Image courtesy of the Sun Belt
By Bennett Conlin
*sheds tear* Goodbye, Satchmo.
Hello, Sun Belt.
As of Friday, JMU is officially a Sun Belt Conference member. An exciting era of JMU sports lies ahead, and it’ll begin this fall when JMU programs make the leap to an improved sports league.
What does the move mean for JMU?
The move to the SBC means JMU is well positioned to become a nationally relevant “Group of 5” athletic program.
While women’s lacrosse is moving to the American Athletic Conference — the SBC doesn’t sponsor lacrosse — it’s expected that every other JMU program will eventually compete in the Sun Belt. Field hockey and swim and dive will likely have to wait a year or so before the Sun Belt officially sponsors those sports. Every other program will join the Sun Belt for the 2022 season, although football isn’t eligible to play in the SBC Championship or a bowl game this year. Other programs are immediately eligible for conference titles.
In just about every sport, the competition in the Sun Belt increases when compared to the CAA. That boosts the potential national profile of JMU’s athletic programs, giving the Dukes more chances at regular NCAA Tournament appearances and the occasional national championship. Teams ranging from men’s and women’s soccer to softball to baseball all stand better chances of making NCAA fields with respectable seeding and making deep and successful tournament runs.
Moving to the Sun Belt means JMU takes a step forward in national athletic relevance, especially in football. The Sun Belt East has a legitimate claim to the title of “best G5 division,” and Power 5 teams won’t shy away from adding the Dukes to the schedule. JMU likely wasn’t adding UVA to its schedule any time soon without this move.
JMU’s athletic budget also towered over that of FCS peers. If JMU wasn’t going to make an FBS leap, it would’ve been hard to justify its level of athletic spending. Playing in the Sun Belt makes JMU’s athletic budget more reasonable.
Additionally, the college sports landscape is changing. JMU joining the Sun Belt gives it a shot of sticking with regional peers in future rounds of realignment that it might’ve missed out on in the CAA. Could a weakened ACC eventually come calling? Who knows what’s possible, but the Dukes are better positioned for future realignment by joining a strong Group of 5 athletic conference.
How does the move benefit fans?
Most casual JMU fans aren’t losing sleep over the field hockey program’s conference affiliation. In all likelihood, they just want to easily watch several of the school’s major athletic programs. Moving to the Sun Belt is great news for those fans, as the SBC has a media deal with ESPN.
That doesn’t mean every JMU football or basketball game will air on ESPN or ESPN2, but expect plenty of events offered on ESPN+, which is a significantly better streaming service than FloSports, the CAA’s streaming service. With FloSports, users were spending more than $10 a month and very few events on the platform (outside of JMU games) would interest most casual sports fans.
ESPN+ costs about $7 per month or $70 per year, and the streaming service shows major sporting events in addition to JMU games. For example, you can watch Wimbledon this week on ESPN+. PGA Tour events and MLB games often appear on the streaming service. Plenty of college sporting events outside the Sun Belt are also available through ESPN+.
From a viewing perspective, the Sun Belt makes it way easier to follow JMU sports. A relationship with ESPN and consistent matchups against better competition also increases the likelihood JMU receives coverage from national outlets like ESPN, The Athletic, The Washington Post, etc.
Casual fans should expect easier viewing experiences for JMU football, basketball, softball, etc.
Rivalries are often cited as a reason why the Sun Belt added programs like JMU, and regionally competitive matchups should improve the viewing experience of casual JMU fans. Instead of football games with Maine, New Hampshire, and Towson, JMU will face Marshall, Old Dominion, and Appalachian State each season. Those matchups against regional rivals with competitive programs should make for a better weekly fan experience during football season.
This year’s homecoming opponent is Marshall. Last year’s was Campbell. Enough said.
All of the factors listed above also improve the experience for die-hard fans. For people like us who enjoy following the Olympic sport programs, there’s potential for deep NCAA Tournament runs for many programs.
The Sun Belt is a top-tier baseball and softball league, amplifying JMU’s chances of playing late into the summer each year. Who wouldn’t want to watch a regional at JMU softball’s upgraded facility?? The men’s soccer league is among the best in the country, which should help keep the Dukes in the NCAA Tournament picture for years to come.
The basketball league isn’t elite by any means, but JMU should be near the top of the league in coming seasons. The Dukes’ men’s team should return to the NCAA Tournament in the next five years, and the women’s team is capable of multiple upcoming postseason berths.
It’s a great league for JMU fans and players, as the athletic programs should compete more regularly against the nation’s best.
I’m interested in several long-term questions as it relates to JMU’s move to the Sun Belt.
How will the administration best serve student-athletes in the new league? The move to the SBC gives athletes a bigger stage to shine, but it also increases pressure and expectations. How will the administration make a long-term commitment to their mental health?
How will JMU adapt to a changing college sports landscape? What happens if the Power 5 (or the Big Ten and SEC) attempts to break away from the Group of 5? How will JMU compete with power programs when it comes to NIL deals? College sports are changing and JMU must adapt to compete nationally.
Will football adjust quickly? Beating Delaware on the road isn’t the same as beating Appalachian State on the road. JMU is likely going to lose more frequently in the Sun Belt, especially in the first few years in the league. How long will it take for the Dukes to become SBC contenders?
Can baseball make itself a regular NCAA regional participant? The Dukes have struggled for years, but there’s potential for the program to become competitive.
Does basketball dominate the league early? I’m high on the men’s and women’s basketball teams this upcoming season and beyond, and I could see each squad making several NCAA/NIT appearances in the next 3-5 years.
Joining the Sun Belt increases JMU’s athletic ceiling, and that’s exciting as a JMU fan. As for the long-term questions relating to the move, they’ll be answered in due time. Today, let’s celebrate the move to the Sun Belt and the unbridled optimism overcoming JMU fans.