[caption id="attachment_234774" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] University of Delaware Athletic Director Chrissi Rawak, right, smiles as Conference USA Commissioner Judy MacLeod applauds the invitation of UD to the conference. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS[/caption]
NEWARK – Leaders of the University of Delaware and Conference USA (C-USA) took a victory lap Wednesday morning in officially announcing the state’s flagship university into a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) conference.“Joining Conference USA and the FBS is truly a historic moment for our entire university community, including our alumni and our fans,” UD President Dennis Assanis told media, staff and supporters at a press conference at the Whitney Athletic Center adjacent to the school’s football stadium. “We don't have professional football teams [in Delaware], but we do have the Fightin’ Blue Hens.”Over several hours Wednesday, leaders made clear that three facets really drove the decision for the biggest change in Delaware collegiate sports history: competition, exposure and money.By moving to the highest tier of competition, student-athletes will get to test their skills against some of the nation’s best, both through C-USA schools and non-conference opponents that would consider matchups against an FBS school that previously wouldn’t while Delaware resided in the Coastal Athletic Association, a second-tier Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) conference.In moving to C-USA, UD will receive media exposure that is roughly 40 times what it currently sees in viewership through partnerships with TV networks CBS and ESPN compared to CAA’s contract with CBS and primarily the lesser-known streaming service FloSports.“If just a little leak created 2 million impressions from social media, imagine what happens when we win championships and play in bowls,” Assanis said, referring to media reports of the FBS move that leaked on Monday. “Imagine those 30-second [TV] spots will be shining a very bright light on the University of Delaware on ESPN and ESPN+ all the time.”Finally, the university expects the FBS move to come with greater revenue potential via media rights packages, ticket and merchandise sales, sponsorships, and more. Assanis asserted that none of the costs of the move would be borne by student tuition, and that UD sought to ensure the move would be cost neutral or reduce the school’s subsidization of athletics in the long term.The move for UD will be the most expensive move in college sports history, with exit and entrance fees totaling $6 million. The university has already raised $3.5 million of that fee and anticipates donor support will fulfill the remainder by the July 1, 2025, entry date into C-USA.A year in the makingChrissi Rawak, the athletic director at UD, said the school had studied a move to the FBS level for more than a year, hiring consultants to look at the feasibility, and economic and Title IX impacts. After dozens of schools began a rush of realignment in college sports last year, breaking long-held regional ties primarily for football, UD began to more seriously investigate its options for a conference invitation.
[caption id="attachment_234773" align="alignleft" width="300"] Conference USA Commissioner Judy MacLeod said that Delaware was a school on her radar to join the FBS ranks. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS[/caption]
At Dallas-based Conference USA, Commissioner Judy MacLeod was likewise seeking to stem a tide of defections and introduce new blood into the league. One of the targets on her list was the Blue Hens.“I would say that it was pretty widely felt throughout the country that when Delaware was ready to make the move … you're probably not going to find anyone that was more prepared,” she said, noting that she and Rawak spoke for months about the opportunity.A few weeks ago, MacLeod made a secret visit to the Newark campus along with two C-USA members to review facilities and meet with leaders, and she walked away impressed. At lunch at Assanis’ home, she made the formal offer to invite UD to the C-USA.“When you get here and see it live, it makes a really good impression,” she said.Exposure value
[caption id="attachment_234775" align="alignright" width="300"] The members of Conference USA span from Virginia to Florida to New Mexico. | PHOTO COURTESY OF C-USA[/caption]
MacLeod declined to confirm media reports that C-USA schools receive guaranteed media contract revenue of about $750,000 from CBS Sports Network and ESPN, which broadcast conference games. C-USA is in the first year of a five-year contract with the duo, and hold an option for a sixth year, but when asked whether the conference had received fair value for its rights, MacLeod said she thought the deal “could have been a little higher.”The CAA signed a four-year extension worth more than $10 million with FloSports and CBS Sports in February, which provided member schools about $100,000 and the right to sell additional game broadcasts to local channels, according to reports.Rawak said that CAA just could not compete with a Group of 5 conference like C-USA in terms of the value of its media rights. As an example of the power of that exposure, Rawak noted that Conference USA’s championship game between Liberty University and New Mexico State University, two first-year C-USA programs, will be one of only two FBS games broadcast nationwide on Friday night.“A part of this decision for us was, ‘This is the arena we belong in. This is the arena we want to be in,’ and the opportunities for us are limitless,” she said.Assanis noted that the value of national TV exposure was not limited to broadcast contracts, as the university expects it to help draw new enrollment interest as well. UD has seen 10% or more application growth for the past few years, reaching 37,000 last year for a class of 4,200 and expectations to reach 40,000 this year. With C-USA membership, its feasible UD could see 50,000 applications and a greater number coming from outside the region.Cost of the moveLeaders estimated that UD’s annual athletic budget may grow to around $50 million, or about 10% higher than where it currently sits, to hire the needed staff, offer 22 additional football scholarships and launch a new Title IX-required women’s sports program.“The experts that provided us the data that made it clear that we are positioned incredibly well. There's not a lot of significant investment that needs to be made,” Rawak said.The additional spending on athletics is expected to be raised by increased revenue for attention on the higher level of competition, she added."We don't have the opportunity to do anything to increase that revenue generation by staying in the CAA. The only opportunity we have to actually even get to decreasing the subsidy or ensuring that it stays where it is, is by making this type of transition," Rawak told reporters. "It's not hundreds of millions of dollars – This is not the Big10 – but it's certainly much more sizable than what we're in now."With C-USA’s members spread over a large geography, stretching as far south as Miami and as far west as Las Cruces, N.M., it remains to be seen how many traveling fans may arrive in Newark for games.MacLeod said that traveling fan bases differ by school, with some stronger than others, but that “fans of our schools are always excited to see a new place.”According to UD’s economic impact study, leaders expect local hotels and restaurants to benefit from visiting fans for more than a dozen sports moving to the C-USA level.Member schools for football include Florida International University, Jacksonville State University in Alabama, Liberty University in Virginia, Louisiana Tech University, Middle Tennessee State University, New Mexico State University, Sam Houston State University in Texas, the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) and Western Kentucky University. Starting next year, Georgia’s Kennesaw State University is joining the conference as well.Opportunity for recruitsWith the nation's most-promising high school players seeking out colleges that will give them the brightest spotlights, the move to FBS will help UD to draw new star recruits and established transfers too.Both UD Football Coach Ryan Carty and Men’s Basketball Coach Martin Ingelsby said the move to FBS would help them recruit for their programs."As you can look at our current non-conference schedule right now, it's gotten a lot harder to get teams to come to Newark. I do think [the FBS move] opens up opportunities from a net standpoint to attract better teams to be able to do home-and-homes with us," said Ingelsby, who had experience in the FBS coaching as an assistant at Notre Dame.Despite traveling across the country for games, Carty said that he believed the national exposure and opportunity to visit new markets for the first time outweighed the new headaches.“As difficult sometimes as people try to make the travel out to be, it's also really fun,” he said.The FBS exposure could also help in UD's pitch to young athletes wondering about the ability to profit from their name, image and likeness (NIL) rights in today's NCAA. "From an NIL standpoint, we've got to be aggressive ... to be able to give our guys the opportunities that they're warranted and to be able to attract top talent because that is part of the process today," Ingelsby said.
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