James Madison University’s 21st-century ascent in the storied CAA Football conference has been well-documented, partially by two ESPN College GameDay appearances. In fact, the Dukes have soared for the majority of FCS seasons since the inception of HERO Sports FCS.
As long as we at HERO Sports have been playing the FCS game, JMU’s been right there.
The future of that cornerstone subdivision trend is officially in doubt.
As soon as Thursday, James Madison could announce a change in its conference membership and corresponding move up from the FCS to the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Sun Belt Conference and Conference USA, in no particular order, are reportedly FBS leagues with a target on JMU, along with existing Group of 5 members, as it eyes expansion.
The Dukes have, for some time, been rumored to be not always thrilled with life in the CAA, whether it was the conference’s ongoing FloSports media rights deal drawing ire, the controversial summer 2020 delay of the fall football season, or the lack of the creation of a CAA Football title game to decide the spring playoff automatic bid between North and South division champs.
As of yet (or at press time), JMU has not acted on that disgruntled state publicly, one that is perhaps the CAA’s worst-kept secret. But former CAA commissioner Tom Yeager acknowledged to HERO Sports JMU’s position of strength to explore new horizons.
“At JMU, you see everything that you see at the Power 5, you know, the major Power 5 schools, to scale,” Yeager said.
“You’re going to see a crowd of 25,000, rabid fans, big band, big tailgating, everything else like you’re going see at Penn State, at a quarter of the size.”
Yeager cautioned against making an FBS move for the pure sake of attaining FBS affiliation, however.
“You can say I’m a member of that high-priced country club, but at what price? You’ve depleted the kid’s college fund, you’ve let the house go into disrepair and everything, because you’re paying dues to the country club just so you can say that [you’re a member].”
A former athletic director at a CAA school who requested anonymity echoed that sentiment in speaking on the financial aspects of a switch to the Sun Belt, for example.
“You’ve got to hand it to [Coastal Carolina] for what they’ve done on the field,” the ex-AD told HERO Sports. “But when you look at it from a business model standpoint, it’s very, very hard to support because even for the success they’ve had on the field, the schools in that [Sun Belt] conference make virtually nothing as it relates to media rights. And that’s where the money [is]. So much of conference realignment and the numbers and the stories about it are focused on movement within the Power 5. In those cases, you’re talking about conferences that are making between 20 and 40 and up to 50 million dollars a year per school. When you’re looking at the [basic Group of 5] conferences that an FCS team would likely move up to, you’re fortunate if you’re even getting a million dollars [a school].”
James Madison’s reported candidacy in both the Sun Belt and Conference USA will have much to do with geography.
Explained the former CAA school athletics executive, “I think there’s truly going to be a move at the mid and lower levels to bring some more geographic sensibility to conferences. Because you really have a hard time, when there’s very little revenue coming in, it’s awful hard to justify sending your whatever, volleyball team, 2,000 miles for a volleyball match…I just think it’s not a big deal for the ACC, there’s so much money coming in, those costs can be shouldered a lot easier than they can in those Group of 5 situations where there’s virtually no money. To say that [any given G5 conference] is going to expand the footprint even greater, that’s a tough sell, and I don’t think [university] presidents are going to be behind that going forward with the challenges that they’re facing throughout their campuses.”
With those factors spoken for and considered, it still appears imminent that JMU will be a serious threat to depart the CAA and in doing so, leave a gaping hole in CAA Football. More specifically, that would be a hole at the top.
“I think any time a league loses its strongest member, there’s going to be ramifications [sic] as it relates to the quality of the play in the league and certainly from an image and branding standpoint,” the former AD said.
“In the CAA’s case, it’s a little unique because you’ve got a number of schools that are only members in football.”
That contingent of football-only CAA membership could make navigating life post-JMU more tricky for CAA Football, the ex-AD remarked.
“It’s a little different because you’ve got a couple of different balls in the air. It’s not like one group of schools that are all in and trying to chart its course. Here, you’ve got a group that’s all in, you’ve got [however many] that are just football…You’ve got a lot of different opinions, you’ve got a lot of different philosophies, and that will be challenging because it’s going to be harder to come to consensus, right? If everybody’s all in with the conference and say the top school leaves, OK, well then you strategize about what is the next move for this conference as a group. Here [in the CAA], you’re going to have a group that’s together, but then you’re going to have a half dozen or so that are only in for football, so where do they stand in this strategy development? Honestly, because you have such limited revenue and you’ve got a pretty big geographic footprint, are there geographic pressures to what you want to do?”
For those reasons, the CAA’s remaining core might be better served prioritizing banding together somehow rather than seeking to expand in a departure’s immediate aftermath, the administrator continued.
“My gut would be if JMU did leave, I think the first challenge facing the Colonial is to make sure that the remaining schools are unified. By that I mean full CAA schools and just-football CAA schools. I think that would be by far the No. 1 goal or job of that conference, is to make sure that they’re together with that group. That group together without JMU can go [forward] and proceed whether or not they add anybody, but there could be, whether that would be the impetus to the northern schools, southern schools, who knows? I think unification of what’s remaining…before they even considered talking other schools.”
If James Madison announces a move out of the CAA Thursday or down the line, its opponent on the field Saturday, Delaware, would be among the remaining pieces to unify. The Blue Hens, perceived as a potential institutional peer of the Dukes in public school enrollment and athletic department size, have had less “white hot” success than JMU recently, said Yeager, but the longtime commish sang praises of the Dukes’ football rival just the same overall.
“The University of Delaware for decades could qualify for FBS,” Yeager stated. “Could qualify, and would be in a great media market, fan base; why haven’t they moved?…About JMU, it’s the static from the boosters, OK? Delaware has been a historic football program for a long, long time. And with attendance that would be the envy of many FBS programs and all the other trappings. Why aren’t we talking about Delaware? Mainly because I think they’ve done the analysis of who they are and what’s to be gained as an institution.”
Even with that background, could an impending JMU move apply pressure to the Hens?
“Does [Delaware] think about it more? Maybe,” the former AD started. “But it’s [FBS move-up is] a jigsaw puzzle, and you need to find the puzzle that fits for your school on all of those different facets, athletically, academically, politically, financially, and geographically. And where is that?”
“Even if you knew where it was and it existed, do they want you?” the administrator concluded.
Via multiple national reports from Yahoo! Sports and The Athletic this week, the Sun Belt and C-USA are checking the “wanting” box for James Madison.
As conversations between the Harrisonburg bunch and those conferences are alleged, Yeager, the self-described FCS advocate, reminds the football world of traditions that matter.
“The excitement that you have when you’re [your team is] playing the alma mater of another guy in your office three cubicles down, and your neighbor’s [alma mater] and stuff like that, it brings something. When you’re playing a steady diet of people you can’t find with a map, it starts eroding your programs. If you’re playing football on every night of the week to be on TV for really no real money, eventually, you start to lose the foundational support for your program. Your attendance starts going down. ‘We were on TV!’ Everybody’s on TV.”
Concluded Yeager, “When Maine and New Hampshire play, people care. When Delaware and Villanova play, people care. When William & Mary, Richmond, and JMU tangle, people care. When you’re playing ‘St. Mary’s of the Swamp,’ people aren’t gonna care.”
How would Yeager approach a post-JMU CAA leadership situation? He likened losing JMU to losing a “parade horse” and compared the challenge to his conference regrouping in basketball after losing Virginia Commonwealth and George Mason, two Final Four teams in Cinderella years.
And if James Madison and FBS Old Dominion, former CAA Football comrades, reunite in either Group of 5 league reported to be interested in targeting JMU? It might not be without awkward moments between administrations, rivals of Virginia.
Recalled Yeager, “When JMU won their [FCS] national title in 2016, there was an athletic department official who mentioned to me, ‘They aren’t having a parade in Norfolk.’ There was a parade downtown [at JMU] celebrating the national title and everything else like that, and it was a direct shot at Old Dominion.”