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Why Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns didn’t try move from Sun Belt to American Athletic Conference

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, Nov. 9, 2021

With dust still settling from the latest round of NCAA conference realignment, UL finds itself firmly entrenched in a stable Group of Five conference – the Sun Belt – preparing to add four new members.

Southern MissMarshall and Old Dominion of Conference USA along with FCS member James Madison all have accepted invitations to join the league’s 10 existing football-playing programs.

UL chose to remain in a football conference that stayed intact and fortified its membership.

Why did the Ragin’ Cajuns not aggressively pursue a move to the American Athletic Conference, which before all the movement had been considered the strongest Group of Five program and the one mostly likely to have at least some of its members absorbed should Power 5 conferences further separate themselves?

MAKING A CASE:Why the Sun Belt feels it is among best Group of Five leagues

UL athletic director Bryan Maggard’s answer isn’t necessarily the obvious one.

One apparent reason is UL likes the regional nature of the Sun Belt’s two-division alignment.

If current East Division-member Troy moves to a new seven-team West, UL will be within less than 420 miles from five division members – UL Monroe (183 miles), Southern Miss (223), South Alabama (255), Texas State (381) and Troy (419).

The sixth, Arkansas State, is 508 miles from Lafayette.

All are bus rides for most sports besides football – softer on the budget than plane trips.

"The design of this conference, one of the reasons it works," ULM athletic Scott McDonald said, "is we can take money that other conferences, their members, are having to put into travel and that’s money we can invest into programs."

But there’s a bigger reason Maggard feels the AAC – which lost Houston, Cincinnati and UCF to the Big 12, then added C-USA members Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice, Texas-San Antonio and UAB – doesn’t make sense for UL.

It’s all about athletic department budgets.

"At some point you’ve got to be thinking about the sensibility of the financials," Maggard said.

"I can’t speak for my brethren, but I know that the average budget for the eight remaining American schools (before adding the six C-USA programs) is about $53 million dollars. Just about everybody in the Sun Belt is in that 27-to-35 range."

The Cajuns are on the high end of that range – over it, actually.

In fiscal year 2019-20, which closed at the end of June 2020 and includes the 2019 football season, an unaudited statement shows UL had about $36.2 million in expenses and $30.8 million in revenue.

The prior year, expenses were approximately $37.1 million and revenue $32.5 million.

According to a USA TODAY Sports data base report, Coastal Carolina had the highest revenue among Sun Belt football programs in fiscal year 2019-20 at about $42.2 million. ULM had the least, $15.3 million.

Eight of the 10 were in the $27 to $37 million range.

"So it’s a situation where if you are going to commit to moving into a neighborhood where the houses are much larger and nicer, as a program and as an institution you need to be committed to catching up," Maggard said.

‘Resource disadvantage’

Maggard doesn’t see profit potential moving to a conference like the AAC, where competitive operating experiences are significantly higher and potential revenue gain isn’t enough to offset the higher costs.

"The American Athletic Conference is a fine conference, don’t get me wrong," Maggard said. "They are great institutions … and quality football programs. So I’m not putting them down in that regard.

"But certainly when you look at where we are today and who we’re with, I just know as a league we feel very good about who we are and where we are."

UL, evidently, doesn’t feel it’s currently sensible to invest the extra $20-plus million it would take to be competitive in the AAC, where most pre-realignment football programs, according to the data base, have budgets exceeding $56 million, including Cincinnati at $81.7 million and UConn at $76 million.

The six C-USA programs moving to the AAC, meanwhile, all had 2019-20 budgets of less than $42 million, including UTSA at $32.3 million.

"Each of those six institutions (leaving C-USA for the AAC) are gonna have to decide what space they feel like they can live in, and want to live in, and ultimately do live in, from a budgetary standpoint," Maggard said.

With UL still raising money for major renovation at Cajun Field, the pricier neighborhood is out of reach – at least for now.

"Anytime you’re competing with programs that have 15 or 20-plus more million than you do, it becomes an issue of resource disadvantage," Maggard said.

"You’ve just got to be mindful of it, and if you can find ways to either grow yours or compete around that difference, then certainly I think those are things that have to be explored and ultimately decided upon."