Georgia State has officially come full circle. The Panthers were founding members of the Sun Belt conference in 1976, and on Monday GSU was welcomed home as they announced they are accepting an invitation to join the Sun Belt in all sports starting fall of 2013.
Dr. Jack Hawkins, the chancellor of Troy University and the President of the Sun Belt Conference, extended the official invitation after opening remarks from conference commissioner Karl Benson.
"On behalf of the board, the CEO's and all affiliated with the Sun Belt Conference, Dr. Becker it is a real pleasure for me to on behalf of the conference to invite Georgia State University as our next member. Welcome home!", Hawkins said.
Indications of such a move became apparent after Doug Roberson of the AJC reported that Georgia State had conducted a study to assess the feasibility of FBS football for Georgia State. The study stated that GSU was well suited to make the jump and concluded that the Sun Belt Conference would be the best fit. President Becker and Athletic Director Cheryl Levick both confirmed that the study, which was commissioned in December 2011, and its findings is what began this process for Georgia State.
Commisioner Karl Benson said the opportunity to add Georgia State was too good to pass up. The appeal of adding a growing school which is located in a top 10 media market was something Benson coveted and he jumped at the chance to grow his conference with such an addition. Cheryl Levick echoed those sentiments and said that once the study concluded that the Sun Belt would be the best fit for Georgia State, she was eager to pursue an opportunity to gain membership to a conference that competed at the highest level of collegiate athletics.
President Becker highlighted many other advantages to the Sun Belt when he focused on how this move be good for the University as a whole, but for the fans and student athletes as well. The Sun Belt offers a number of opponents that are a mere few hours driving distance to Georgia State, something the Colonial Athletic Association lacked. This will cut down on travel costs for both athletes and fans and will be reciprocated when the fans of those other schools come to the dome, therefore increasing Georgia State’s average attendance.
The story of how the discussions about membership started is murky and almost comical. Russell Wright, the author of the feasibility study, contacted Benson seeking information about the conference to pass along to Georgia State. Benson assumed, therefore, that the Panthers had already made their intentions of moving to an FBS conference public and said as much on a Atlanta sports talk show. Benson later recanted that statement saying he “misspoke”. Benson then called Levick to apologize, and the two say that the conversion “drifted towards membership”. While some remain skeptical about how the process might have happened, the result nonetheless is pleasing for both parties involved.
The next step for the Sun Belt remains uncertain. Georgia State became the 11th football playing member, and the 12th overall (Arkansas-Little Rock does not have a football program). Benson said that getting to at least 12 football members would be "the minimum", and that the conference would probably try to add a non-football member to balance Arkansas-Little Rock and have an even number overall. Benson confirmed that discussions have already begun with other schools.
But who might the conference add? With Georgia State adding to the eastern footprint of the conference, it would make sense for the sake of balance that they follow with adding a western team. However, the teams considered for such a spot could be UTSA and Louisiana Tech. Louisiana Tech is already an FBS team and would probably be the more attractive, but a third Louisiana school doesn’t add to the footprint of the conference. UTSA brings in the San Antonio market and a rabid fan base that set the record for attendance for an inaugural football game. UTSA and Louisiana Tech both currently play in the WAC.
Another option would be adding Charlotte, a program that starts playing football in 2013. The 49ers would bring the Charlotte media market and extend the Sun Belt’s footprint to North Carolina. This is the move that would make the most sense and provides the largest potential upside. Panthersville.com does not believe ODU is an option for the Sun Belt and if they do pursue membership to an FBS conference they are likely to pursue membership to the Mid-American Conference.
First and foremost, however, Benson must make sure his own conference remains intact. He acknowledged it is a possibility that the conference could lose some teams to Conference USA or the potential new super conference alliance. He also said that this possibility fueled his moving to add Georgia State.
“That’s one of the reasons we decided to do this now with Georgia State is demonstrate to the Sun Belt membership that we’re serious,” Benson said. “We want to maintain the existing Sun Belt membership and then add to it.”
Georgia State will begin competing in the Sun Belt in all sports in fall 2013. Football will play a full Sun Belt schedule in 2013, but will not be eligible for a bowl game until 2014. However, under CAA bylaws, the Panthers are not eligible for any championships or conference postseason games effective immediately after withdrawing from the conference. Benson was surprised by the CAA’s harsh provisions.
“As many times as I’ve gone through this with teams leaving the WAC or coming to the WAC, I have never seen such provisions placed on a school,” Benson stated. “Never.”
Benson also hinted that after the membership has been set the Sun Belt could be looking to rebrand the conference. The changes would be for marketing purposes and could include such moves as changing the name of the conference. But Benson reiterated the priority is establishing a membership and finalizing what the conference looks like geographically.
The step up to the Sun Belt seemed to have been a long time coming to Georgia State fans. Most who followed the program assumed that an urban school with such a growing population would flourish in football and would not be constrained to playing in FCS for very long. But the process had to be handled with delicacy and President Becker seemed very pleased with how the situation was handled.
“The athletic department did a great job,” Becker commented. “We were very deliberate and undertook the feasibility study as we saw the landscape of college athletics changing. They really made sure they had all the details right and all the number worked and acted on it.”
Ultimately the addition of Georgia State to the Sun Belt conference is just the first step for both entities. Georgia State must now go through the pain staking process of making sure they meet all the requirements for FBS membership. And the Sun Belt now must continue to build conference stability in a world where collegiate athletics has been anything but. However, the future looks bright as the Panthers now can claim themselves among the elite of the college football world.