Reports: JMU to Join Sun Belt

Image courtesy of Sun Belt Conference

By Bennett Conlin

At long last, it appears JMU is making the leap to the FBS.

A report from CollegeAD, as well a follow-up from Matt Brown, indicate that JMU, Old Dominion, Marshall and Southern Miss will join the Sun Belt. The news could be announced next week, according to the reports.

It’s not quite official yet, but signs point to JMU accepting an invitation to join the league.

This would make the Sun Belt a 14-team league, and the benefits to JMU would be tremendous. Let’s take a quick look at what this move might mean.

The basics

JMU would likely be a part of the Sun Belt’s East Division.

With the new additions, the current divisions shown above would change.

JMU would join the East with Coastal Carolina, Appalachian State, Old Dominion, Marshall, Georgia State and Georgia Southern.

Troy would move to the West along with incoming addition Southern Miss. Those two squads would be divisional peers with Louisiana, Texas State, South Alabama, ULM and Arkansas State.

That gives the Sun Belt two seven-team divisions. Each division features programs in geographic proximity to each other, which helps with regional rivalries and travel costs.

Questions remaining

The official announcement will add clarity here, but there are still some questions.

The Sun Belt doesn’t have men’s soccer, field hockey, lacrosse or swim and dive. Where do those JMU programs live in the future?

Timing is the other question. We saw a recent report from The Action Network’s Brett McMurphy that mentioned the 2023 season as a target date for teams moving into new leagues to begin play in their new conferences. Is that accurate? Would that make 2022 a transition year for JMU football, potentially making the Dukes ineligible for the FCS postseason next fall?

These questions will be answered soon enough, and we’re excited to learn the answers.

Quick take

This is incredible news for JMU’s athletic department. The Dukes will join a conference that has a legitimate case that it’s the top Group of Five football conference in the country.

After realignment, the AAC looks weakened. CUSA appears gutted. The MAC is solid, but not overwhelmingly good. the Mountain West Conference has some quality programs, but could Boise State or others be on the way out?

There are numerous proud football programs and traditions within the Sun Belt, and JMU will only add to that group.

The Dukes will also have better opportunities to schedule teams like UVA and Virginia Tech at the FBS level. The stigma around scheduling an FCS team is removed, as the Dukes will be competing in a top-tier Group of Five conference. They’ll be an asset to the schedule of some P5 programs.

Increasing competition on the field will likely boost fan interest, as we’ll go from watching the Dukes obliterate most CAA foes to a much more challenging path to conference titles.

Financially, the move makes so much sense.

While the school will need to rely less on student fees to fund the athletic department, the media rights deal within the Sun Belt (ESPN deal) is more lucrative. We’re also expecting donors (big and small) to be more interested in donating to the athletic department now that the Dukes will have a chance to compete with FBS schools regularly on the gridiron.

Ticket sales should perform well. Heck, could the Dukes eventually build out Bridgeforth to seat 35-40K instead of the 25,000 it seats now? That might not be a necessity, but a potential home game with UVA, Virginia Tech or even a ranked Sun Belt peer like Appalachian State could certainly draw 40,000 ish people.

JMU spends significantly more money on athletics than CAA peers. It wasn’t sustainable for JMU to remain in the CAA. We hear the fans upset about the move, but it’s important to note JMU’s athletic spending is much closer to that of top-tier G5 teams than CAA schools.

Cancel your FloSports subscription!!! Okay, maybe not yet. But if you follow college football, you’ll often see Sun Belt teams on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU. Expect that moving forward for JMU, which may also find itself on ESPN’s streaming services. That’s all more accessible than FloSports. That’s a huge deal for JMU’s potential national exposure, which has elite athletic programs that often compete in the shadows until the postseason.

I’ll end by saying we should expect some growing pains.

The Sun Belt is competitive. JMU won’t just wander into the league and start demolishing teams. There will be weirdly frustrating losses to teams like South Alabama. There will be some days when the Dukes play mid-week road games against teams from the West Division in front of average crowds.

There will also be times when JMU gets a national TV audience for a sold-out home matchup with Appalachian State. Expect ups and downs.

Those often lead to growth.

JMU’s athletic department feels a bit like a growing plant in desperate need of a bigger pot. The Sun Belt gives the Dukes a chance to dig their roots into a league with a solid TV/streaming package and competitive regional rivalries.

It feels sustainable.

To fully blossom as an athletic department, JMU needs the Sun Belt.

3 comments

  1. This is a bad take. Donors to college programs aren’t interested in competitive games. They pay money to watch their school win. Being a small fish in a big pond will not serve JMU football well on the field or in the bank account. This also is likely to harm the other sports where JMU truly excels. Finally, dream on about a home and home series with UVA or Tech. They won’t do that because it would lend legitimacy to a school competing for their recruits.

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    1. That’s a poorly researched take. Not moving up would likely force JMU to cut athletic spending, which would hurt the Olympic sports. The Sun Belt should benefit a program like softball. UVA currently has a 2-for-1 football series scheduled with Coastal Carolina. Much more likely JMU lands those teams on the schedule more regularly at the FBS level. Power Five teams don’t sit around trembling in fear that Group of Five programs might steal their recruits.

      Significant benefit to the athletic program by moving up. No guarantee JMU would’ve remained a big fish in a small pond.

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      1. Under VA law, an FCS school can fund up to 70% of its athletics budget with student fees, while FBS schools can only fund up to 55% of their athletics budget with student fees. JMU currently has some of the largest student fees in the country. Before the law was passed, JMU was funding 79% of the athletics budget via student fees. Is the Sun Belt TV contract going to make up for the statutory requirement to decrease student fees and the higher cost of operating an FBS football program? Seems unlikely, which means cuts to other sports. What about the exit fee from the CAA, and the likely entrance fee to join the Sun Belt? Oh, and the Sun Belt does not have varsity men’s soccer, women’s lacrosse (see ya 2018 national champs), women’s field hockey, swim and dive. But I guess that’s all worth the chance to battle Louisiana Lafayette for a place in the LendingTree bowl. Any citation for why staying put would force JMU to cut the budget?

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