Jim Gazzolo column: Money isn’t always greener

Published 6:34 am Thursday, July 4, 2024

Like many other breakups, the one that hit the Southland Conference in the summer of 2021 was over money.

The five that left wanted the others to invest in their athletic departments to raise the league’s national profile.

Feeling the others were bringing them down, they exited for what they believed would be greener economic pastures.

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It’s a tale as old as time.

McNeese State was on the fence. The administration at the time didn’t want to spend, but the new post- COVID crew was more than willing. So the Cowboys teetered on the fence.

Now, McNeese has more than led the charge of Southland investors, which has paid off. That has helped lead to the rebirth of the league itself, as two of the teams that left for the Western Athletic Conference are back. Only one of the four that left the SLC remains in the WAC.

Two WAC teams joined the Southland on Monday, finding a different-looking conference completely.

“We are a new league,” said SLC Commissioner Chris Grant. “We are all on the same page.”

But are the schools on the same spreadsheet? Only their accountants know for sure.

When they left for the WAC, the four, including Stephen F. Austin, who rejoined the Southland this week, were promised big things from their new conference. That wasn’t to be.

So SFA divorced the WAC for yet another common reason: promises unkept.

The Lumberjacks return to the Southland with the belief that their fellow teams are committed to investing three years after they seemed unwilling.

This is now Grant’s biggest challenge as he enters the new era of his job. Can he get everybody to stay on the same investment page?

The commissioner has talked about wanting to grow and to one day have two divisions. He says he doesn’t want the divide to be between the haves and the have-nots. That could lead to a second round of exits for the same reason.

All the Southland Conference schools must learn that it is in their best interests for the league to grow at roughly the same pace. This has never been the case.

When Houston Christian and Incarnate Word entered the league, they promised to upgrade their facilities as part of their entry. Never held to their promises, the two schools have talked a big game but not many improvements or upgrades have been made.

UIW has done a good job improving its play, especially in football where it has become one of the league’s powers, but the stadium is still lacking. For this to be a new conference, then those are the changes that need to be made.

Lamar has done a nice job making changes to its athletic department and facilities over the last couple of years. It showed last season with greatly improved football and basketball teams.

McNeese has done the same, but one has to wonder, just how many Southland schools have the vision and ability to follow those leads? And how much longer the current investors can keep this up?

There is always a challenge of finding new sources of revenue for athletic programs as the cost of competing continues to rise.

There is no question that the Southland Conference is in a much stronger position than it has been in recent years.

There is also no question that the league can’t, like it has before, sit still. It must stay ahead of the pack if it wants to keep this momentum growing.

If not, well, we have seen that movie before.


Jim Gazzolo is a freelance writer who covers McNeese State athletics for the American Press. Email him at jimgazzolo@yahoo.com