Nothing makes for a more lively college sports discussion during the dog days of summer than conference realignment, and with Connecticut’s recent decision to leave the American Athletic Conference to return to the Big East, the topic is once again hot as the July weather.
And, of course, some of it centers around the possibility of James Madison jumping from the Colonial Athletic Association to the AAC. Dukes fans immediately began dreaming of the scenario and even JMU athletes have been debating among themselves the pros and cons of such a move. NBC Sports weighed in with a piece of content that was largely clickbait based on old quotes, but didn’t do anything to dampen the fervor.
But is it really a possibility? Here’s a breakdown of what factors could play a role in determining the Dukes’ conference future:
Does JMU Want To Go?
James Madison is as old guard CAA as it gets, having been a part of the conference longer than its been called the Colonial. Geographically, it’s still a strong fit and JMU’s teams have mostly thrived.
But a move to the American would be a step up in so many ways. There’s a prestige factor to being in what has billed itself as a “Power 6” conference and there’s more money and exposure to be had at the FBS level, and in particular the AAC. The American’s new media deal with ESPN pays the current members about $7 million per year, an exponential increase from the CAA, which actually has to pay to get cable networks to broadcast its games on linear TV.
There’s sure to be additional costs with such a move. Non-revenue sports would be making conference road trips to locations such as Wichita, Kan., and Tulsa, Okla.
But recent comments from athletics director Jeff Bourne indicate the Dukes would at least explore any possibility that came about, and assistant athletic director for communications Kevin Warner said in a text message in the spring the athletic department’s strategic financial decisions are made with being prepared for the possibility of moving to the FBS level in mind.
But jumping to FBS just for the sake of moving might not makes sense.
Conference USA, for instance, would come with tremendous cost as the league’s teams are spread across the country without a significantly lucrative TV deal.
The AAC is another story. It would put the Dukes just a notch below ACC neighbors Virginia and Virginia Tech and the powers that be at JMU have certainly noticed how the Hokies journey from the Metro Conference to the ACC helped spark tremendous growth in both size and reputation.
But Would The American Want JMU?
That’s a tougher question to answer. The AAC has some options, including doing nothing.
It’s quite possible the American doesn’t even move to replace UConn. Without the Huskies, the conference has 11 members in its major sports. Navy plays football in the league while football-less Wichita State joined in 2017 for all other sports.
With UConn’s departure, ESPN now has the right to renegotiate the relatively new TV deal. Best case scenario for the AAC might be if ESPN agrees to continue the current agreement and the remaining schools simply split larger pieces of the pie. If the AAC decides to add one or more members, it would need to be schools ESPN finds valuable enough to pay more for. The current American schools aren’t going to recruit a new member just to split less money between more schools.
So are there any schools that fit that bill? Perhaps, but some of them may be football-only candidates.
BYU plays as a FBS football independent and with a huge nationwide fanbase. The Cougars could look good to ESPN. Army is similar with its national appeal and a football program that’s been on the rise in recent years. The Army-Navy rivalry is potentially an extremely valuable property for the conference, but it may be difficult to square the traditions of the late-season game with the needs of a league that wants to crown a champion well before the College Football Playoff and bowl selections.
Should the AAC look beyond those two obvious football-only candidates, there’s a long list of candidates across the nation that have various levels of appeal from Boise State to Buffalo to North Texas to Old Dominion. JMU is likely on that list, but where do the Dukes fit in?
Would JMU Fit The American?
Well, there are reasons this discussion comes up with the Dukes and not other FCS powers. JMU is a large state school that continues to grow and its enrollment of around 22,000 would put Madison squarely in the middle of the conference.
Growth would be a selling point. As the campus continues to expand on both sides of Interstate 81, the alumni and donor base also continues to grow. In that way, it’s easy to imagine the Dukes best days are ahead of them as what was once a small college that played Division III football will see more older, wealthy alumni in the coming decades.
JMU’s brand and influence in the mid-Atlantic continues to increase as well, thanks in part to success on the athletic fields. Madison has around 30,000 alumni in the Washington DC metro area. While that pales in comparison to the more than 200,000 Maryland alums there, it’s not far off schools such as U.Va. and Virginia Tech.
Athletically, the Dukes more than hold their own. Across the board, JMU easily has the best athletic department in the CAA and has multiple programs competing on a national level, including women’s lacrosse, softball and men’s soccer, which all have deep NCAA Tournament runs the past two seasons.
Over the past two schools years, JMU is 11-3 against AAC competition in football, men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball, baseball, softball, lacrosse, and men’s and women’s soccer. That includes road wins at East Carolina in football and men’s basketball team and the women’s basketball squad thumping South Florida in the WNIT.
Even with UConn’s basketball-inspired decision to leave the AAC, football remains the main driving force behind most conference realignment, and JMU’s success at the FBS level is impressive. Going back a few years more, JMU also has a football victory against AAC member SMU on its résumé and has been generally competitive in games against FBS opponents.
Bridgeforth Stadium is expandable to around 40,000 seats, which would put the facilities on par with non-Power 5 FBS programs.
In the fall of 2020, JMU will also open the Atlantic Union Bank Center, a new 8,000-seat arena that will benefit the basketball programs. The JMU women’s team has made 14 consecutive postseason appearances and would likely stay quite competitive in the American.
Men’s basketball might have the toughest transition in the case of a move to the AAC, which has become an increasingly tough league even with UConn’s departure. JMU is still looking for its first winning season under fourth-year coach Louis Rowe. Memphis, Houston and Central Florida have been programs on the rise while Temple and Cincinnati bring solid basketball pedigrees and Wichita State was an addition intended to boost the depth of the league in men’s hoops.
But there’s no reason to think the Dukes couldn’t continue its success in sports such as lacrosse and softball. Playing in a bigger conference might even prove a boost for the women’s basketball and softball teams, whose affiliation with the CAA has not done them any favors in the eyes of the NCAA selection committees.
In reality, not a lot has changed for JMU, even with UConn’s departure. JMU hasn’t kept it a secret it is prepared to jump at the right opportunity should it come about, but it’s probably not happening anytime soon as it likely wouldn’t make financial sense for the American Athletic Conference to add an all-sports member, and even if it did, James Madison would be just one of several potential candidates.
If the AAC does pick up another member from a league such as the Mountain West, MAC, Conference USA or the Sun Belt; then the ensuing domino effect may have a greater impact on JMU and lead to tougher decisions on the value of switching conferences.