Reports surfaced last week of the American Athletic Conference looking to add the Wichita State Shockers to their league as a basketball-only member, as the league looks to enhance their basketball brand amidst the departure of many basketball-only programs in 2013. Following the loss of Creighton to the (new) Big East Conference, the Missouri Valley has seen a decrease in exposure and notoriety as a top mid-major conference, having only one nationally recognizable brand in the league in Wichita State. Losing Wichita State, along with Creighton’s 2013 departure, could take the MVC in the wrong direction from their glory days. Without some smart thinking and timely moves, the era of a 4-bid Valley and the must-see Missouri Valley Basketball Tournament known as “Arch Madness” could become a very distant memory.
Wichita State’s 2013 Final Four run, coupled with Creighton’s departure, has catapulted the Shockers into the Valley’s top slot in terms of exposure and national brand recognition in the Missouri Valley Conference. The Shockers’ six-straight NCAA tournament appearances (including 2017–following their MVC Tournament Championship on Sunday) have been a mainstay in college basketball under Gregg Marshall. Despite this recent success, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi stated prior to Sunday’s game that the Shockers would not have made the NCAA Tournament in 2017 had they not cut down the nets, leaving the question of whether the Valley’s lack of strength is to blame for Wichita’s low RPI despite a 17-1 conference record.
A move to the American Athletic Conference (AAC) would provide added exposure to Wichita State, providing them games in states currently not covered in the Valley, including Texas with SMU and Houston, along with games on the talent-rich east coast. With this exposure and revenue, keeping a coach like Gregg Marshall could become easier as perennial poaching of mid-major schools takes place across college athletics.
Television revenue losses
The potential loss of Wichita State could be a catastrophic blow to a league once known as the top mid-major conference in America. Similar to the Big East Conference, following the losses of Syracuse, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Louisville and Rutgers, along with the “Catholic 7” basketball-only schools, the Missouri Valley could be left scrambling to find any semblance of a brand identity if they were to lose the Shockers.
Schools like Northern Iowa, Illinois State and Indiana State have created solid basketball traditions in their communities and regions; however, these schools (along with the rest of the Missouri Valley’s membership) lack the national name-brand recognition of Wichita State and Creighton. This decrease in national brand from Creighton’s 2013 departure, along with a potential exit by Wichita State, could provide the biggest blow to the Missouri Valley in lost media revenue, as media outlets consider other conferences for prime television slots. Schools already pinching pennies in their AD offices (most notably Northern Iowa) would suddenly be left scrambling to replace money once provided through television and media revenue. Maintaining tradition and validity of programs like Northern Iowa and Illinois State could become of the utmost importance.
Replacing Wichita State
Losing Wichita State would leave a large void to fill in the Missouri Valley Conference. If the Shockers do ultimately leave for the American Athletic Conference, the league will be faced with tough decisions of how to move the league forward into the future, just as other leagues have done following the loss of members. The following schools could provide the league a new direction heading into the future:
North Dakota State
One logical replacement for the Shockers could come from a school with a large national football brand and a rabid fanbase capable of taking over any venue in America. The North Dakota State Bison are already a contributing football member to the Missouri Valley Conference. Adding the Bison for basketball brings a very large and rabid fanbase for which spans the states of North Dakota and a large portion of Minnesota, along with decent media coverage in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Although located in a small population state, the size and passion of NDSU’s fanbase, coupled with a step up in competition from the Summit League, could provide a logical match for the MVC.
The Valparaiso Crusaders have been a mid-major brand for over two decades. In a similar situation as the Missouri Valley, the Horizon League has seen members (most notably Butler) move on to greener pastures in recent years, causing the league to lose brand recognition and exposure. Adding a team like Valparaiso provides an eastern team to the league and a known mid-major name in college basketball, in addition to a team that has won their conference in five of the last six seasons.
The Belmont Bruins have won their conference (Atlantic Sun/Ohio Valley) in nine of the last 12 seasons, and are a perennial Cinderella pick come March. The Bruins are located in Nashville, TN with a good mid-major following in one of America’s most entertaining cities. Most recently, the Belmont Bruins upset the Murray State Racers for the Ohio Valley Championship, sealing an NCAA Tournament bid. Adding Belmont not only adds a good basketball team, but could also even out the league geographically if more northern teams are added.
South Dakota State
Coupled with NDSU, the South Dakota State Jackrabbits provide a good-sized fanbase and following despite being in a small-population state. Recent facility renovations, NCAA Tournament berths and existing MVC football membership would provide the MVC with a basketball program proven to be capable of winning.
Hybrid of top Horizon, Missouri Valley & Summit League members
As the Big East and American Athletic Conference continue plucking members from these three leagues and conference realignment continues to be a major storyline in collegiate athletics, the best option may be to add the top members of each of these three leagues into one mid-major conference capable of competing for higher-revenue media contracts and overall national exposure. Below is a potential 12-team hybrid of the three conferences based upon endowment, student enrollment, basketball tradition, and overall brand.
Horizon: Valparaiso, Oakland, Illinois-Chicago, Cleveland State
MVC: Northern Iowa, Illinois State, Indiana State, Missouri State
Summit: North Dakota State, South Dakota State, Denver, Nebraska – Omaha
Although this idea would potentially leave many schools behind, this could be the best option for remaining key-contributors of these three conferences to maintain relevance in the ever-changing landscape of college athletics.
The Missouri Valley Conference will likely face a very large moment of reckoning if the Wichita State Shockers choose greener pastures in the American Athletic Conference. As the landscape of college athletics continues to change and evolve, these decisions (whether to add or combine) could be of life-or-death magnitude for member institutions left behind by Creighton and Wichita State. It is these decisions which could make up the future of MVC Basketball, “Arch Madness” and mid-major basketball as a whole for the foreseeable future.