Chicago State's Case For the NEC

The NEC is now at eight members after St. Francis (Brooklyn) shut down its athletic program. Chicago State needs a conference. Is there a case for the Cougars?

Chicago State currently plays as an independent after leaving the WAC in 2022.
Source: Chicago State Athletics

Yesterday, St. Francis (Brooklyn) shocked the college athletic world by shutting down its athletic program after this academic year. This puts the Northeast Conference on shaky ground with only eight members. Earlier this week, I wrote about how the other St. Francis, the one in Western Pennsylvania, has even more reason to leave the Northeast Conference, further weakening the conference.

If you’ve read this far, or even read just the title, you know what I am hinting at. Yes, I do realize adding Chicago State, a school with an undergraduate enrollment of 1,502 and an endowment of $3.7 million as of 2016, and a location almost 1000 miles away from the furthest east NEC member and 600 miles away from its closest member is a bit wild.

However, I am showing the merit of Chicago State’s case for the conference because there is some. Chicago State was willing to routinely make trips to Las Cruces and Seattle for nearly a decade in the WAC, so they would be willing to join a conference center in the Northeast that has a media deal.

Furthermore, Chicago State looks to be competitive again going 11-20 with key wins over Coastal Carolina, Valparaiso, and even CBI participant Southern Indiana. Chicago State’s RPI of 305 was better than six NEC teams, more than half of the league, so the Cougars can add competitive value to the NEC.

A New Market?

I am not saying Chicago State is the biggest attraction in the Windy City, but they do provide some presence in the nation’s third-largest media market. This comes in handy when looking at the NEC’s relationship with regional sports networks or RSNs. This past basketball season, the NEC had eight games televised on SNY, the TV home of the New York Mets.

Having Chicago State in the conference could open up a TV deal with Marquee Sports, the home of the Cubs which airs five Illinois State men’s basketball games per season. This would be huge for the NEC’s visibility as Marquee Sports Network is available not only in the Chicago Cubs’ MLB-designated home market, which stretches to Iowa, Wisconsin, and Indiana but nationally on DirectTV and over-the-top subscription streaming service FuboTV.

Not only does this help from a money perspective, but this helps the NEC’s universities from an exposure and enrollment perspective. The NEC’s current members could see increases in enrollment from prospective Midwestern students who would see these programs on their local RSN or playing on a TV at the local Buffalo Wild Wings on a random weekend. Without adding Chicago State, such an application and enrollment increase is likely impossible.

Potential Football Recruiting Benefits

Chicago State has announced the start of a feasibility study to consider adding a football program. Chicago State football would increase stability for the NEC in that sport, bringing football membership to nine members. Despite the increased travel costs, an addition of Chicago State could aid recruiting in the conference through one weird circumstance.

The Chicago Bears’ drama with Soldier Field and the city of Chicago has been drawn out and looks close to ending with the Bears moving to the Arlington Heights racetrack site. So what happens to Soldier Field? Demolishing the stadium looks like an option, but the stadium may have too much history to demolish, even if it's complicated history.

Soldier Field could then become the home of Chicago State football. Rather than spend millions to build a small stadium, the Cougars could use Soldier Field as its home. NEC football coaches would then be able to not only recruit in the Chicago area but promise New England and New York/New Jersey recruits they would be able to play in an NFL stadium twice in their career. Although it’s not much, it’s more than what peer conferences like the Big South and even the CAA can tell their recruits.

The Northeast Conference needs to make a move and after losing members from the strangest of circumstances, it may require outside-the-box thinking to help the conference survive. Chicago State needs a conference and the Northeast Conference needs stability. This may be an awkward, but necessary marriage.