When Division I college athletics went through a round of massive conference realignment in 2012 and 2013, James Madison had a choice, one it could face again in the relatively near future.
The Dukes could leave the Colonial Athletic Association, making a move from the FCS level up to FBS. Or they could stay put.
“You don’t extend an invitation unless you know that the answer is going to be yes, but I sat in [JMU president Jonathan Alger’s] office with [athletic director] Jeff [Bourne] and conveyed to them what my plan was for the Sun Belt and how much we would have liked to have had James Madison be part of that plan,” former Sun Belt Commissioner Karl Benson told the Daily News-Record last month. “I had presidential support, unanimous support, from the Sun Belt presidents to make the visit to campus and have that conversation.”
Around the same time Conference USA officials also visited JMU, and the Mid-American Conference expressed interest in the Dukes as well. JMU chose to remain in the CAA and FCS.
College sports seem poised for another upheaval in 2021 with Oklahoma and Texas leaving the Big 12 for the SEC. On Tuesday, the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 announced an alliance that will see those three autonomous conferences work together -- on governance, the College Football Playoff and potentially scheduling -- to secure their own futures.
JMU might once again have to choose between remaining in the CAA or moving to an FBS-level conference.
“I’m assuming that if James Madison wants to move to a FBS status,” former Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky recently told the Daily News-Record, “it’s more scholarship cost and its more overall costs are higher, but there is potential for more revenue and you can take your team to a bowl game. There’s a little more TV, more exposure for the program. If that’s something they really feel like they want to pursue and do it with earnest, I’m sure they’ll have no trouble finding a new association.”
Banowsky’s comments echoed those of Benson, who agreed that if the Dukes committed to a jump to FBS they’d have offers to join a new conference. While both men have left their positions as conference leaders since the last major realignment saga - Banowsky is head of the College Football Playoff Foundation and Benson is an associate with CarrSports Consulting - it’s hard to find two people with more expertise in Group of Five conference matters.
Current Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill, who replaced Benson in 2019, was athletic director at Richmond in 2015. That year the Spiders visited JMU while the Dukes hosted ESPN’s College GameDay broadcast. Gill told the Richmond Times-Dispatch at the time that the publicity was worth $3 million to the Richmond athletic department.
Former JMU spokesman Bill Wyatt in 2017 told the DN-R, GameDay’s second trip to Harrisonburg ahead of an Oct. 14 contest that year against Villanova, was worth an estimated $8.5 million in publicity to the school.
“I think James Madison has kind of a greater regional market and a loyal fanbase,” Benson said. “They deliver the market they are in.”
So has anything changed that might lead to James Madison having a different answer this time around? One could argue the situations have changed dramatically.
For one thing, the Sun Belt of 2012 was in flux and as JMU leaders pondered the league’s offer, they still weren’t quite sure which schools they’d be joining. Several Sun Belt schools left to join Conference USA. Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, who had been FCS powerhouses, were considering a move, but hadn’t yet signed on. The league’s football membership at the time included New Mexico State and Idaho.
“The future of the Sun Belt was unknown at that time,” Benson said. “I’ve recognized there was a bit of an unknown quantity. James Madison’s history and tradition was much stronger in their fan base than some of the Sun Belt schools. The Sun Belt had only been a football conference since 2001. I was trying to convince James Madison that there was a bright future for the Sun Belt. But at that time all it was was a plan. Fortunately, the Sun Belt has been able to deliver some of that and establish itself as a very formidable FBS conference.”
Indeed, the Sun Belt of 2021 is arguably much more intriguing with East Coast programs such as Coastal Carolina and Appalachian State enjoying great success. Furthermore, as Bourne has publicly voiced his opposition to the CAA’s streaming broadcast deal with FloSports, the Sun Belt recently agreed to a contract extension with ESPN that will put several of the conference’s games in desirable linear TV slots.
A major drawback to both the Sun Belt and Conference USA in their current forms is geography, with both leagues stretching from the East Coast to Texas. But leaders at schools including Old Dominion and Marshall are pushing for some kind of geographic reshuffling.
“This could be the best opportunity that we have to try to reshuffle the deck chairs,” ODU athletic director Wood Selig said. “If egos can be put aside, I’ve always been impressed with the Mid-American conference. I call them the Baby Big Ten. They are the same states as the Big Ten, but they operate at a much more reasonable financial situation. They are great academic schools. They have their share of upsets and national success. So this is a chance.”
While the conferences themselves have changed, so too has JMU with its status as a mid-major athletic power growing over time. The Dukes won an FCS championship in 2004, but missed the playoffs in four of five seasons between 2009 and 2013.
Since 2014, the Dukes have established themselves as the best FCS program on the East Coast with three national title game appearances and an NCAA championship in that time. Across the rest of the athletic department, JMU has dominated the CAA and experienced national success in multiple sports with women’s lacrosse winning a national title and softball reaching the Women’s College World Series.
Meanwhile on campus, JMU has built up a budget and facilities that rival the American Athletic Conference and Mountain West, long considered the top Group of Five leagues.
The new alliance between the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 could make it harder for an FCS power such as JMU to schedule games against FBS programs, contracts that bring hundreds of thousands of dollars to the athletic department.
JMU will go all of 2020 and 2021 without playing an FBS opponent after playing such a game annually between 2007 and 2019.
But perhaps the biggest change since 2013 is a shift in power and influence among JMU’s alumni and donor base.
“I remember back when I was on [JMU’s] campus, one of them said there was strong support to go FBS from the Richmond fanbase, which consisted of the younger fanbase and younger alums,” Benson said. “The older local group was kind of happy where they were. If I’m looking at the demographics, I would imagine the Richmond young alum group is growing. The older demographics are losing some of their numbers.”
JMU’s alumni base is in fact getting younger and more urban. The university had a graduating class of approximately 2,600 in 2000 while the Class of 2020 was nearly 4,200 strong. Additionally, its largest alumni bases have moved away from the Shenandoah Valley.
There are nearly 14,000 JMU graduates living within 30 miles of Richmond and more than 42,000 within 50 miles of Washington, D.C. Another 30,000-plus Dukes live in New York and New Jersey.
Bourne has long lamented JMU’s lack of regional rivals in the current CAA and with the Dukes season-ticket base increasingly residing at least two hours outside of Harrisonburg, the need for more compelling matchups in both football and basketball has grown.
“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,” Bourne told the Daily News-Record in 2020. “It helps to play somebody you know and who your fans can have a strong understanding of who that is and what that means.”