On March 1, the Sun Belt is expected to release its 2022 conference football schedules.
Normally, this announcement isn’t cloaked in much mystery. Sure, game dates and locations are revealed, but most administrators have an idea of what’s coming. However, this year is different.
There is uncertainty around a normally certain aspect: the number of teams in the conference.
“It’s tenuous,” says one Sun Belt school administrator.
Such is the state of college sports—never before so divisive and unstable—that one conference’s league makeup is unknown seven months before the next athletic year begins.
Conference USA’s standoff with three departing members—Southern Miss, Old Dominion and Marshall, all bound for the Sun Belt—has stunned the college sports landscape and is impacting the future scheduling of schools, whole regions and entire leagues.
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY Sports
Last week, the three schools announced that they plan to leave Conference USA this summer, a year earlier than expected, revealing in the statement that the league declined attempts to negotiate an earlier exit. C-USA responded to those announcements by (1) including those three teams in the release of its 2022 football schedules; and (2) announcing in a terse statement that it will pursue legal action to ensure the schools compete in the 2022–23 athletic year.
“I can’t remember a time where schools have publicly said we are leaving and the conference says ‘no’ and releases the football schedule,” says Mit Winter, a sports attorney based in Kansas City who has represented both the NCAA and conferences in the past.
“It might be completely unique,” says one longtime official working in college sports. “It’s Conference USA’s last stand at the Alamo.”
But will it work?
Several sports law experts and administrators spoke to Sports Illustrated, some granted anonymity, to discuss the next steps in this public fight. The three schools have agreed to pay their contractual exit fee for leaving the league, which is two years’ worth of revenue distribution (roughly $1.5 million). But they are steadfast in their desire to leave the conference this summer despite a binding clause in the league’s bylaws.
“A case like this has the chance to get very nasty, very quickly, as there are few if any settlement options other than the conference agreeing not to enforce their rules, which I doubt they will do,” says Gregg Clifton, an expert in sports law based in Arizona.
In any suit it files against the departing members, Conference USA is likely to use a clause in its bylaws prohibiting a school from leaving the league without giving 14 months of notice. The conference provided the clause to SI.
However, there is no penalty or consequence attached to the notice clause, those familiar with the bylaws say.
Some believe the absence of such provides wiggle room for the schools. Others say its absence is irrelevant—the schools are in breach of contract if they leave early.
C-USA’s plan is unclear. League officials declined comment.
Attorneys believe the conference will first file suit and seek judicial intervention to obtain injunctive relief requiring the three schools to remain in the conference, at the very least until a trial on the underlying breach of contract issues is complete. The league, headquartered in Dallas, could file suit in either federal or state court in Texas. But most believe that the conference must file three individual suits in the three states in which the schools, each pubic institutions, reside: Mississippi (Southern Miss), West Virginia (Marshall) and Virginia (ODU). That could prove difficult. Fighting a court battle against a state university in that very state is a recipe for failure, Winter says.
For one, state entities are protected through sovereign immunity, a legal doctrine that shelters them from civil suits filed in their own courts.
“Assuming local judges do not recuse themselves, it may be extremely difficult to get a local judge who may live and work down the street from the school to render a decision enjoining the state school,” Clifton says.
The ramifications of a ruling could result in long-term impacts across a college sports landscape in the midst of rapid realignment change. Over the next four years in FBS, 11 teams are poised to move from one league to another, three more teams are elevating from FCS to FBS and two FBS independents are joining conferences.
If a court doesn’t enforce the C-USA bylaws, does it create a path for more schools to exit their leagues without additional penalties?
“It throws the entire system into chaos,” says one college sports executive.
Schools wanting to leave a league before they are contractually bound is nothing new. Normally, a conference and school negotiate on additional monetary penalties for such a move. In fact, the American Athletic Conference is in the midst of negotiations with three of its members—Houston, UCF and Cincinnati—to allow them to move to the Big 12 a year earlier (2023) than the bylaws dictate. Something similar happened in 2019 when UConn split with the AAC. The two settled on a number—$17 million, $7 million more than the original exit fee—for the Huskies to immediately break from the conference.
In other instances, the courts have been used as a way to start the conversation. In 2011, West Virginia, bolting from the Big East to the Big 12, filed a lawsuit against the Big East in its home county and eventually settled on an exit price through mediation. At that time, the Big East’s makeup had changed with the departures of Boston College, Virginia Tech and Miami to the ACC. In the suit, West Virginia used the conference’s different makeup to argue for an earlier exit.
Could something similar happen in the case of C-USA? Possibly.
While ODU, Southern Miss and Marshall plan to leave for the Sun Belt, six other C-USA schools are bound for the AAC starting in 2023. Those include UAB, UTSA, Rice, North Texas, Charlotte and Florida Atlantic. The six outgoing schools accepted invitations to the AAC last fall knowing they were required to remain in C-USA for another athletic year.
While some C-USA administrators are miffed at Southern Miss, ODU and Marshall’s position on leaving early, they are just as disappointed in the league’s stonewalled response.
“It feels like hurt feelings rather than good business,” says one administrator within Conference USA. “Everybody is dug in. Over what?”
But C-USA’s situation is complicated by other matters. The league does not have a grant-of-rights agreement like the Big 12, which has used such an agreement to bind OU and Texas to the league through the 2024–25 athletic year. Also, C-USA’s television deal, primarily with CBS, has just one more year remaining—it expires after the 2022–23 athletic year.
Some believe CBS could decrease the value of the deal’s final season if C-USA were to lose the three schools. Is that worth a lengthy, expensive court battle?
“Conferences never want to be in the business of suing schools. It makes it harder to attract other schools in the future,” Winter says.
During the latest discussions, the six C-USA programs bound for the AAC have not been as informed on the topic, two officials tell SI. For the most part, the five members that will remain in C-USA have been more integral in discussions with league officials. Those include FIU, Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee, UTEP and Louisiana Tech. C-USA is also adding FCS programs Sam Houston State and Jacksonville State as well as independents New Mexico State and Liberty.
Timing is another matter. In February and March, administrators usually begin announcing season ticket campaigns. They also start making plans for fall road trips, specifically football, which has a traveling party of more than 150 people. Bookings for hotels, charter flights and buses, caterers and on-campus events are being delayed, not only in one conference but in two.
“At the end of the day, they are hosting us hostages too,” a Sun Belt official said.
The Sun Belt has a distant role in all of this, according to those familiar with the process. The league expected the three programs to begin play in 2023. Southern Miss, ODU and Marshall have made this decision on their own to arrive a year early.
It puts the Sun Belt in a tight spot. If the league releases schedules that include the three teams, will C-USA expand its legal challenge to incorporate the Sun Belt?
“Do we then get sued?” a SBC official asks. “Are we then complicit?”
In the meantime, Conference USA publicly unveiled 2022 league schedules Tuesday that included Southern Miss, ODU and Marshall, a move that made for some lighthearted moments.
It also resulted in some odd phone calls. An intermediary for Marshall contacted another C-USA school to inquire about playing it in a game this fall.
“We’re already playing Marshall in a conference game,” the administrator told the intermediary.
“No,” replied the intermediary. “I’m talking about it being a non-conference game.”
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