Last week, officials at Chicago State announced the launch of a feasibility study for starting a football program at the school. The school’s athletic programs have fallen on tough times due mostly to conference realignment and organizational issues, and are now independent in all sports after nearly a decade in the Western Athletic Conference.
Despite the school’s known financial troubles, a football program may do well to increase enrollment and revenue at the school, but only if it is a non-scholarship program. If the Cougars intend to stay at the Division I level in all sports, only one league is an option, the Pioneer Football League.
The Pioneer Football League is a non-scholarship conference filled with schools that are basketball-focused like Drake, Dayton, and San Diego. Some schools have faced precarious circumstances like Marist and St. Thomas. Marist’s entry into the Pioneer Football League represents a situation similar to Chicago State.
In 2007, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference discontinued football and two of the conference programs, La Salle and Iona, followed suit. Duquesne joined the Northeast Conference, leaving Marist without many options. As a result, the Red Foxes joined the Pioneer Football League to keep their football program alive, despite not being the best geographical fit.
Chicago State does have its baggage but there are multiple benefits to having them in the Pioneer Football League. The first draw is its geography. Geography in the Pioneer Football League is a bit of a moot point as members’ main source of unity is scholarship granting status and not location, but Chicago State would strengthen the midwest core of the conference.
The Cougars would have regional foes in Drake, Valparaiso, Dayton, and St. Thomas waiting for them. Even Morehead State is a manageable distance from Chicago. If Chicago State starts a football program, the league could even re-institute divisions and limit trips to San Diego and Florida for the league’s Midwest members. Divisions could look like this:
In this concept, each member would play five division opponents and one cross-divisional game. This would allow the Pioneer Football League to eliminate several cross-country games and allow schools to fill them with regional non-conference games. The league could decide on a champion on the final weekend of the FCS regular season through a championship game.
Furthermore, Chicago State adds some presence in the Chicago market, even if it’s only a little one. In December, I made a big deal about Valparaiso appearing on Fox Sports Arizona because the Pioneer Football League lacks a TV deal.
Chicago State games on Marquee Sports Network sound like a good alternative to filler Chicago Cubs content and the network has aired college games before. Appearing on an MLB team’s cable network is as big a boost in exposure as the Pioneer Football League will get.
Chicago State faces an ever-uphill battle if they do decide to start a football program. Yet, the Pioneer League provides a path to stability if the Cougars decide to start a program.