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Richmond, We Have A Problem

Nestled in Richmond, Va., is the headquarters of the Colonial Athletic Association. Financially, the league had thrived with its members enjoying the spoils of Final Four shares earned by George Mason (2006) and VCU (2011). This spring, three events have put the future of the conference in serious jeopardy.

Led by head coach Shaka Smart, VCU has been a major force in the NCAA Tournament and a source of pride for the CAA. But for how much longer? (VCUAthletics.com)

Everyone’s favorite “mid-major” is in in major turmoil.

First, Georgia State, one of the two emerging football programs, announced it was leaving for the Sunbelt Conference. This sent word to Old Dominion, who has amassed great success in its three-year football run (27-8) to look elsewhere. Their recent success, including sending players to the NFL such as Ronnie Cameron of the Chicago Bears this year, means that James Madison and Towson have not been able to match the Monarchs, who frequently sell out their 20,000-seat football stadium.

Then there was this April’s vote of member conferences to raise the exit fee from $250,000 to $1,000,000 stalled, failing to reach a quorum. This eliminated a deterrence to Conference USA and the Atlantic 10 in soliciting schools. Not good news at all.

And for the second time in three years, a deserving Colonial basketball program (Drexel in 2012, Hofstra in 2010) was snubbed by the NCAA selection committee, echoing an inability for the league to receive multiple-bid status and climb the ladder of conference ranks. The collateral damage is TV money and an established league TV contract (the league signed a five-year deal with NBC Sports, formerly Versus channel compared to higher profile networks such as ESPN and/or Fox).

Now another event that is affecting the conference is the post-season viability of UNC–Wilmington and Towson with the NCAA denying their appeals for APR violations. The APR, the NCAA’s measuring stick to determine if schools are prioritizing academics to its student athletes to an acceptable level of performance (a 925 or the equivalent of a 50 percent graduation rate) has received a lot of notoriety with three-time NCAA champion Connecticut falling short and facing postseason penalties.

Some prominent programs in the conference face intriguing possibilities:

Old Dominion (Colonial member since 1991) – Conference USA offers a football home and a slice of the BCS pie, for an emerging Old Dominion program. Conference USA can place up to seven teams in a post-season bowl game. The Colonial does not offer anything close to that. Since entering the Colonial, no basketball program has had more success than the Monarchs who have captured the NCAA Automatic bid six times. ODU’s 8,600 seat arena, “The Ted” is one of if not the best arenas in the league. ODU would stand to receive over a $1million per year in TV revenue through Conference USA’s deal with Fox Sports which would dwarf the Colonial’s new five-year deal with NBC Sports.

VCU (Colonial member since 1995) – Back to back NCAA tournament appearances including a 2011 Final Four and the ability to keep one of the most sought after coaches in the nation in Shaka Smart – all these things have made VCU the hottest mid-major program on the planet. The A-10, which plucked Richmond from the Colonial back in 2001 and now Butler from the Horizon League is in heavy pursuit of the Rams. Certainly, the Rams would love an opportunity to bring its basketball brand to a multi-bid league and to a big stage (A-10 Tournament is at the new Barclay’s Arena in Brooklyn). VCU currently spends the most of all Colonial schools on its basketball program (more than $3 million annually). The only thing standing in the away of the move for VCU is the $5,000,000 in tournament money it would forfeit if it leaves.

The Atlantic-10’s TV contract ends after the 2012-2013 season and its bargaining position would be greatly enhanced with the inclusion of both Butler and VCU.

George Mason (a founding Colonial member since 1983) announced it will stay with the Colonial Conference and not join the A-10. This would have been a crushing blow to the Colonial losing a founding member with the biggest arena in the league. The rivalries with James Madison and William & Mary are deeper and stretch further than on the playing field. GMU received the final portion of its Final Four share this year but may not be willing to put in the anticipated one million more annually to compete on the Atlantic 10 level. For George Mason a wait and see approach is a better strategy to see what happens with the Big East and Atlantic-10 than making the move at this time.

The days of Johnny Newman and David Robinson are distant memories for a conference that is trying to find its place in the current landscape. This league was once a Virginia dominated league with a logical conference championship played in Richmond. That was a time where longtime rivals Richmond, VCU, George Mason, William & Mary, James Madison and Old Dominion battled a few North Carolina schools and DC neighbors Navy and American for the Title. Today the Colonial is a much different league where nearly half the league lies north of DC (Northeastern, Drexel, Towson, Hofstra and Delaware) and Richmond is not a neutral enough court to continue playing the Championship.

The challenge of today is for this conference to find an identity and to keep the core from breaking apart. Keeping George Mason was a step in the right direction however if Old Dominion and VCU defect the future of the once proud conference will unquestionably be in doubt.

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Leigh Klein is the owner of Five-Star Basketball Camps and formerly on staff at Texas and Rhode Island. Each year at Five-Star, he trains hundreds of future college basketball and NBA stars such as Michael Jordan, Grant Hill, LeBron James and Kevin Durant. He will be blogging for 247Sports on college basketball and recruiting.

Follow Leigh on Twitter @leighalanklein and let him know what you think about the blog.

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