As college athletics nationwide go through another round of conference upheaval, it’s been quite the roller-coaster ride for Western Kentucky University and its fan base.
Nine schools in recent weeks announced their departures from Conference USA, which has been WKU’s home for nearly a decade. C-USA later announced the addition of four other schools. And about the same time, WKU and Middle Tennessee were rumored to be heading to the Mid-American Conference.
But the roller-coaster ride is over, at least for now, and WKU remains in the new-look C-USA that will include current members Middle Tennessee, Louisiana Tech, UTEP and Florida International, as well as incoming members Jacksonville State, Sam Houston State, Liberty and New Mexico State.
Amid much disappointment, some fans have wondered why WKU didn’t simply jump into the MAC, or perhaps join the American Athletic Conference or the Sun Belt like the other nine schools that left C-USA.
Well, as the Daily News’ Jared MacDonald reported, that wasn’t an option. A conference – any conference – must extend an invitation before a school can jump to what it perceives as greener pastures. And the MAC – which had been rumored as the future home for WKU and Middle Tennessee – decided expansion wasn’t in its plans at this time.
While we see this as a definite setback for WKU’s journey in the Football Bowl Subdivision – the top level of college football in the United States – we realize the university will remain in C-USA for now and therefore urge WKU’s leadership to take strong action to strengthen that conference.
WKU has certainly been a dominant force in C-USA athletics. Entering the 2021-22 seasons, WKU had won 32 total C-USA titles, which were eight more than the next-closest school, and that success should give WKU extra clout within C-USA.
Certainly of major importance to local fans is C-USA’s TV deal, which is divided through CBS Sports Network, Stadium and ESPN+, and brings in around $400,000 per school annually. The current deal runs through 2023. The MAC has a better television deal, highlighted by mid-week “MACtion” football games on ESPN, and WKU had said it would have accepted an invite to the MAC if one had been given – and that TV deal was likely a prime factor.
Todd Stewart, WKU’s athletics director, appears ready to work and expand C-USA’s next television package.
“I think everybody agrees that we need a better TV deal,” he told MacDonald. “There’s a bit of an unknown because the membership has changed dramatically, so it’s hard to predict right now what that means for the future TV deal. I know there will be a huge emphasis on that.”
In addition to the TV deal, there are other issues such a football bowl game tie-ins, and C-USA and WKU must work harder to ensure they get the biggest bang for their bucks.
At the same time, in the ever-evolving world of college athletics, WKU’s leadership should keep its eyes open for future changes that could improve its programs, either in C-USA or elsewhere.
For now, though, it’s C-USA. And Stewart hopes fans – many of whom are disappointed with the recent turn of events – will remain in the fold.
“What we really need,” Stewart said, “is we need our fans to get behind us more than ever because it’s very easy to be a fan of a team when you’re winning and you’re in a great conference and everything is going well – that’s easy to be a fan. When you really need your true fans are when there’s something they might not like or might be frustrated about. If they’re a true Western Kentucky fan, we need them more than ever now as we remain in the same league, but a very different league, and help us navigate this. Let’s navigate this together and we’ll all end up in a very special place.”
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