ASun conference holding back Bucs?

Hey guys! Today we published an article that I thought was worth reposting on here, so for today, it’s a guest post from Jordan Brison, one of our writers. Enjoy!

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The fall of 2009 was a great time to be involved with sports at ETSU. The men’s and women’s teams both won the Atlantic Sun conference championship earning a berth in the NCAA tournament. Since that time at least one ETSUteam has won a conference championship in their respective sport.

Every year since joining the A-Sun, ETSU’s athletic program has also won the overall conference championship, a title earned in whole by a school’s athletic program as a result of each team’s finishing position in conference play.

ETSU has been a dominant player in the A-Sun since entering the conference in 2005, but is it time to leave for a higher level of competition?

Before 2005, ETSU was a member of the Southern Conference, with schools such as Appalachian State and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. When ETSU made the decision to disband the football team it resulted in our conference membership being voided because of a stipulation that required ETSU to maintain a football program. The football team was bleeding millions of dollars a season and losing game after game to any opponent we cared to find in or out of conference.

Since ETSU is definitely not Notre Dame, a school with no conference affiliation, remaining an independent was never an option. After the SoCon dumped ETSU, the administration had to find a new home that would accept it as is. The Atlantic Sun was that conference.

ETSU went from a conference that included three-time defending Division-II football champion Appalachian State to a conference with Lipscomb, a liberal arts institution. ETSU went from a conference that was known and recognized outside of their member schools to a podunk conference whose only hope for national recognition came from the automatic berth in the NCAA tournament by the conference champion.

That loss of visibility for an athletic program can be detrimental in recognition, as well as bank account. This loss in revenue limits what the athletic department can spend on recruiting players and paying coaches. Luckily, the loss of revenue and exposure have not yet had a negative effect on the school’s athletic department. Not only has a men’s soccer team been built since joining the A-Sun, they have even won a conference championship in their young history. Women’s soccer has also brought in talent not only in players — junior Ramey Kerns led the nation in scoring in 2012 — but in a young coach named Adam Sayers.

One of the biggest concerns with ETSU’s affiliation with the A-Sun is the distance between member schools. At the start of the 2012 academic year the conference stretched from Northern Kentucky to Southern Florida, almost a 1,000 miles apart in a straight line.

This forces teams to spend what little money they receive to travel to each others respective schools while their fan bases remain at home, since most college students can not afford to pick up and travel 1,000 miles to cheer on their team. The closest conference school to ETSU is USC Upstate at about 100 miles away.

How are the teams supposed to build a following when they travel farther for a game than most college students can afford? The transition from a conference that was tightly clustered and shared a geographic footprint to one that is scattered makes it harder to invest in your school not only from a fan standpoint, but from a professional one as well. I have been a beat writer for one sport or another since joining the East Tennessean and I am traveling for only the second time since 2009 to cover the teams on the road.

How is it we went from a condensed conference in the SoCon to such a spread-out conference in the A-Sun, yet expect the fans to continue to support the athletes at home as well as on the road?

What I mean is, who is that conference rival that the team just has to beat, that the fans circle on their calender every year? For the first few years of A-Sun affiliation that role belonged to Belmont. ETSU and Belmont combined to win the past seven conference championships and the automatic berth into the NCAA tournament. Belmont left the A-Sun this year for a higher level of competition in the Ohio Valley Conference, leaving ETSU with no real rival that draws a crowd.

Why is it that you see Appalachian Sate on almost every ETSU team’s schedule? They used to be our big rival in theSoCon, right down the road from each other, letting fans travel easily between the schools. Men’s soccer faced off against SoCon opponents four times in only 10 non-conference games and once in the preseason.

It appears that ETSU athletics may be approaching a crossroads, They can continue to sink into obscurity while remaining close to the top of a small, marginally known conference or, seek a higher level of competition that the Bucshave shown in the past they are capable of handling. The key is to find a conference that competes at a higher level, but does not require football as part of the membership agreement.

If ETSU could convince a conference to allow membership without the inclusion of a football program it could actually be just what the school needs to begin the climb towards reinstating the program it cut loose after the 2004 season.ETSU used to be a member of a conference that mattered, and it could be again one day.

-Jordan

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