Chicago State is the most patient team in Division I and for good reason. After leaving the WAC as a result of its football-driven expansion, the Cougars are now independent and must wait for conference realignment dominos to fall. Last week, a small domino fell, but it still may benefit the Cougars.
Western Illinois decided to join the Ohio Valley Conference in Olympic sports for the 2023 season and football in the 2024 season. The Leathernecks will leave the Missouri Valley Football Conference and the Summit League, which currently houses the Leathernecks' Olympic Sports.
This leaves the Summit League at an uneven nine members with not many options, given the conference's footprint in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. The conference's draw to prospective members is further hurt by its lack of a national TV deal, which I will elaborate on further, As a result, Chicago State and the conference could be an odd, but solid match.
The Dakotas are the center of the Summit League with the University of Denver and Oral Roberts in Tulsa serving as outliers. Chicago State would have travel partners in St. Thomas in St. Paul (400 miles away) and Missouri-Kansas City (510 miles away).
The travel to the conference's four Dakota schools is suboptimal, but all four Dakota schools are within 750 miles, so it is manageable. The trips to Denver (1005 miles away) are the worst, but nothing compared to the immense travel demands the Cougars had in the WAC. Overall, Chicago State may be an outlier, but the expansion of the Summit League's footprint is not outrageous.
Time for some trivia. What is the only Division I Olympic sports conference without a national media or streaming deal? If you guessed the Summit League, you won. Shockingly, the Summit League does not have a contract with ESPN/ESPN+ or even Flosports like the CAA. The Summit League relies completely on school-produced broadcasts or RSNs to carry their events.
Midco Sports has the biggest presence in the league carrying the Dakota schools' games across its networks while Altitude, the TV home of the Colorado Avalanche and Denver Nuggets broadcast several University of Denver home games. Aside from these two partners, all other content comes from the schools.
Chicago State can use the need for content on regional sports networks (RSNs) and their spot in the third-largest media market in the country as a bargaining chip. Thanks to the Chicago Cubs and White Sox, Chicago State has two RSNs they can get airtime on, NBC Sports Chicago (White Sox, Bulls, Blackhawks) and Marquee Sports Network (Cubs).
Marquee Sports Network only has Illinois State men's basketball games when it comes to live content during the Winter, leaving plenty of room for a potential package of Chicago State games. If the Cougars look to partner with NBC Sports Chicago, Chicago State can easily schedule their games on Blackhawks and Bulls' off days to provide content for that RSN.
The opportunity to air games on an RSN located in the third-largest market connected to some of the most well-known brands in pro sports is a huge step in exposure for the Summit League. The move would be welcomed with open arms by the non-football playing schools who have no media revenue stemming from playing in a football-only league.
Furthermore, getting a foot in the Chicago market could be what opens the door for ESPN or even Flosports to sign a deal with the Summit League. Chicago State would build upon Missouri-Kansas City, St. Thomas, and Denver's markets to drum interest for a couple of games on ESPN+ or even a liner network like ESPNNEWS or ESPNU.
This article is not a hit piece on the city of Sioux Falls, SD, but it is not world-renowned like Chicago. I'm sure the Sanford Premier Center is a great venue and seeing a basketball game is on my bucket list, but adding Chicago State to the Summit League gives them reason to experiment with having the tournament in Chicago.
The Big Ten rotates their tournament in and out of Chicago, so in most years, the Summit League tournament would not have any competition within the city. Chicago State's home, the Emil and Patricia Jones Convocation Center, seats 7,000 and is a good fit to host the tournament. Keeping the tournament on Chicago State's campus saves the conference money in rental costs and could be the revenue boost that Chicago State needs to be more competitive.
Chicago State made leaps and bounds last year in men's basketball last year, going 11-20. The Cougars likely would win less games in the Summit League as they would have ranked last in RPI, but they were only a few spots below UMKC (299), Nebraska-Omaha (300), Denver (302), and South Dakota (303) at number 305. Being in a conference would undoubtedly boost recruiting and could make them competitive immediately. Long story short, Chicago State is no longer the laughingstock they were in the WAC.
Although a small shift in the Division I landscape, Western Illinois' departure from the Summit League could be the event that Chicago State was waiting for all along. The Summit League could end up with a diamond in the rough in the long run.