Karl Benson said he has had several informal conversations with Georgia State athletic director Cheryl Levick about the Panthers possibly joining the Sun Belt Conference.
Benson, commissioner of the conference, said no invitation has been issued, and he will likely visit Georgia State on a fact-finding mission. Levick confirmed that they have talked informally and said she told Colonial Athletic Association commissioner Tom Yeager about the discussions. She declined to comment any further. CBSSports.com reported on Wednesday that Georgia State is one of the leading candidates to join the conference, citing “college football industry source.”
“It’s exploratory on both sides,” Benson said. “We are in the process of exploring institutions that are in the Sun Belt footprint that can improve the overall strength and quality of the conference.”
Benson said he isn’t in a hurry to add new members, though he does recognize that the NCAA has placed a June 1 deadline on applications for schools that wish to move from the FCS (formerly Div. I-AA) to FBS. Georgia State is currently a member of the CAA in all sports, including football, which it plays on the FCS level.
He said the conversations between he and Levick have focused on topics such as Georgia State’s possible aspirations to one day play football on the FBS level, the timeline for achieving that goal, and how it meshes with the Sun Belt’s desire to add members.
Benson said the purpose of a fact-finding mission is to gauge a school’s dedication to athletics and academics. He said potential is more important than tradition. Georgia State has been playing football for just two seasons. It has been a CAA member in other sports since 2005.
“You are looking for schools that have great potential and great upside,” he said. “From what I have gathered thus far, there is strong institutional commitment and then there are the natural assets that they have in terms of location and the overall university characteristics in addition to the athletic characteristics.”
If Georgia State were invited to join the Sun Belt, it must pay an exit fee of at least $250,000 to leave the CAA, and will likely have to forfeit any revenue-sharing agreements with the conference, which could mean as much as hundreds of thousands of dollars. It may also have to forfeit the chance to participate in any of the conference’s tournaments. There also will be an entry fee to the Sun Belt, which Benson said is in the process of being changed for any new members.
Georgia State’s athletic department has been exploring possibilities for the past few months. Levick commissioned a report last year that studied the ramifications of moving up to FBS.
The report concluded that “GSU is well-positioned to make a transition to FBS” and “that the Sun Belt would be the best fit.” A draft of the report, along with the contract between Georgia State and the authors, Atlanta-based Collegiate Consulting, was obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through an Open Records Request. The report cost $20,000.
Georgia State is well-positioned to move to the Sun Belt from a budgetary standpoint, according to the study. The athletic department’s projected $22.9 million in revenues in 2011-12 is 44 percent more than the average Sun Belt member, according to the report. However, the difference in those revenues can be traced to student fees: Georgia State receives more than $16.5 million compared with $5.6 million for an average Sun Belt school. Conversely, the average Sun Belt school received $1.5 million in game guarantees to GSU’s $440,500.
Benson and Levick have known each other for a long time, going back to when Levick was senior associate athletic director at Stanford (1988-2000) and Benson commissioner of the Western Athletic Conference. He said their discussions about the Sun Belt began after he went on the Barnhart and Durham show on 790AM last month and said that Georgia State wants to play football on the FBS level. He later said he didn’t have his facts straight about the Panthers. He called Levick to apologize, and that conversation drifted toward his plans for the Sun Belt and the future of FCS football.
The Sun Belt currently has 10 members, stretching from Florida to Texas. Benson said the existing members are a great foundation, but he would like to strengthen the conference’s geographic footprint and have enough schools to have divisional play in all sports. Traditionally, that has meant at least 12 members.
Before taking over the Sun Belt, Benson was commissioner of the WAC for 18 years. During that time, Boise State became a national power in football. He said he wants to eventually develop the Sun Belt’s version of the Broncos.
“The only reason that you add members, and the only reason that you get bigger, is to get better,” he said. “Regardless of whether that’s 12 or 14 or whatever the number might be, this is about quality, rather than quantity.”
– Doug Roberson, AJC. Please follow me on twitter @ajcgsu.