Old Dominion makes it official: Monarchs are joining Sun Belt Conference

It’s no longer a surprise, but it is for real.

After seven years, Old Dominion plans to leave Conference USA. The Monarchs will officially join the Sun Belt Conference, likely in 2023, the school announced Wednesday.

ODU will make the move from C-USA along with Southern Miss and Marshall. James Madison will join the Sun Belt from the Colonial Athletic Association, making the jump from FCS to FBS after state approval to do so.

“Joining the Sun Belt Conference is a game-changer for Old Dominion University and our athletic program,” ODU President Brian O. Hemphill said in a statement. “We are excited about the expanded opportunities and limitless possibilities now and well into the future.”

The moves leave previously bulging C-USA with a membership shortage. Alabama Birmingham, Florida Atlantic, Charlotte, North Texas, Rice and UT San Antonio announced their intentions to leave the league, joining the evolving American Athletic Conference, last week.

This week’s departures leave Conference USA with just five football-playing members.

“C-USA has proven to be an excellent home for ODU athletics during our transition from FCS to FBS,” ODU athletic director Wood Selig said, “and we thank the C-USA membership and leadership for such an outstanding partnership, the chance to enhance the overall athletic experience for the student-athletes, fans and alumni of ODU in the SBC with regional rivalries. (It) represents the perfect opportunity for the continued growth and evolution of ODU athletic programs in our pursuit of national prominence.”

It will cost ODU about a $3 million exit fee to leave C-USA. It will cost about $2 million to join the Sun Belt, which has a more lucrative TV deal than C-USA.

The Sun Belt’s deal with ESPN guarantees that every football and men’s and women’s basketball game will be broadcast on one of the network’s platforms. Those platforms will also broadcast a total of 500 events across all sports each year.

The Sun Belt East Division includes Coastal Carolina, Appalachian State, Troy, Georgia State and Georgia Southern. The West Division is made up of Louisiana, Texas State, South Alabama, Louisiana Monroe and Arkansas State.

The league is a geographical far cry from C-USA, which included Texas El Paso and two Florida schools. ODU fully joined that league in 2014 after moving from the FCS level.

“This move will allow Southern Miss student-athletes to compete in what is fast-becoming the best Group of Five conference in the country and will provide greater visibility for the university’s championship athletics programs,” Southern Miss president Rodney Bennett said in a statement. “The Sun Belt’s geographic footprint will create new regional rivalries.”

Asked about the possible affiliation change this week, Monarchs football coach Ricky Rahne expressed confidence in ODU president Brian O. Hemphill and AD Wood Selig.

“They’ve got a great plan and they’re going to execute it,” Rahne said. “I’m here to coach football, no matter who the opponent is. Conference, non-conference, we’re going to play that game. I tuned it out, and our players have tuned it out. They haven’t asked me one question about it, even in passing.”
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