NEW ORLEANS – There was no shortage of topics that Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill addressed on Day 1 of the conference's football media day.
Many pertained to some of the biggest discussions in college sports, such as NIL, conference expansion, and news for the conference itself.
It was announced during Gill's opening statement that ESPN and the Sun Belt had agreed to expand its media right deals with ESPN.
A press release later revealed some of the details that explained the new agreement, which still runs through the 2030-31 academic year and will result in more than 6,000 additional live events available on ESPN+ including men's soccer, women's soccer, women's volleyball, baseball and softball.
This commitment includes an equal number of baseball and softball contests—over 1,000 events in each sport—and will feature instant replay for the 2023 season. The conference also plans to decrease the overlaps of baseball and softball conference homestand weekends in future seasons to further enhance ESPN+ coverage.
In addition to the extra coverage, Gill also announced that the conference would be adding a sixth bowl game which already includes the R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, Cure Bowl, LendingTree Bowl, Myrtle Beach Bowl and Camellia Bowl. The sixth bowl will be released on a later date, but Gill was "confident" that the deal would go through.
In Gill's opening statement, he expressed favor for expanding the college football playoffs to 12 teams, including the six highest ranked conference champions and the six highest ranked at-large teams.
"We have supported this model from the start of the process and continue to push forward its adoption," Gill said. "I remain optimistic that we will reach a complete agreement soon.
"We continue to talk and have some other upcoming meetings. I'm really optimistic that we will find enough common ground to expand the College Football Playoff. I really think there will be a spot for the Sun Belt."
NAME, IMAGE AND LIKENESS
The uncertainty created by the transfer portal and NIL has raised questions about the future of college sports, and conferences like the Sun Belt are in the crosshairs.
"This will be a year of consequence for college athletics," said Gill in his opening statement. "Changes in NCAA leadership and the work of the transformation committee will result in a different approach to governance and rulemaking.
"Name, image and likeness and the transfer portal will continue to shape our industry and impact the landscape. Recent institutional movements and realignment have created more change in conference membership. With all the uncertainty, I am sure of one thing, the Sun Belt is rising, and we are well positioned for any opportunities that result from these uncertain times."
Gill expressed that NIL is favorable for college athletes but will need more regulations in order to create less confusion and help programs be able to manage rules and regulations.
"I think NIL has been good," Gill said. "At the end of the day, we are in the business of trying to create opportunities for student-athletes. I think the Sun Belt is positioning itself and its athletes in the space to take advantage of the marketplace. I think having more uniformed regulations does make sense. The state patchwork is hard to manage and figure out. I'm certainly hopeful in the future that we can tweak it and allows for greater regulation. But at the end of the day, I think giving student-athletes ways to earn money based on their name, image and likeness is something that I support and something the Sun Belt has done well over the last year."
One of the hottest discussions in college sports has been conference realignment, with it being kick-started last summer with Oklahoma and Texas' announcements to join the SEC. This, of course, eventually sparked Marshall, Old Dominion, Southern Miss and James Madison to join the Sun Belt.
"I think we have a lot of things that are very unique," Gill said. "I think we are well positioned to have great success. Any opportunities that arise out of this next round of realignment, we'll be able to take advantage and continue to improve our league.
"I think having some continuity, and we are very lucky. It's great that we are able to get started with what our new membership looks like now. It allows us to plan for the future and be more strategic and focused. We are fortunate that the four schools were able to come early."
Media right deals have fueled most of the reasoning for alignment; most recently, USC and UCLA announced their intention to join the Big 10.
"I'm excited about our new media deal," Gill said. "I don't think you can have a better partner than ESPN. I think there is a lot of strength in that for the Sun Belt.
"We all we positioned. We have 14 schools with passionate fan bases, regional rivalries that we are stressing, our geographic footprint, and that model is not one you see a lot in realignment."
Gill was asked whether or not the Sun Belt had plans to expand. Gill's immediate response was that there was no active plan, but it wasn't something that the conference had ruled out and even expressed the possibility of the Sun Belt growing to as many as 20 teams.
"I wouldn't take anything off the table," Gill said. "We are not looking at a number. We are looking at value. I think if somebody asked me last year what is the right number I would have said 12. However, when you have the opportunity to add the four quality schools that we do, then 14 becomes the right number. I think the same with 16 or 20.
"If there is a really good institution that makes sense for us, is like-minded, in our geographic footprint, and that brings value to the Sun Belt, then we would certainly be open to having conversations with those schools."