Sun Belt tandem exits for Conference USA

Middle Tennessee's Shanice Cason,right,  saves the ball from going out of bounds while defended by Tennessee's Jasmine Jones during an NCAA college basketball game in Knoxville, Tenn. on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012. (AP Photo/The Knoxville News Sentinel, Saul Young)
Middle Tennessee's Shanice Cason,right, saves the ball from going out of bounds while defended by Tennessee's Jasmine Jones during an NCAA college basketball game in Knoxville, Tenn. on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012. (AP Photo/The Knoxville News Sentinel, Saul Young)

Middle Tennessee and Florida Atlantic will join Conference USA, leaving the Sun Belt, as part of the ever-changing college sports landscape.

Conference USA announced the additions Thursday, two days after Tulane and East Carolina left for the Big East.

“These are two great universities in wonderful places that have made strong commitments to athletics, and we’re excited about the potential they bring to the conference,” C-USA commissioner Britton Banowsky said.

The new members, joining by 2014, will give the league 14 schools in 10 states.

Florida Atlantic caps a move from Division I-AA and puts the Owls in the league with rival Florida International, which joins in 2013. FAU, with 28,000 students, opened a 29,419-seat football stadium on campus 13 months ago.

C-USA has two years left on its television deals with Fox and CBS, and the newcomers provide a boost. Middle Tennessee has the most undergraduate students at a Tennessee university and is 30 miles southeast of Nashville, putting C-USA in a media market ranked 29th nationally. Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton adds Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, which ranks 38th.

Banowsky said C-USA may not be done expanding. Western Kentucky, a longtime rival of Middle Tennessee, and New Mexico State could become members. But Banowsky would not talk specifics.

The Sun Belt recently added a $1 million exit fee, and Middle Tennessee athletic director Chris Massaro said the Blue Raiders could move sooner than July 1, 2014, if it works for both leagues.

Sun Belt Conference commissioner Karl Benson said he was disappointed in the two schools leaving but that his league is well positioned for the future.

“I remain very optimistic that the momentum that has been created in the past six months will continue to grow,” Benson said. “As I have stated many times in the past six months, the SBC will be a major player in the future, especially within its geographic footprint.”