Western Illinois University will move to the Ohio Valley Conference in football in 2024. On Thursday, the school and athletic director Paul A. Bubb officially announced the move in a campus ceremony. (Photo via Barry Bottino, PrairieStatePigskin.com)
By Barry Bottino
Western Illinois University President Guiyou Huang glanced at a diagram of the Ohio Valley Conference hanging in Western Hall in Macomb Thursday.
“That map is so compact,” he said.
Those five words summed up one of the biggest reasons that the Leathernecks’ athletic programs will move to the Ohio Valley Conference in football in 2024 – and all other sports from the Summit League on July 1.
“I hesitate to say there was one factor. I think we looked at it from a travel standpoint, an athletic budget standpoint,” WIU athletic director Paul A. Bubb said.
During a recent strategic planning phase for the athletic department, Bubb discovered the potential savings in the OVC, which currently includes football teams in four states.
“We identified close to $250,000 that could be reallocated from travel to other purposes,” he said.
The road through the Missouri Valley Football Conference will traverse eight states this fall with the addition of Murray State, a former OVC member.
From Grand Forks, N.D., to Murray, Ky., the MFVC stretches 1,107 miles from north to south. Between Vermillion, S.D., to Youngstown, Ohio, there are 935 miles from east to west.
The road to the OVC
Macomb is one of the MVFC’s most central points. But the travel each fall is one of the main reasons the Leathernecks will play their final season in the league this fall.
Over the past five full seasons in the MVFC, Western has logged 7,064 miles. By comparison, Eastern Illinois – which has been an OVC member since 1996 – has traveled 950 fewer miles.
The OVC’s smaller geographic footprint features four football member states, including Illinois and two border states – Missouri and Kentucky – along with Tennessee.
“You can’t deny the geography,” OVC Commissioner Beth DeBauche said. “The fact that you’ll have reasonable travel, that is so tremendous for the student-athletes, is terrific.”
Huang said he first met DeBauche two years ago in his office. The conversations between WIU and the conference ramped up earlier this year, Bubb said, when WIU completed its strategic planning and reached out to seek membership.
DeBauche said the league’s board of presidents voted unanimously on membership for Western, which was officially offered May 11. The school announced the following day that it had accepted.
Bubb also acknowledged that as other Missouri Valley Football Conference and Summit League members have see their revenues and athletic budgets grow, Western has not.
Enrollment issues and fewer dollars of support for higher education in Illinois, according to Bubb, have caused Western’s budget to remain constant or drop, in some cases.
The scheduling wild card is the OVC’s relationship with the four remaining Big South Conference schools – Gardner-Webb (North Carolina), Robert Morris (Pennsylvania), Bryant (Rhode Island) and Charleston Southern (South Carolina).
According to an OVC spokesperson, a “joint association” between the two leagues in football, which was announced in December 2022, will exist at least through 2024.
And regardless of who wins the conference title this fall – an OVC or a Big South team – that school will earn the combined league’s automatic playoff bid.
In miles from Macomb, the shortest trip among the Big South schools is to Gardner-Webb (623 miles) while the longest is to Bryant (1,186).
Including WIU, the Ohio Valley now has seven football programs.
The OVC is not considering the four Big South teams as football-only members, according to the league.
Could the OVC continue seeking expansion elsewhere?
Numerous future options exist, some of which could include the University of Indianapolis (Division II), current SWAC members Arkansas-Pine Bluff or Alabama A&M, the Atlantic Sun Conference’s North Alabama or West Georgia of D-II’s Gulf South Conference.
On Thursday, however, the present was being celebrated by DeBauche and the WIU administration.
“This truly felt like a makes-sense decision at the absolute right time,” DeBauche said.
One response to “Road to Ohio Valley Conference includes less travel and budget strain for WIU”
[…] With the Leathernecks joining the OVC, the two schools – located 191 miles from one another – will renew a rivalry that began in 1930 when both were members of the Illinois Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (IIAC). […]