Karl Benson on Sun Belt expansion and a bowl game in Atlanta


Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson took a few minutes before Friday’s quarterfinal game in the men’s basketball tournament between Louisiana-Lafayette and Texas State to catch me up on the state of the conference.

So, here we go:

Q: What is the plan for TV options moving forward for all sports?

A: Our contract with ESPN goes through 2019 and we are preparing to take full advantage of the ESPN3 platform for all of our other sports. You can safely say that we will be an ESPN3 franchise. Each of our schools is preparing to produce every sport, every home game, in all sports that would ultimately be on ESPN3.

We have seen tremendous fan acceptance of ESPN programming.

It’s becoming easier to get on whatever device you are using — phone laptop, smart TVs — and we are hearing form our fans that they aren’t having an issue watching Sun Belt programming on ESPN3 and the internet.

Our ultimate goal is for every Georgia State athletic event to be on ESPN3.

Q: Does ESPN3 interfere with the school’s private subscription revenue-based programs?

A: I don’t know how much revenue has been generated from that. The fans like it because it’s free to them.

Q: Will the conference basketball tournament rotate cities?

A: We are in year two of a three-year contract. We will need to evaluate what has happened the first two years and come to some decision whether to extend.

Tonight is a pivotal night in that we have three out of the four teams that are local – Lafayette, Monroe and South Alabama. We are hoping that the fun turnout will demonstrate that there is fan interest in New Orleans.

Q: Two years ago, you looked at Gwinnett, Nashville, Birmingham and Hot Springs. Would those be under consideration again?

A: We also looked at Mobile and Orlando.

I’m hoping that this year’s tournament will see the spike in attendance that will allow us to continue for another cycle.

Q: What would you like to see?

A: I don’t know if there’s a magic number.

Q: There has to be a number that will catch your eye.

A: Several thousand (in total). I expect that there should be 3-5,000 fans. When you look at the three local teams that would be a reasonable number. (Note: As of a few minutes before tipoff, there were only a few hundred for Lafayette vs. Texas State).

Q: Any plans for a more sensible basketball travel schedule next year?

A: Ask the coaches why they continue to want to play 20 conference games. That’s what has compounded the difficulty in travel. Nine out of the 11 voted to continue with 20 games.

If we are only going to take eight to the tournament, we want to have a full schedule so that’s there fairness in how to determine who those eight times are. That’s their rationale for 20.

Playing 20, and you wrote it, we are giving up 22 non-conference opportunities. Playing 22 additional conference games we automatically have an 11-11 record in those games. The RPI is driven by win-loss percentage. The reason we are the 21st ranked conference is that our overall win-loss record is what it is.

More conference games you play, fewer non-conference wins you can get.

Q: Will it be 20 again next year?

A: It appears so. Trying to do some scheduling alterations that will reduce the number of single-game trips, but the one way to really create a basketball scheduling model that is more sensible is to get to the 12 teams. That would greatly reduce the travel and missed class time. More likely, you would look at a 16-game schedule with five opponents in your division home and home and the other six would be three home and three away.

This has been written, when Georgia State and Texas State and Texas-Arlington and Appalachian State and Georgia Southern joined, they were expecting to be in a 12-team league.

I reminded the ADs, Presidents and Chancellors yesterday that three years ago right now we were on the verge of North Texas and Florida International leaving the Sun Belt for Conference USA.

The question was if we need to stay in the state of Texas.

The two Louisiana schools and two Arkansas schools said yes.

Florida Atlantic, if we were going to be a conference that stretched from Texas to Florida, we needed to get six teams in the east.

That was the plan three years ago.

With Middle Tennessee and Florida Atlantic leaving, we added Georgia Southern and Appalachian State and we are back to six in the east.

Then Western Kentucky left. For two-plus years we have been trying to find the right team to replace Western Kentucky and haven’t been able to do so.

 Q: With June deadline coming up, any chance of news that a 12th team will be added?

A: No idea.

Q: Does it seem likely?

A: I don’t want to speculate.

Q: Any chance New Mexico State joins for all sports?

A: Highly unlikely. It’s important for the Sun Belt to maintain its geography. Right now, the six teams in the West are the six that we planned three years ago at this time. We added Texas State and Texas-Arlington three years ago to create a Western Division with two teams in Texas, two in Arkansas and two in Louisiana. That was our plan. That’s, right now, the perfect grouping for our Western Division.

Q: Any plans to try to add a bowl game in Atlanta?

A: Yesterday there was a report that discussions are ongoing in Little Rock, which they are, which would possibly be our fifth bowl game.

I’ve had conversations with Georgia State President (Mark) Becker and athletic director Charlie Cobb that if the Turner Field proposal materializes, that could that be a potential bowl spot for the Sun Belt.

The answer would be yes. Potentially.

A year ago, our goal was to get to four bowls. We got there. We had a team left out this year, plus Georgia Southern and App not being eligible.

Our magic number of four tuned to five.

Next year, if we have bowl-eligible teams not go there will be pressure to get to six.

If you look at geography of where our bowls are, Atlanta would be a great spot for another bowl game.

Q: How would you like to see the Sun Belt improve its profile in men’s basketball?

A: Win high-profile non-conference games, get in the NCAA tournament and win games. That’s the quickest way to improve your profile.

Q: What are you most proud of as commissioner of the Sun Belt?

A: That we’ve been able to stabilize and maintain a level of prominence. We are one of 10 FBS leagues. We are at the table for the CFP, and part of CFP, and grown our bowl games from two to four, and perhaps five.

The basketball tournament in terms of production, presentation and look, we’ve created a big-time college basketball arena. Now we just need the fans to show up.

Q: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve yet to overcome in the Sun Belt?

A: Getting to 12 teams.

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