AD Stewart talks season wrap up as WKU nears official entry in Conference USA

WKU President Dr. Gary Ransdell, Conference-USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky, and WKU Athletic Director Todd Stewart announce on Monday Western Kentucky’s move to C-USA in 2014.

Elliott Pratt

The next time readers pick up the Herald to read about the WKU sports scene, the Hilltoppers will no longer be in the Sun Belt Conference.

On July 1, WKU will make its official entrance into Conference USA, reuniting the school with former Sun Belt opponents such as MTSU, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, North Texas, along with former rivals from decades past like Old Dominion and Louisiana Tech.

WKU’s last season in the Sun Belt Conference could end with the school’s first Sun Belt All-Sports Championship since 2008. The Vic Bubas Cup awards schools on a point system based strictly on regular season finish for sports that have a regular season conference schedule.

WKU took home five conference titles in 2013-14 in volleyball, soccer, men’s swimming, women’s indoor track and field and women’s basketball.

“We had a major goal this year, to win the all-sports championship and we felt like to win it in our last year would be pretty symbolic of the success we’ve had for the entire 32 years we’ve been (in the Sun Belt Conference),” Athletics Director Todd Stewart said. “We’re very close to clinching that now and it would be a big accomplishment for us.”

While spring sports are winding down, Stewart said every other sport is already in the Conference USA mindset.

“We’ve already gotten very involved with the planning and as sports have finished their season, then really all the planning and conversations moving forward have involved Conference USA,” Stewart said. “All our fall and winter sports have finished and everything they’re doing is geared toward Conference USA in terms of scheduling, scouting opponents and they’ll be locked in and ready to go.”

Because WKU notified the Sun Belt of its exit more than 12 months before the departure, there is no exit fee. The entrance fee into Conference USA is $2 million payable in four installments and will be paid for by private funds.

WKU will enter Conference USA with one of the leagues smallest budgets in comparison to the competition.

WKU’s total Athletics Department budget for 2013-14 was approximately $22.9 million, the ninth highest budget out of the 14 institutions in the league. The mark is just $2 million below the average institutional athletics department budget and $10 million below the top budget.

“It’s a pretty lean budget as it is in comparison to the peers we compete with,” Stewart said. “Some of these Conference USA schools used to be in the Sun Belt. That’s one thing that illustrates challenges, but I believe we can overcome that by investing in good people and I believe we’ve done that with our coaches.”

Stewart believes the level of competition and renewal of old rivalries in Conference USA will bring an increase in event attendance. WKU football saw its highest level of attendance averaging 18,334 per game while the men’s basketball team saw a drop in average attendance from 4,714 to 4,560 in 2013-14.

“Schools that we’ve had rivalries with not as much recently, but good programs that we’ve had good rivalries with and to get back on the stage with those people will be exciting,” Stewart said. “The exposure will be better than they were for football and basketball. It’s programs that are more exciting to them across the board. To me it’s exciting because it elevates our brand to the highest level we’ve ever been at.”