Hasta la vista, A-Sun; Bonjour Southern

June 29, 2014 

Now we wait for the real games to begin.

The A-Sun and Southern Conference have spent a year preparing for the future with additions and subtractions, all of which are loaded with ammo for second-guessing, spin aside. So there’s a day or two of “goodbye” and “hello” for Mercer, which leaves the A-Sun as it begins having a major impact.

There is irony in that. A conference gets a payment for each game its teams play in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, and it’s a rollover for six years. So for five years, the A-Sun will get a fairly sizable check courtesy of Florida Gulf Coast in 2013 and Mercer in 2014.

Such is the roller coaster of college sports and the fuzzy vision of perception. Schools have joined and left the A-Sun since 1978, ranging from fewer than 1,000 students to 40,000, from the hills of North Carolina to the flatlands of West Texas. Who knew all that transition was foreshadowing for the past five years?

So there’s a goodbye for Mercer and the A-Sun.

The founding member has some momentum -- 2013-14 is the first season as a full Division I program that Mercer had winning records in men’s and women’s basketball, baseball and softball -- and is leaving.

The A-Sun is seemingly in a regular state of transition, yet plugging along, often better than fan bases realize or administrators admit. But there is a perception issue.

All conferences have dilemmas and disagreements, but the strength of the conference isn’t in the main office, which is not where bad hires are made, good hires are underpaid and facilities allowed to fall into disrepair. Strength is determined by presidents, athletics directors and coaches. The A-Sun has progressed well with that third group, because perhaps finally some in the first two groups wised up (or got lucky).

Consistency will be an issue for a program regardless of its conference and for a conference, which depends on decisions made by member schools. First-class isn’t just about throwing money around. The A-Sun, like any business, progresses with more vision than agenda and with selfless teamwork. It hasn’t enjoyed enough of that from its members through the years. The conference might not be as aggressive in some areas as it should be, but a fractured group of administrators can make that difficult. Conversely, the conference is progressing because of some decisions of those aforementioned administrators.

The A-Sun isn’t “weaker” because it doesn’t have football; it’s just different. But other non-football conference have perhaps battled harder to make not having football a non-issue. Not that there aren’t some issues.

The A-Sun has regressed in getting the word out. Academic mottos are nice, but this is about sports, winning, getting attention and coverage and making money without compromising academic goals. The A-Sun is on a roll because of basketball at Florida Gulf Coast and Mercer and to a lesser extent, women’s basketball at Florida Gulf Coast and Stetson, baseball at a number of schools and a variety of competitors in other sports.

Lipscomb’s high academic rate is nice, but it won’t be saving jobs and inspiring attendance and money. Selling comparisons of RPIs and postseason success and big-team upsets helps change perceptions.

Perceptions are part of this discussion, and part of the equation is media coverage. It’s better for Southern Conference teams for a variety of reasons: geography, a fairly consistent lineup of membership, football and a much stronger presentation and dissemination of information.

The A-Sun prioritizes Twitter and some Facebook and offers less information (to media, fans and potential sponsors), which doesn’t bolster perception. And that execution is matched pretty much down the line with membership.

On the other hand, the A-Sun is ahead of the game with some technology, mostly ESPN3. Mercer will be atop the Southern Conference in ESPN3 usage because of the A-Sun’s foresight and investment a few years ago, and the Bears might be alone on that perch for a few years.

And A-Sun.TV, after years of hiccups and inconsistent execution from members, has improved noticeably.

But here’s Mercer’s “hello” to the Southern Conference.

Despite more momentum right now, life is more tenuous for the A-Sun than the Southern Conference, at least until the power conferences screw it all up.

The Southern Conference is trying catch up in some areas, like ESPN3, and is investing all that exit-fee money well from schools its losing.

As it is, we’re all really just waiting to see what happens on the courts and fields, and odds are Mercer will match having winning seasons in the aforementioned sports.

Don’t be surprised if the Bears make NCAA trips in men’s basketball, baseball, softball and men’s golf and perhaps women’s golf, with women’s basketball making a postseason trip and conference contention in soccer. That’s an easy prediction, whether they competed in the A-Sun or the Southern Conference.

One can only wish the best for all involved in the gambles, and let’s resume counting the days until the games for 2014-15 finally begin.

Contact Michael A. Lough at 744-4626 or mlough@macon.com

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