NEW ORLEANS – For the past five years, the Sun Belt Conference has operated under the slogan of “Together We Rise.”
Sun Belt Commissioner Karl Benson, in his annual “State of the Conference” address at the league’s Football Media Day activities Monday, said the Sun Belt has in many ways “risen” past that original slogan.
“In every key indicator that can be used to evaluate the strength of a conference, the Sun Belt has risen in recent years,” Benson said. “In contrast to some leagues, our attendance is up and we’ve provided record end-of-year distribution to our schools that is 10 times greater than it was in 2014.
“We’ve increased our bowl game partnerships and our teams have won those games. We’ve seen sizable facility renovations and additions, and that shows the commitment of our presidents and chancellors. We have a new agreement with ESPN that shows they recognize our value. In every one of those areas, the Sun Belt has lived up to that slogan.”
So much so, in fact, that the league is embracing a new slogan, “Rise Above,” and Benson said that is a continual goal.
“The Sun Belt was labeled so long at the bottom of the 10 conferences, and that’s no longer the case,” he said. “We’ve established the brand, established the credibility. As we compete with our four peer conferences, our goal remains the same, to be the highest rated league in the Group of Five and send our team to one of the New Year’s Day games. There’s no reason we can’t do that and do it this year.”
Benson’s comments came at the start of the league’s Football Media Day activities Monday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, just down the hall from the Sun Belt office location and in the iconic facility that hosts the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl every December. The New Orleans Bowl will welcome a Sun Belt team for the 18th season, every year of both the bowl and the football league’s existence, as one of the five bowl tie-ins for the conference.
“It was a good fit for us back in 2000 and it’s a good fit for us now,” said New Orleans Bowl executive director Billy Ferrante. “We looked at the geography, the scheduling just before Christmas, the regional impact and the potential for tourism, and it was a perfect fit. With the growth of the conference, the league’s also increased its competitiveness on the field and that’s helped with the profile of both our game and the league.”
Sun Belt teams have won seven of the last nine New Orleans Bowl games, but it’s over the last four years that the conference has made a national impact in the postseason. The league went 4-1 in bowl games last year, the second-best winning percentage among the 10 conferences (behind the 7-1 mark of the Big Ten), and over the past four postseasons the Sun Belt has the best bowl winning percentage of any league (11-7, .611).
“What we’ve been able to do against our peer conferences and in bowl games, that speaks for itself,” said Appalachian State coach Scott Satterfield, whose program had never played in a bowl game prior to 2015 and has now won bowls in each of the last three seasons. “Our schools have been very competitive and won a lot of games, and those wins have elevated our league. We’ve changed the narrative from five or 10 years ago.”
One change in narrative will come at the end of this football season, when the Sun Belt stages its inaugural championship game and becomes the final FBS conference to play a postseason championship game. That Dec. 1 contest will match the winners of the newly-created East and West Divisions and will take place at the home site of the division winner with the best winning percentage in conference play.
Benson said having that game at an on-campus stadium is important to the success of the first-ever game.
“We’re looking for that excitement and that enthusiasm,” he said. “We expect to have a great showcase for the Sun Belt. I liken it to ESPN’s GameDay … they’ve created an environment, and that’s what we’re going to try to do with our game-day experience for our championship game.”
It wasn’t by coincidence that Benson mentioned ESPN, since the league in March announced a continued relationship with the network that will now run through the 2027-28 season. The Sun Belt was the first conference to partner with ESPN in 1979 and had two more years on its current agreement.
“There’s never been a conference that’s all-in with ESPN like we are,” Benson said. “We had two years left on our deal, but we were able to take advantage at a time when no one else was in the market. We were able to get to the table before one or more of our peer conferences, and with the ESPN+ piece falling in, the volume and accessibility of our games on the ESPN platforms will have a huge impact on the future of the Sun Belt.”
The new agreement enhances the existing contract between the Sun Belt and ESPN, one that already included a minimum of 250 men’s basketball games over the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons. Beginning with 2020-21, the new agreement includes a minimum of 500 televised events including all football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball games.
A minimum of 10 football games per year will air on a combination of ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU, and all other live coverage during regular-season and conference championship events will air on ESPN’s linear platforms including the new ESPN+ direct-to-consumer subscription steaming service.
“We didn’t know exactly where it was going to end up,” Benson said, “But this has all added to a package that brings great exposure and growth potential to the conference, and delivers great live sports to millions of fans. This is a commitment we both wanted to continue well into the future.”
The first of those ESPN+ events comes Thursday, Aug. 30, when ULM welcomes state rival Southeastern Louisiana and Georgia State hosts Kennesaw State on the first day of the college football season. Those are also the first two of 40 non-conference games for Sun Belt teams during the 2018 season, and Benson said that schools are buying into a scheduling model that includes fewer games against Power Five conference foes and more against peer leagues. The 10 Sun Belt teams play only 12 games against Power Five competition this year, compared to 18 games against peer conferences (American Athletic, Mountain West, Conference USA and the Mid-American).
“The strategy of teams playing one Power Five game, two against peer conferences and one against FCS competition is working,” Benson said. “It gives our coaches and student-athletes a chance at a winning season and advancement to bowl games. We’re encouraging what we think is smart scheduling.”
The Sun Belt is in its third season of maintaining partnerships with five bowl games including the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl in Montgomery and the AutoNation Cure Bowl in Orlando all on Dec. 15, the Dollar General Bowl in Mobile on Dec. 22 and the NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl in Tucson on Dec. 29.
The championship game will not have a direct impact on individual bowl selections, with the bowls retaining their current order of selection. But it will provide opportunities for both events to promote each other.
“The championship game only adds to our exposure and will draw even more attention to our game,” Ferrante said. “Having the bowl partnerships, going from one to two and now to five, that all helps elevate the Sun Belt’s brand. That helps all of us. But the conference office can only build the launching pad. The coaches and the teams have to build that rocket ship, and they’ve done that. The success they’ve had over the past few years has helped all of us.”