HUNTINGTON — When Conference USA came into existence in 1995, its hope was to build a national brand that spanned the United States of America. Thus, the name Conference USA.
However, the attempt to build that brand comes at a cost, and it is one that the league is taking a hard look at due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
One difficult aspect for a conference that spans more than 2,000 miles and three time zones is travel for league contests. With difficult economic times ahead, Conference USA is hoping to ease the financial burdens on its member schools.
A major component of that financial burden is travel, which the league’s athletic directors are discussing each week.
“We’re going through a process to take a look at all our expenditures, and that’s certainly one of them,” Marshall athletic director Mike Hamrick said. “Travel is probably our third-biggest expenditure. The top two are obviously scholarships and personnel.”
It is a conference that spans more than half of the United States and has its longest travel being Norfolk, Virginia (Old Dominion) to El Paso, Texas (UTEP) — a distance of 2,005 miles.
As Conference USA is set up for football, there are two divisions — East and West. The East division consists of Marshall, Charlotte, FIU, Florida Atlantic, Middle Tennessee, Old Dominion and Western Kentucky. The West Division is made up of Louisiana Tech, North Texas, Rice, Southern Miss, UAB, UTEP and UTSA.
For football, Conference USA has already done a good job of limiting travel costs with an eight-game conference slate that features six games within a division and two cross-over games — one home and one away. That means teams only make one extended journey in cross-divisional play per year. Last season, Marshall traveled to Rice and this year, the Thundering Herd football team heads to Louisiana Tech.
A similar scenario could surface for men’s and women’s basketball and other non-revenue sports as well, given the circumstances surrounding college sports at this time. Judy MacLeod, Conference USA’s commissioner, told The Athletic that a regional approach for conference and non-conference scheduling is being recommended by the league for its members.
Other ideas discussed include playing more games within the division and potentially reducing the number of games within league play.
“Do we play less conference games? Do you play more in your own division?” MacLeod told The Athletic. “You might have to play additional non-conference games with those around you. Since our conference travel is pretty significant, it’s always a good idea to play your non-conference a lot more regionally.”
Hamrick said regionalized scheduling is something Marshall has done for several years in all sports. He cited football matchups with East Carolina and Ohio this season and future games with Navy, Appalachian State and Notre Dame as examples while also mentioning several men’s basketball series that are similarly set up.
“We’ve been scheduling as regional as we can already, but with the situation we’re in right now and the goal to reduce travel costs, we need to schedule even more regional in non-conference and we, as a conference, need to look at ways to do so, also,” Hamrick said.”
MacLeod told The Athletic that many Group of Five members are in the same boat as C-USA, so there has been dialogue about those member institutions working together to aid each other.
“I think everybody’s looking at it right now, and it’ll be a very cooperative effort,” MacLeod said.
When the COVID-19 outbreak forced the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA men’s basketball championships, it caused a financial fallout of $375 million to the NCAA, which amended its financial disbursement to its member programs from $600 million to $225 million.
That financial loss is felt on every level of Division I athletics, and Conference USA is not alone in that regard.
“Any time you get less money, it is going to change things,” Hamrick said.
There has been talk that conference realignment could stem from the COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent fallout, but Hamrick said he has not heard of such.
“I have not talked to one person who had any discussion about conference realignment,” Hamrick said.
Given the situation facing Conference USA, changes will have to come for survival of programs, which is why the league’s athletic directors have taken part in conference calls three times a week since the COVID-19 crisis began. Those talks will lead up to the league’s spring meetings, which will now take place virtually on May 18-20. Normally, those are in Destin, Florida.
Travel will be a central topic in C-USA’s spring meetings as the league discusses cost-cutting measures. Cutting travel is the simplest way for Conference USA to cut costs. The shortest total distance for travel of any one C-USA program to its other 13 league counterparts was UAB, whose mileage adds up to 7,850 miles — an average of 603.8 miles per opponent.
Not surprisingly, the largest of all average travel distances per opponent was UTEP at 1,312.7 miles, but both Old Dominion and FIU are also over 1,000 miles per average league trip. The Monarchs average distance to C-USA foes is 1,023.5 miles while FIU’s is 1,022.6.
For Marshall, the average distance of its Conference USA opponents is 825.7 miles. There are only four opponents — Western Kentucky (281), Charlotte (314), Middle Tennessee (374), Old Dominion (458) — under 500 miles. Six Marshall opponents are more than 1,000 miles in distance from Huntington.
That’s a long road to haul for a league that has a tough journey ahead of it following the COVID-19 outbreak.