-year contract for exclusive rights of all league sports.

The inaugural football championship game, set for Dec. 1, will air on ABC, ESPN or ESPN2, as will future championship games during the contract period. All home Sun Belt football games will be available on an ESPN platform for the duration of that contract, and a minimum of 100 men’s and women’s basketball games this season and 150 next season will air on ESPN platforms.

By 2020-21, member schools will be featured on more than 500 linear and digital broadcasts annually on ESPN platforms. The league, in consultation with the network, is providing state-of-the-art broadcast equipment in many technological areas, as well as consultants and guidance, to each member school to increase each campus’ ability to provide broadcasts across the ESPN platforms.

“This is an all-new campus production model,” said Sun Belt Senior Associate Commissioner and Chief Branding and Communications Officer John McElwain. “We weren’t going to just tell the schools you’re responsible, go out and buy all the equipment and make sure it works. We’re having consultants come to each campus to make sure everybody’s up and running. It’s been a long process, a couple of years coming, but now it’s really taking shape.”

“The presidents and chancellors have had to make that decision on each of their campuses, but they have been unanimous in supporting this venture,” Benson said. “The league has received significant contributions from ESPN to help get these on-campus facilities ready to go. It’s a partnership between the schools, the Sun Belt and ESPN that will get these facilities up and running and ready to be fully operable at the start of football season. They’re all going to flip the switch and it’ll be live from our stadiums on ESPN+.

“We’re in on the ground floor as part of ESPN’s next generation. This is the wave of the future, and our schools and our fans have been preparing for it. For them it’s become an accepted way for our fans to watch Sun Belt and all college sports.”

Progressing forward has been a characteristic of the Sun Belt since its formation in 1976. And now, the league is poised to continue in that tradition in the years to come.

“After five years of planning, everything is in place for the upcoming season,” Benson said. “This is going to allow our schools now to focus on success. We are no longer in the planning and preparing stage, as all the pieces are now in place. The foundation is set and now it’s time for the Sun Belt to prosper and rise above our peer conferences.”

About the Sun Belt Conference

Entering the second decade of the new millennium, the Sun Belt Conference continues to challenge itself, and its competitors, in all aspects of intercollegiate athletics. Not content with being simply the youngest football conference in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the conference has shown that it can rise each and every season that comes along. And since the birth of the league as a FBS member in 2001, the evidence is clear that the conference is indeed rising above competitors and peer conferences.

The Sun Belt finished second in bowl winning percentage among all 10 FBS conferences the last two seasons and reaching back to the 2014 season, no conference has a better total bowl winning percentage (.611) than the Sun Belt. All that success comes as the 2018 season will see the conference split into divisions (East/West) for the first time and stage its first-ever championship game at the end of the regular season on December 1, 2018.

Appalachian State, Arkansas State, Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Louisiana, ULM, South Alabama, Texas State and Troy give the league 10 football members. Little Rock and UTA compete as Sun Belt members in sports other than football.

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