Studies on the fastest growing cities in America explain why college football’s conference realignment has shaken out as it has, and also offers possible insight into the sport’s future landscape.
Using two recent such studies, one via the Washington Post and the other from Forbes, the future of conference realignment could be mapped out.
At the foundation of the Post report are statistics culled from the U.S. Census Bureau, focused exclusively on cities’ per capita growth.
San Marcos, Texas is No. 1 for the second time in as many years. Via the Post:
The Associated Press reached the mayor of San Marcos, Daniel Guerrero, in Chicago, where he was recruiting businesses for his city. He attributed its growth to the presence of two of the nation’s largest outlet malls and Texas State University.
Texas State transitioned into the Football Bowl Subdivision as a member of the Western Athletic Conference in 2012. Now, Texas State’s inclusion was a last gasp of the WAC’s football existence, and the program since landed in the Sun Belt. But Texas State has long-term potential that could prove attractive to other leagues.
The Lone Star State has the deepest recruiting pool in the nation. And as San Marcos grows, so too does the Bobcats’ potential to build a contending program with local talent.
San Antonio checks in at No. 9 of Forbes fastest growing cities in America. Forbes employs different metrics, measuring both per capita growth and associated earning potential. San Antonio is a rarity in the sports landscape: a major, metropolitan area without a local NFL presence. As such, there’s a void for football fans the college game can fill.
The launch of the UT-San Antonio program just four years ago and its meteoric rise from FCS-to-Conference USA since is a testament to the program’s potential.
The Roadrunners play in the Alamodome, a venue that hosts a major bowl game and was once home to the Big 12 Championship. There’s a built-in fanbase waiting to be tapped, and the local recruiting talent is plentiful.
UTSA has also scheduled admirably in its first few years of existence, securing home dates with power-conference opponents in every season from 2013 through 2018, save one: Oklahoma State (2013), Arizona (2014), Kansas State (2015), Arizona State (2016) and Baylor (2018).
Because of the Alamodome and programs’ need to establish presence in Texas, the Roadrunners have two qualities few non-AQ programs offer. And as San Antonio continues to grow, the market size could make UTSA an attractive program in the coming years.
Other Texas programs to have upgraded its conference standing in recent years include SMU and North Texas in the Dallas metroplex (No. 2) per Forbes) and Houston (No. 4).
Every non-automatic qualifying program in Texas would relish making the same kind of jump TCU made in 2012. Another Dallas-area program, TCU parlayed both its past success and long-term potential into Big 12 membership. As such, TCU earns a slice of that much bigger revenue pie afforded the Group of Five conferences, as well as the opportunity to play in the College Football Playoff.
TCU’s former Mountain West Conference partner Utah made a similar jump to the Pac-12 in 2011. Like TCU, Utah occupies one of Forbes top-ranked cities, fifth-ranked Salt Lake City.
Of course, it didn’t hurt TCU or Utah’s case that they were consistently atop the non-automatic qualifying programs in the BCS years. Right there with them was Boise State, winner of two Fiesta Bowls. Boise State’s campus is also just 12 miles from Meridian, Idaho, which saw the 10th highest population growth in 2013, per the Post.
Boise State joined the Mountain West in 2011, but could be an attractive option for the Big 12 in the not-too-distant future. Big 12 brass is seeking to relaunch its once very popular and lucrative championship game, and to that end likely needs to expand.
The Big 12 should have no shortage of options on the expansion front if it proves necessary. An Eastern university such as Cincinnati makes sense for giving West Virginia a closer counterpart. But if the conference goes West, both Boise State and Brigham Young are consistently strong football programs occupying the regional footprints of the fastest growing cities in America.
And when the next round of conference realignment begins, the current population trends could have as much impact on programs’ fates as their performances on the field.