HUGHES: Marshall’s move to the Sun Belt makes perfect sense
HUNTINGTON — In the ever-changing landscape of college sports, you either evolve or get left behind. Evolution is exactly what Marshall accomplished with its move to the Sun Belt Conference. When the university made the upcoming move by no later than July 1, 2023, official last Friday, that set several more pieces into motion. It further eroded Marshall’s former home, Conference USA, which is down to five member schools following the departures of schools like Old Dominion, Southern Miss and the Herd. That’s compounded with the departures of Charlotte, Rice, UTSA, Florida Atlantic, North Texas and defending C-USA football champion UAB to the American Athletic Conference just weeks ago.
Marshall had to jump off the sinking ship, and the move makes total sense. A conference that already features top-tier mid-major football programs like Coastal Carolina and Appalachian State, Marshall gets a chance to play a tougher schedule. Also, ESPN has an agreement with the Sun Belt to air conference football games on its networks (including its ESPN+ subscription service). Now, compare that to what Conference USA was doing. Games could air on CBS Sports Network, but could be bounced by any number of Mountain West or MAC contests. Additionally, CBSSN is only available with certain cable packages that not everyone is willing to pay for in this era of cord-cutting. The other option was Marshall games being streamed live on Facebook. Sure, that means you wouldn’t need cable to watch, but the quality of the broadcasts was lacking. The other thing that lacks is the caliber of opponents Marshall often plays on Facebook. The Sun Belt-ESPN deal is more attractive to Marshall, its potential opponents and recruits looking to been seen on a bigger stage.
With FCS-power James Madison likely joining the Sun Belt, it only bolsters the power of the conference and rounds the football-playing members of the conference to an even 14.
Yes, the annual rivalry with Western Kentucky will likely be gone, but the MU-Appalachian State rivalry which headlined the Southern Conference for years is now back permanently. How this move impacts the Sun Belt and the Herd in basketball remains to be seen, but it gives head coach Dan D’Antoni and company a fresh start. The baseball team is getting a new venue set to open in 2024 to play its home games near campus, so the timing of this move couldn’t be any better for them. Marshall is looking to defend its national championship in men’s soccer, where the Sun Belt doesn’t participate. I would venture to guess the Herd will stay put in C-USA for both men’s and women’s soccer, which is the right move. If the conference folds all-together, another possibility would be a move to the MAC in men’s and women’s soccer.
That could put a lot more stock into Marshall’s high-stakes men’s soccer rivalry with West Virginia, since the Mountaineers currently play men’s soccer in the MAC. The Sun Belt offers every other sport Marshall plays, so it should be a seamless transition otherwise. Marshall didn’t panic when schools started hopping to the SEC and Big 12. The school knew its pedigree as a mid-major would pay off. Being passed over for some of the wealthier schools going to the American Athletic Conference was a blessing in disguise. Conference USA is looking scarily thin, while the American replaced its best programs with schools nowhere near the ability of a program like Cincinnati. Marshall stayed patient and now is in a much better spot than it was before all this conference realignment started with Oklahoma and Texas. This move is the most logical, and it ushers in a new era of Marshall athletics. Let’s have some fun.