A-10 Needs to Know What it Wants to Be Before Expanding

By Steve DiMiceli

Brand and branding are two words that get associated with just about everything today. Image is important but understanding what your image is and how to a build product or marketing around what you want your brand to say and represent is even more important. The A-10 is faced with a crisis of its brand. Over the past two or three years, we've been competitively strong but we branded ourselves as "the strongest basketball focused league" when the commissioner boldly added Butler and VCU to replace Temple and Charlotte. Since then, the new Big East has toppled our mantra and  place near the top of college basketball by taking longtime flagship Xavier and the Bulldogs. More could leave next year, but the league is left with two highly regarded teams in St Louis and VCU, a number of second and third tier programs,  and Fordham. The foundation is there to rebuild the A-10 while expansion is likely on the horizon but how does expansion impact your rebrand?

The league has two options for how to add teams if they choose to take on new members. They can stay stay regional in the Northeast and lower profile or expand beyond their footprint and take a run at being a national conference again. With two of the midwestern schools gone and two more likely to be the next Big East targets, logic would suggest the league should stick to the east coast and brand itself as "the top mid major conference of the east." This would cut down on travel costs and help facilitate more local rivalries. Of course the A-10 would resign itself to being decent but limited league. If they stay in the east, they are unlikely to compete with the BCS schools anytime soon.  The reason is simple. The shelves are bare and the top east coast brands are picked over. George Mason makes the most sense but the league would duplicate the DC market. If they want to be an elite league again, they'll need to improve their TV contract and six teams in 3 markets (Philly, DC and Richmond) won't help. Davidson has a decent brand and is just outside of Charlotte, but the school is just too small. Same goes for Detroit. Aside from a nice run under a long gone coach and a good fan base, Siena's recent history and future success is questionable and I have my concerns about them jumping to the A-10.  Adding two of the above does make the A-10 a high level mid major only rivaled by the West Coast Conference and the Missouri Valley, but it doesn't cry out for national attention. Looking to the west might.

The only reasonable scenario I see happening where the A-10 keeps some semblance of its place in the national basketball scene is to go to 16 teams and take on schools from the Valley. On it's own the MVC  is pretty comparable to the A-10, but without Creighton, it's probably a hair behind us. However, the A-10 plus the best programs in the Valley makes for a much better conference than the Valley itself. Factor in the extra exposure from playing on the east coast, more potential money from TV and NCAA credits and travel be damned, the A-10 has leverage could be attractive for the best of the MVC.

For this scenario to work, the A-10 needs to add Belmont first. This gives the league another western presence, and potential a rising power. Next the A-10 targets three Missouri Valley programs. In spite of it sitting way outside the conference footprint,  Wichita St would be the number one priority. They have the best brand, facilities and capacity for earning NCAA credits of any school east of the Rockies without D-1 football not already in the Big East or A-10. Illinois St and Indiana St help bridge the gap between east and west and offer competitive programs.  Illinois St is in a similar boat as our women's program. They have 20 win seasons 4 of the last 6 years but have failed to make the NCAA tournament. That's a good program. Indiana St has great tradition and some recent success as well. If you don't like the Sycamores, grab Valpo or Murray State instead but I like out chances of getting the Shockers better bringing in two of their Valley-mates.

Of course, that 16 team league is still not on the level of our current 16 team league but it keeps the A-10 solidly positioned as "the best basketball centered conference that isn't heterophobic." It could produce as many as 3-4 bids on a regular basis and occasionally finish ahead of a BCS league. To me, it's better than going to a 14 team league with George Mason and another iffy east coast program. The problem is that you can't have both. You can't challenge the Valley and add in the east at the time. The league is probably stuck in 2 and sometimes 3 bid mediocrity if they just dabble with expansion and there is no turning back once they add in the east.

That said, the best course might be to stay at 12 teams for now with the understanding that we're going to have to make an aggressive push to 16 at some point. For now, there is no reason for haste. The same teams that would be tempted to join at present will be tempted later. The next TV contract isn't up for another 8 years and probably won't be negotiated for 6 or 7. I think a year or two to allow the current league to settle in and collect a slightly bigger than expected pay check would help to strengthen the base and to gather a larger sample size on who looks good for expansion in the future. For now, the best brand might be "we're not dead or even dying so don't sleep on us."