Belmont & MVC Expansion (Murray State)
Let me be the, uh, last in the MVC community to welcome the Belmont Bruins! Something I have been hoping and waiting for has finally happened. The league has made a proactive move instead of a reactive move. In a time where conferences are eating each other alive, we are finally dealing from a position of strength and are making the league better! And we’ll now have more games at Arch Madness. I can’t complain about that.
Any way you dice it, from a competitive standpoint this is a great add. The Bruins have won at least 19 games every year since 2005-06. They’ve won at least 23 games in eleven of the last fifteen seasons. From the 05-06 season until COVID, Belmont participated in the NCAA Tournament eight times in fourteen seasons with NIT campaigns in three of the others. They were an at-large selection in 2018-19 and beat Temple in the First Four before losing to Maryland by two in the first round. While most of their success came under Rick Byrd, things seem to be continuing smoothly early on in new coach Casey Alexander’s tenure as they have gone a combined 52-11 in his two seasons. Their women’s program is strong as well, having qualified for five straight NCAA Tournaments and getting an upset of 5th seeded Gonzaga in the first round last year. Belmont is in the beautiful city of Nashville, providing a new destination point for MVC fans to visit and see their teams play. It is a nice market to add to the MVC’s profile. The addition makes the league stronger. A program like Belmont makes us more likely to get multiple bids and more likely for our teams to get better seeds and a better shot at advancing. Welcome Bruins!
While the Bruins are a no-brainer of an add, one thing Belmont does not bring is a strong following. According to the NCAA attendance report, Belmont averaged 2,320 fans per game in 2019-20. That would put them solidly last amongst MVC institutions with the next closest being Valpo (2,797), Loyola (3,215) and Drake (3,304). As far as I can tell, there isn’t much of a Belmont fan community. There is not an active Bruin message board that I can find, and despite relatively equal success the Bruins get wildly outdrawn by Murray State annually at the OVC conference tournament.
That brings me to my next topic, Murray State. I think Murray State should be in the Missouri Valley Conference. This is something I feel is strongly about. To me, the Racers are an obvious add and the arguments against it are misguided. Those that read my stuff often know that I don’t take strong stances very often. But I am here. If you are an MVC fans who is rooting against the addition of Murray State, you’re wrong (or maybe a self-interested SIU fan).
Murray State is a strong mid-major basketball program with a history of success and producing NBA talent. They have a strong fanbase, strong community support, strong (and improving) facilities and are in the MVC footprint. The Racers have played in the NCAA Tournament 15 times and the NIT five times since 1988. Since the 09-10 season Murray State has won at least 23 games eight times in twelve seasons. The Racers have a strong March history as well with three NCAA Tournament wins in the last eleven years including wins as a 13 and 12 seed. Murray fans support their squad. Despite a somewhat down year, Murray averaged 4,887 fans in 2019-20 which would have been good for third in the MVC (behind Bradley and Evansville). Racer fans always flood the OVC Tournament turnstiles and would likely be a big draw at Arch Madness as well. The town supports the school and they’ve built a strong community.
Why wouldn’t the Valley want a program like that? Some say we should “hold-out” for a program like Saint Louis or Wichita State. To me, would be like choosing not to advance your career in the hopes you win the lottery. For Wichita, the American may have taken a big hit recently, and more may be coming. It can be tough being a basketball playing school that operates in a league that makes its decisions based entirely on football. The league has lost three of its best hoops brands (UConn, Houston and Cincinnati) in the last two years and schools like Memphis, SMU and Tulsa will be gone as well if the chance is given. If replacement programs are strong in basketball, it will be a happy accident not an intentional move. Football is king in the AAC. Still, the situation would have to become much more dire than it currently is for the Shockers to come back with their tail between their legs. The money is still better in the American and Wichita is more likely to look at the Mountain West or A-10 than move back to the MVC. Is there a situation where St. Louis makes the move? I mean…..possibly. The travel costs alone would be a good reason for the Billikens to jump ship to the Valley. But the A-10 is considered to be a better league (and quite frankly it has been for most of the recent past). To get a school like Saint Louis, the Valley must become stronger and adding school like Murray makes that more likely. There isn’t a limit to the number of teams a league can have. At the end of the day, adding a Murray State doesn’t preclude you from adding Wichita back or adding Saint Louis if the opportunity arises. In fact, having strong programs in your league makes it more likely to snag a big fish like that, not less. Had the league been proactive in building the conference sooner, Wichita State may have never left in the first place.
I’ve also heard folks comment about “splitting the pie” with NCAA shares and TV shares becoming thinner with the addition of another school. All it takes is one additional NCAA bid, or one additional NCAA win in ten years to make up for the lost tournament revenue adding a new team would cause. If Murray gets us one more bid or one more win (via improved seeding) in a decade the difference is negligible. I have also heard that SIU fans, in particular, do not like the proposed addition because their school competes with Murray for enrollment. OK yeah, I do buy that. If it were my school that were threatened here, I might feel the same way. I get that animosity. I don’t think it’s a good enough reason for the league to ignore this opportunity, but I understand where Saluki fans are coming from.
The biggest thing I have heard from both fans and media coverage of the discussion at the University Presidential level is concern about their “market”. This infuriates me. I know the ADs and Presidents of the Valley probably have a better grasp on this concept than me, but I have yet to hear a good explanation as to why market size is so important for schools in a league like the Missouri Valley. When all this realignment started happening in the early 2010s, conferences like the Big 10 added schools in major markets to increase the size of their cable TV deals. More TVs meant more money. For one, the cable TV model is a dying one in 2021. I would be curious to know how much more money each B1G school is bringing in because “Rutgers brought the New York market”. I honestly have no idea, but I can’t imagine the Big Ten’s TV deal is substantially better with Rutgers involved. You know what addition almost certainly would increase the Big Ten’s deal substantially? Notre Dame, which is located in the thriving metropolis of a media market that is South Bend, Indiana. That is because brands, fanbases, and department strength and stability matter more than market size.
As you go down the ladder of conference size and relevance it seems like the “market size” argument becomes less-and-less relevant. Did the fact that we have a school in Chicago make the MVC’s TV deal with ESPN more lucrative? If it did, it is because the Ramblers went to the Final Four not because they are in Chicago. Do the Horizon League and the NEC have a better TV deal than the Valley since they have schools located in so many major markets? Is the Summit rolling in dough because they have schools in Denver, Kansas City, Minneapolis and Omaha (or are the most valuable properties in that league actually located in the Dakotas)? Beyond some recruiting value (which I believe is legit but minimal), I don’t see how simply having a school in your conference located in a big city brings value to your league at the mid-major level. If a school is successful and has cultivated a following and a fanbase, gets butts in seats and watching on TV, and garners media coverage and publicity in their town that is what is most important to me.
The Missouri Valley is the strongest mid-major league in the Midwest. Except for Loyola, every school in the league is located in a medium-to-small midwestern town. Not only do I think a lack of large markets hasn’t hurt the league, but I would go so far as to say a lack of large markets is our strength. Instead of being a small part of a large media ecosystem, our teams are the biggest thing going in most of our communities. While there are larger programs with larger followings in each of our states, there is strong support for each program within its own town. Many Valley towns are built around the University. If Thanos came down to the Rogers Park lakeside, snapped his fingers and made Loyola disappear……would the city of Chicago be fundamentally changed as a result? If Loyola never existed would Chicago have a different identity? I lived in Chicago for four years and I would say no. And that isn’t to poo on Loyola. Chicago is so big that really any one thing does not define it. You could take any college out of Chicago, even Northwestern or DePaul or Chicago U, and the city would not be fundamentally different. Even without the Cubs and Bears Chicago would still be Chicago. Can you say the same about any other Valley city? Maybe Des Moines?
The Valley is strong because it is built upon schools in small communities, not in spite of it. We aren’t Detroit Mercy, or Cleveland State, or UW-Milwaukee, or Kansas City U……afterthoughts in our own towns. We are our towns. And Murray State fits that profile perfectly. The Racers are a perfect example of the type of school that makes the Valley strong. We get games on ESPN not because a bunch of people in a specific city want to watch us but because our teams are good, and their brands are strong! The games are compelling. The fanbases are invested. The communities are woven into the fabric of what we are. Murray would be adding to our strength, not taking away from it. Commissioner Jeff Jackson has said he wants the Valley to be the top league in the nation outside the power six. I absolutely love that goal, and Murray helps us get there.
Add Murray. Off soapbox. Go Valley!