I can appreciate that it’s not worthwhile to discuss things that are too far into the future because if you aren’t careful it’s largely just pissing into the wind.
That being said, I feel like the potential of a future UALR football program – specifically within the guidelines of the Sun Belt Conference bylaws, is worthy of discussing with at least the vaguest sense of urgency.
When asked at Sun Belt media days about expansion, commissioner Karl Benson flatly stated that the Sun Belt has zero energy dedicated towards that avenue. No shocker there, that’s been the boiler plate response since the departure of Idaho and NMSU was announced.
When pressed further about what everyone here knew was being asked about, Benson stated still that if UALR were to add a football program at the FBS level, they would become a member of the Sun Belt Conference, since conference bylaws dictate that if a member institution initiates a sports program that the conference sponsors, by rule they become a Sun Belt member.
What was not discussed was the fact that Karl had spent a solid 5-10 minutes talking about the future of the Sun Belt as a 10-team, two-division conference and all of its benefits. He spent multiple years working towards this alignment, and it accelerated once the ruling came down that 12 teams were not necessary for a conference championship game.
Benson was supposedly reluctant to remove the Aggies and Vandals from the conference, but the benefit of a compacted geographical footprint was too much to pass up once their presence was not needed for the title game goal. If UALR adds football at the FBS level they become a Sun Belt program according to the conference’s own bylaws, and while they fit nicely in the conference footprint now you’ve either got lopsided divisions and a screwed up schedule, or you’ve got to pursue a 12th team. Not because you’re super eager or excited about expanding, but because you need to in order to not get your member programs pissed at you.
Benson can make all the jokes he wants about how “the Big 10 was an 11-team conference for about 15 years and did just fine,” but comparing the Sun Belt in the 2020s to the Big Ten in the 1990s is nothing more than a pithy quote that doesn’t hold water in reality.
Granted, we are in the early phases. UALR is merely conducting a feasibility study, but it’s unlikely that their feasibility study will have terribly different conclusions that led to the birth of football programs at Old Dominion, UTSA, Georgia State or South Alabama in the last eight years – or different than the ones that may not result in the addition of football at Wichita State, Winthrop.
The Sun Belt and commissioner Benson are appropriately aware that a football program at UALR is not an immediate event and therefore doesn’t require urgent attention, but it’s also not something you can just push off into the distance if you don’t want it screwing up the conference championship game you’ve worked towards building the past few years.