Photo courtesy of AJ Henderson, Sun Belt Conference
Gill on state of conference: ‘Sun Belt is rising’
With four new conference members, Commissioner Keith Gill believes that 2022 will be the most anticipated and exciting football season in the history of the Sun Belt. It’s one of the reasons he thinks the league is well-positioned to become even stronger in a time of widespread uncertainty in college athletics.
Gill delivered his annual State of the Conference address to open the Sun Belt Football Media Days on Tuesday in New Orleans, covering a wide range of topics and answering questions during the half hour. The commissioner began by touting the quality of athletics in the league with new members James Madison, Old Dominion, Marshall and Southern Miss coming into the fold.
“With these additions to our already-strong membership, the best non-autonomy FBS conference just got better,” Gill said. “We exited realignment with 14 universities in 10 contiguous states, united and committed to creating nationally successful football programs coupled with comprehensive athletic success. But our excitement is not just limited to football — our goal is to be good in every sport we sponsor. Regional rivalries and tight geography create a conference with compelling matchups, passionate fan bases and competitive games that will excite our fans and the entire nation.”
Gill announced during the press conference that the Sun Belt is expanding its partnership with ESPN, which will provide the conference with more “resources, exposure and linear opportunities for Sun Belt football and basketball.”
While the new media rights deal doesn’t add any additional years to the agreement, which runs through the 2030-31 academic year, it will add 6,000 live events on ESPN+ including men’s soccer, women’s soccer, women’s volleyball, baseball and softball. Baseball and softball will have 1,000 broadcasts each, and will feature instant replay beginning this coming season.
“The expanded agreement will provide financial resources and exposure for our members, which will allow them to tell their stories and showcase the incredible athletic and academic accomplishments of Sun Belt student-athletes and member institutions,” Gill said.
The Sun Belt is already a part of the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, the Cure Bowl, the Myrtle Beach Bowl, the Lending Tree Bowl and the Camellia Bowl. Gill said the conference is “very close” to finalizing a sixth bowl partnership, which would begin this season.
While the league is not actively looking to add to its membership, the commissioner said he “wouldn’t take anything off the table.” If it makes sense to bring a school into the Sun Belt that is like-minded and within the conference’s geographic footprint, Gill is open to exploring those opportunities. There’s no set number in Gill’s mind for the conference — he’d be OK with adding just one member to make it an odd-numbered 15-team conference if the new school brought in enough value.
Gill briefly touched on the impact that name, image and likeness (NIL) laws have had on college athletics, saying while he thinks it’s generally been good for creating business opportunities for student-athletes, something he supports, he would like to see a few tweaks that would allow for better regulation of the laws.
The commissioner also came out in support of an expanded College Football Playoff — specifically, a 12-team format that would give automatic bids to the six highest-ranked conference champions and the remainder of the bids to the six highest-ranked at-large teams.
“If the past is prologue, you know, we’re struggling right now trying to figure out how to expand the CFP,” Gill said. “But I do feel like we had some meetings in June and I thought they were really promising. I thought we found some common ground in that space. So we continue to talk, we’ll have some other upcoming meetings. So I am really optimistic that we will find enough common ground to be able to expand the College Football Playoff, and I do think there’ll be an opportunity or spot there for the Sun Belt.”
The Sun Belt Football Media Days will continue on Wednesday, with Texas State head coach Jake Spavital, offensive lineman Kyle Hergel and outside linebacker Jordan Revels set to take the main stage at 11 a.m.
“Last year was a great year for Sun Belt football. But the best is yet come,” Gill said. “The Sun Belt is rising.”