Southern Miss Facing the Harsh Reality of Conference Realignment

By Make It Rain Sports, Featured Columnist –

Let me preface this article to say that, Make It Rain Sports is a sports outlet that lives on the edge.  We are often confrontational and not afraid to hit emotional topics within the world of sports.  This is in no way intended to belittle or insult the University of Southern Mississippi sports program as we love the fine alumni and supporters of the Golden Eagles.  Having said that, we look at the facts and give our opinion as we continue to, Make it Rain.

Sixteen straight winning seasons, eight consecutive bowl appearances, and four league championships in the 12-year history of Conference USA.  In 2007, they were selected as the conference team and coach of the decade. This is Southern Miss Football.

Remarkable accomplishments, regardless of conference affiliation.  But conference affiliation is something USM must evaluate, as conferences rapidly jockey for new teams and position themselves for the inevitable super conferences.  Many teams will surely be left out to dry.

This doesn’t mean teams in small conferences will have to stop playing competitive college sports, but it does mean opportunities for success will be increasingly limited for those not affiliated with the upper tier conferences.

And yes, USM is one of those teams.

For years USM played football as an independent and played other sports in the old Metro Conference.  In those days (1982-95) USM played and beat teams like, Florida State, Alabama, Auburn, and others. But even then, teams started making big conference moves. Florida State to the ACC in 1991, South Carolina to the SEC in 1992 are just a few that began in the early nineties making the conference jump.

Actually a study was done by Raycom Sports back in 1990 of a proposed Metro Super Conference. Keep in mind the SEC didn’t expand until 1992. That super conference would have had a north-south division format with the likes of Boston College, West Virginia, Florida State, Louisville, South Carolina and more.  Those teams ring a bell?  Yep, they all bolted for greener pastures leaving Southern Miss to join Conference USA in 1996.

We all know the benefits of conference affiliation but CUSA hasn’t always been in the best position and again last year lost some big market teams, as Memphis, SMU, and others bolted for more financially stable situations. CUSA, like many smaller conferences, is looking for ways to financially compete and stay in the game with other conferences.  If they do not, they will ultimately have to shutter the doors.

Memphis’ leap to the Big East created quite a stir in Hattiesburg as many fans wondered how could Memphis be chosen ahead of their beloved Eagles, as USM had dominated Memphis over the years.  Well it’s not always about wins and losses. It’s also about what you bring to the table financially and frankly USM fails in this area.

In 2008 the Orlando Sentinel released a report that showed a ranking of total revenue by Division One programs. USM ranked 111th with just over fourteen million dollars in revenue.  Memphis conversely was ranked 68th with a revenue of just over thirty-three million.  Memphis has a bigger market and a bigger brand.

Proceeds from ticket sales and sponsorships, and allocated revenue, such as tuition waivers, money from student fees, and direct institutional support, is where USM has failed drastically.

Obviously, the athletic departments with the highest revenue typically are from schools that fill 80,000- to 100,000-seat football stadiums on Saturdays and come from conferences that receive an automatic Bowl Championship Series bid.

But, why can’t USM more closely mirror schools like MS State or Ole Miss? Hattiesburg is much larger than Starkville or Oxford and is much closer to the Gulf Coast and Jackson. Truthfully, there is no reason why USM cannot fill a thirty thousand plus football stadium.

Southern Miss wants to compare itself to teams like Boise State or TCU, and yes I can see the reasons behind the comparisons on the field.  But the big difference is off the field.  Boise State ($21,777,002) TCU ($43,439,777) and even SMU ($33,031,503) show vastly different operating budgets than Southern Miss ($14,472,618).

This doesn’t mean that USM cannot compete on a playing field with anyone on any given day, but when teams are bringing in more money by ticket sales or TV contracts, a slippery slope begins to emerge, and USM is on the edge.

So where does Southern Miss go from here?  You have to start with what you can control. And that is with the man in the mirror. If you’re a USM fan and you can’t (or won’t) drive an hour and a half to support your school, during a nationally televised game, you should no longer complain about the current state of your program.

You can have the best facilities, coaches, and players in the nation, but if you can’t fill the seats or sell a TV package, you are not attractive to other conferences. If you were waiting for USM to get in a big conference before buying season tickets, you are going to be waiting a very long time.

Today’s college sports world is a huge business and it takes more than catchy marketing phrases and hard work by coaches and players to compete. If USM is ever going to step up, as a program, it starts with the alumni, fans, and donors.  Get out and support USM at the gate, donate to your school, buy into the school’s vision. Don’t let your sports teams be abandoned on the road side.

If the culture among the Southern Miss faithful doesn’t change, then the only vision you will have is of yesteryear and you will have to settle for being a first rate sports program, in a second rate conference, because at the end of the day, it’s about putting bottoms in seats.

And that is truly- the bottom line. – MSM

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