It’s been months since COVID-19 put the sports world at a standstill. Large events like March Madness and all NCAA spring sports have been canceled, and all professional leagues have been suspended. However, those aren’t the problems of any JMU sports fan: The focus should be on the future of the stability of JMU athletics.
Yes, spring sports are known for putting JMU on the map. Both softball and lacrosse were nationally ranked before the shutdown, and women’s tennis was coming off its best start in program history; that’s not where the funding for JMU athletics is based though. Its investment, like many other college athletic programs, rests in football.
JMU football, coming off its third national championship appearance in four years, plays a crucial role in the financial stability of JMU athletics. It brings in the most money and fans, which in turn leads to the funding of athletics. For the 2019 fiscal year, football had a little more than 2,500,000 ticket sales and Bridgeforth Stadium, which houses nearly 25,000 fans, makes money off season-ticket holders and has more students in attendance than any other sport.
Looking at the future though, if COVID-19 cuts football back, that reduces JMU’s funding in total. Director of Athletics Jeff Bourne and others would need a new way to fund athletics. The Dukes need a way that would cut costs but also sell tickets and have the fan appeal. The solution: realignment.
Realignment is when schools switch their conference in a short period of time. It may be because of financial problems or to have the teams closer to one another. Either way, it changes what teams schools play and builds new rivalries.
"What would it look like if we were aligned in a different way? Maybe to include the FBS conferences or to go FBS or we stay where we are and we realign, so there’s a constant observation analysis that goes on." Bourne said to Daily News-Record. "We just don’t make that public because people will think, ‘Oh you’re going to make a move, you’re going to change,’ but we consider that part of a good practice for knowing where we are.”
Right now in the CAA, JMU is in the middle geographically. William & Mary is the only school that plays all sports in the same conference with JMU, as rival Richmond only participates for football. However, looking at schools that mainly compete in the CAA, the Dukes have loads of traveling to do. They have to go as far south as College of Charleston and to northern schools like Northeastern. For football, some years they even have to go as far north as Maine.
Realignment could cut travel costs and make weekends for travel even shorter. To consider realignment, both fans and workers in athletics have to think about more than football. To realign the conferences means every sport would follow. Teams like volleyball, field hockey and both men’s and women’s soccer as fall sports, for example, would all play the same schools.
This leads into the FBS and FCS debate for football. For a while, fans have called for JMU to jump to the next level of football. With the possible student funding that could possibly come because of COVID-19, JMU could finally make the jump to FBS if it desired.
However, if football moves up to tougher play, then most of the other sports would follow. Some recent examples of this are Appalachian State and UNC Charlotte. In 2014, the Mountaineers went to FBS, and their other programs joined the Sun Belt Conference. The 49ers made the jump to FBS as well in 2015, and their sports teams followed them to Conference USA; the same could happen with JMU.
So, thinking about that, there are some schools in consideration for this. Old Dominion currently participates in Conference USA and, unlike the CAA, reaches further south than North Carolina. Old Dominion has had to go as far as Texas to play games, which cuts into class time and has huge travel costs. Liberty University is currently an independent school when it comes to football, and basketball participates in the Athletic Sun conference, and its competitors aren’t close to Lynchburg, Virginia.
It's not likely that Liberty will come back down to the FCS. Old Dominion is much more likely to drop back down, especially since they’ve already cut athletic programs such as wrestling.
Looking at a possible realignment, JMU could see many old rivals and build more rivalries in the commonwealth. If Old Dominion, William & Mary, Richmond, George Mason, VCU, Towson and Elon all came together, then travel costs would go down. Teams could possibly play multiple schools in one day, and they don’t have to be on the bus for as long. Traveling to Fairfax, Virginia, and Richmond instead of Boston would save time and money for athletics.
"I do think we have to go back and look at how we build rivalries among institutions in our leagues and how those rivalries in turn equate to revenue and attendance figures for respective institutions," Bourne said to the Daily News-Record."It helps to play somebody you know and who your fans can have a strong understanding of who that is and what that means."
With football possibly losing fans in the stadium for the 2020 season, athletics needs to make sure they can do everything they can to keep the athletes. Without football's income, smaller programs have risks of being cut and scholarships pulled. Realignment offers a way to avoid some of that. With less travel, athletics makes more money, and fans would want to see some of the old rivalries built back up again. JMU has more in-state students than out-of-state. With more in-state schools in the conference, the Dukes would draw a bigger crowd of purple and gold.
Even if the CAA stays the same for football, this realignment system helps the rest of athletics at JMU. It takes away the road trips to the Carolinas — except for Elon — and saves the teams time and money. Yes, football has a different CAA look, but the rest of athletics benefit from realignment.
"If you go back and look at all the successful leagues and that have been able to maintain it, a lot of it had to do with building those rivalries,” Bourne said to the Daily News-Record.
Realignment is an option for JMU, especially if COVID-19 lasts until September. Athletics will lose tons of money if Bridgeforth Stadium is empty on Saturdays, but for the sports that don’t charge for tickets, this option will keep them in the game.
Contact Savannah Reger email@example.com. For more sports coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.