Georgia State is officially in the Sun Belt Conference

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ATLANTA, Ga.  - Georgia State is back where it started.  The Panthers officially announced on Monday that they have joined the Sun Belt Conference, which they helped found in 1976 but left five years later. The move, follows a feasibility study conducted by Collegiate Consulting, is driven by Georgia State’s desire to reap the financial rewards of playing football on the FBS level and the expected of increase in ticket sales that more natural geographic rivalries can generate.

Georgia State will finish its last season as members of the Colonial Athletic Association in 2012-13 and officially join the Sun Belt in July 2013. The Panthers will be immediately eligible to compete for championships in all sports.

“Welcome home,” Dr. Jack Hawkins Jr., chancellor of Troy University and Sun Belt Conference president, told GSU president Dr. Mark Becker.

The decision to leave the CAA, considered one of the best mid-major conferences in basketball and a power in FCS football, is driven mostly by money, both revenues and expenses. Sun Belt teams play football on the FBS, or bowl level, which have the potential to generate more money because of bowl sharing and the potential of guaranteed games, compared to the CAA.

It is a remarkable progression for a football team that less than two years ago played its first game in the Georgia Dome, where Monday’s press conference to make the official announcement was held. The atmosphere on Monday was of excited anticipation, with a blue carpet welcoming more than a hundred university officials, coaches, including football coach Bill Curry and basketball coach Ron Hunter, athletes and fans.

“For us to be able to move this quickly is something I would’ve never dreamed of…Maybe six or eight years down the road, but not this soon,” said Curry, who said this promotion doesn’t change when he will decide if he wants to coach past this season.

Becker said there wasn’t a timeline for a move when he first met Curry in December of 2008. But he said the university’s desire to improve, coupled with the ever-changing landscape of college football, caused them to commission a feasibility study in December last year to study options. The study said that the Sun Belt seemed like a natural fit for many reasons. As athletic director Cheryl Levick and Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson began talking, it became apparent too both that the move had to be made. The invitation was extended by Benson and accepted by Becker Friday afternoon.

“It was too perfect not to act on it now,” Benson said.

Becker notified CAA commissioner Tom Yeager on Sunday that Georgia State was withdrawing. Once a member withdraws, CAA bylaws exclude them from participating in conference tournaments. Georgia State has requested a waiver for spring sports this year and hopes that the CAA presidents will vote to allow GSU to compete for titles next year.

“Georgia State’s withdrawal from the CAA and CAA football is predicated on the university’s desire to reclassify to FBS football which requires membership in an FBS league,” Yeager said in a statement. “We’ve been aware that GSU was having discussions with the Sun Belt Conference as the CAA could not accommodate that desire within GSU’s timeframe. The conference wishes the university well as it pursues these new interests.”

Georgia State must pay an exit fee of at least $250,000 to leave the CAA. The conference is scheduled to vote on Tuesday to increase the exit fee to $1 million, which caused negotiations between the Sun Belt and Georgia State to speed up. Levick said Georgia State will not participate in Tuesday’s vote. Becker cited the current CAA bylaws when asked if Georgia State may have to pay the increased exit fee. There also will be a $300,000 entry fee to join the Sun Belt.

The move to the Sun Belt may help alleviate several concerns that Georgia State has had since joining the CAA in 2005. The CAA stretches from Atlanta to Maine in football, and Atlanta to Boston in basketball so regional unfamiliarity, the lack of rivalries, missed class time and travel costs have been an issue. There are four schools in the Sun Belt that are a five-hour drive or less from Atlanta. There are no schools in the CAA that close.

Once Georgia State begins in 2013, the Sun Belt will have 11 football-playing members, stretching from Texas to Florida. Benson, on the job for three months, isn’t done. He wants to add a 12th school that will play football. The number is less important than his ambition.

“We want to be a player on the FBS and BCS levels,” Benson said Monday.

Though football was the driving force, Benson said he wants the Sun Belt to be more than a one-bid league in basketball as well, and will push initiatives to try to make that happen. Hunter wasn’t available for interviews.

Georgia State now must submit to the NCAA a notice to reclassify, along with an application, strategic plan and philosophy statement, as well as pay a $5,000 fee. The NCAA’s annual deadline for receiving such packages is June 1, with a required postmark by May 25. Levick said that application is in the process of being completed.

Georgia State’s athletic department has been exploring a move since November of last year and commissioned Collegiate Consulting in December to produce a feasibility report.

The report concluded that “GSU is well-positioned to make a transition to FBS” and “that the Sun Belt would be the best fit.” Georgia State was also well-positioned to move to the Sun Belt from a budgetary standpoint, according to the feasibility study. The athletic department’s projected $22.9 million in revenues in 2011-12 is 44 percent more than the average Sun Belt member, according to the report. However, the difference in those revenues can be traced to student fees: Georgia State receives more than $16.5 million compared with $5.6 million for an average Sun Belt school. Conversely, the average Sun Belt school received $1.5 million in game guarantees to GSU’s $440,500. Benson said Georgia State’s facilties compare to the other schools in the Sun Belt, and that he was impressed by the football practice facility.

Georgia State has been looking for land and trying to raise money to move Panthersville, where many of its non-rev outdoor sports play. It is also trying to raise money to renovate the Sports Arena where the basketball teams play. Becker said the move to the Sun Belt won’t affect those plans. Levick added she hopes the move will persuade the alumni who have said “call me when you get to FBS” to donate.

Becker also referenced more lucrative TV contracts for FBS conferences as another financial benefit. The Sun Belt has a contract with ESPN for football and men’s basketball that Benson said is subject to re-negotiation when there have been membership changes.

“Today’s announcement will yield significant advancements for the Sun Belt and Georgia State for many years to come,” Becker said.

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