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Football: Sun Belt revamps bowl lineup for UL, other members

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, May 28, 2020

The Sun Belt Conference has revamped its college football bowl lineup and handed over to ESPN much control of where its teams will be placed.

The league will have five bowl tie-ins for six seasons beginning this year.

The SBC’s new postseason lineup includes placement in three ESPN Events owned-and-operated bowl games, with possibilities coming from a large pool that includes two — the Cure Bowl in Orlando, Florida, and the Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama — with which the conference previously was affiliated.

The Sun Belt also will continue to send teams on an annual basis to the New Orleans Bowl, which is not owned or operated by ESPN Events, and to the LendingTree Bowl in Mobile, Alabama.

Sun Belt-member UL beat Miami (Ohio) of the MAC in last season’s LendingTree Bowl.

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UL coach Billy Napier celebrates a win over Miami (Ohio) in last January's' LendingTree Bowl, which will part of the Sun Belt's lineup.

UL coach Billy Napier celebrates a win over Miami (Ohio) in last January’s’ LendingTree Bowl, which will part of the Sun Belt’s lineup. (Photo: SCOTT CLAUSE/USA TODAY Network)

The pool of other ESPN-owned events that Sun Belt teams could go to includes the new Myrtle Beach Bowl in South Carolina; the Boca Raton Bowl in Florida; the First Responder Bowl in Dallas; the Frisco Bowl in Frisco, Texas; the New Mexico Bowl in Albuquerque; and the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise, Idaho.

“I feel very good about it,” UL athletic director Bryan Maggard said in a telephone interview. “I think it allows bowl-eligible schools in the Sun Belt to be located in more regional locations, which would help with ticket sales, fan attendance.


“I think the lineup of ESPN bowls is very strong,” Maggard added, “and they’re gonna provide quality destinations for the teams competing in them and for the fans to attend.”

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Conference USA announced a similar arrangement Thursday, with guarantees for seven bowls and a larger pool of ESPN Events games — 11 in all — that can tap one of its teams as compared to what the Sun Belt has.

The SBC did not divulge how much revenue it anticipates receiving as a result of the new arrangement.

According to the agreement, ESPN Events will hold the first, third and fourth selections of bowl-eligible Sun Belt teams to fill its games and will utilize a flex model to select teams into the pool.

The New Orleans Bowl, meanwhile, will get the No. 2 choice among Sun Belt teams and the LendingTree Bowl will hold the fifth selection.

ESPN is the television rights-holder for those two games.

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“We’re excited to provide a flex model that allows for our fans and schools to go to desirable locations with exciting opponents that are easily accessible and provides more revenue than the previous bowl cycle,” Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill said in a statement released by the league.

New Orleans Bowl executive director Billy Ferrante does not seem concerned about being relegated to the second selection slot.

“While we have the second pick, everybody, I think, that’s in the mix – which now, really, for all intents and purposes, is us, the Sun Belt and ESPN – understands the importance of the right matchups in the right city,” Ferrante told The Daily Advertiser by telephone on Thursday.

“And I sense there’s going to be a willingness on everybody’s part to make sure we have, for our game, and for all the games, the best matchup, and all that that means.”

The New Orleans Bowl prefers picking the Cajuns, when they’re eligible, over the league’s champ for attendance-related reasons.

More: Ferrante says UL-Louisiana Tech in New Orleans Bowl would be ‘great’

ESPN Events is not necessarily obligated to pick the Sun Belt champion, seemingly leaving the door open to UL playing in the New Orleans Bowl as SBC champs.

The New Orleans Bowl on Thursday also announced a six-year extension of its agreement to pit a Sun Belt team against one from Conference USA.

Its play date for 2020 remains to-be-announced.

“That (winning the championship) would not prelude us from being picked by the New Orleans Bowl,” Maggard said.

“Obviously ESPN would have the first right of refusal, but they may very well work with the New Orleans Bowl – which is independent of ESPN – and if they decide that’s the best step, and the runner-up would be better suited to go somewhere they want to place they, that could certainly happen.”

It was unclear Thursday which other leagues in addition to the Sun Belt and C-USA are part of the ESPN Events pool.

The LendingTree Bowl will match a Sun Belt program against one, according to news release from the bowl on Thursday, from Conference USA, the Mid-American Conference “or another qualifying team from the ESPN tie-in.”

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Additionally, the Sun Belt champion will have access annually to one of the New Year’s Six bowls if it is selected as one of the top four teams overall by the College Football Playoff selection committee or it is ranked by the committee as the top teams among the Group of Five conference champs.

The Sun Belt champion is the winner of the SBC title game, which has been staged only for the past two years, with Appalachian State beating UL both times.

The new bowl tie-in arrangement drastically alters what the league did previously.

The past two years the league automatically assigned its title-game winner, App State, to the New Orleans Bowl as part of a contractual agreement that conceptually could have allowed the champ to go elsewhere if a better placement for all parties involved was involved.

The league also sent one of its teams when it could to the LendingTree Bowl, the Camellia Bowl, the Cure Bowl and the Arizona Bowl in Tucson.

The Arizona Bowl no longer is affiliated with the Sun Belt.

Before creation of the Sun Belt championship game, the New Orleans Bowl — affiliated with the league the longest — had the first pick among the SBC litter.

That allowed the Cajuns — even when they weren’t regular-season conference champs — to go to the New Orleans Bowl for four straight years from 2011-14, when it won each meeting, and in 2016, when it lost to Southern Mississippi.

The Cajuns also played in the 2018 Cure Bowl, which they lost to Tulane.

Two of UL’s New Orleans Bowl victories later had to be vacated due to recruiting-related NCAA rules violations.

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