spring game 6/30

JMU's Sun Belt move brings better alignment with the conference's schools' commitment to athletics and increased exposure on ESPN networks, among other perks. 

Half of the Sun Belt Conference is in another time zone. It didn’t support football until this century. Three — four, initially — of JMU’s top-performing athletic programs aren’t sponsored by the conference. It’s costly to uproot from one conference to another — $1.25 million in JMU’s case — and even more so to move to a higher football division: $23 million-plus in expenses specific to the move up over the span of seven years. 

In spite of it all, JMU accepted the Sun Belt’s invitation last November. On the surface, it might look like a leap of faith or a money-hungry move to play football at higher stakes. 

In reality, JMU’s move to a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) conference has been a long time in the making, Athletic Director Jeff Bourne said at a Nov. 6 press conference, when the move to the Sun Belt was formally announced. President Jonathan Alger said years of strategic financial planning made the jump possible, along with recently increasing JMU’s national status as an R2 Carnegie research institution. 

Sun Belt Commissioner Keith Gill said at the same press conference that JMU was an attractive option because of its consistent success not only in football but across its broad spectrum of athletic programs; the school’s size and academics also fit what the Sun Belt wants to build. Its facilities, which greatly improved after the $140 million Atlantic Union Bank Center opened in November 2020, also made JMU appealing, Gill said. There’s now truly an eastern footprint in the Sun Belt, something Gill said he’s wanted. 

That said, here are some of the main reasons JMU jumped to the Sun Belt, all cited by Bourne at the Nov. 6 announcement. 

  • Size & identity alignment  There are four private schools in the new-look CAA following JMU’s departure. There are none in the Sun Belt. Bourne said aligning with mid- to large-sized public schools akin to JMU gives the Sun Belt an identity the Dukes didn’t share with everyone in the CAA.  
  • Conference support — Put simply, Bourne has expressed he feels more supported by Sun Belt Commissioner Keith Gill and his commitment to supporting athletics and winning championships than he did in the CAA. JMU’s positioning in the Sun Belt surrounds it with more programs who support their athletic programs across multiple sports.
  • Regional rivalries — The revamped East division of the Sun Belt rekindles JMU with multiple foes from the CAA that have, like JMU, grown too big for their former conferences. Old Dominion and Georgia Southern join the Dukes, in addition to a former FCS power not from the CAA but one JMU Nation is familiar with: Appalachian State. Bourne said these matchups will create more fan excitement. 
  • Increased national exposure — The Sun Belt has a media rights deal with ESPN, dubbed the “Worldwide Leader in Sports.” It draws a much larger audience than FloSports, where JMU sports were primarily viewed in the CAA, allowing JMU’s brand to be seen in front of more people. 

Still, Bourne said, JMU’s goal is to be competitive and win championships across all its programs. Success out the gate in some sports, namely football and baseball, might be difficult based on competition that’s much tougher than what the Dukes faced in the CAA. Georgia Southern in 2014 ran the table their first year in Sun Belt football (9-3, 8-0 Sun Belt), but the conference looks to be much more competitive now. 

Even still, former JMU football head coach Mickey Mathews told The Athletic in June he could see JMU in the ACC in 20 years. 

Only time will tell. 

Contact Grant Johnson at breezesports@gmail.com. For more sports coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.