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Missouri Valley Conference grows to 12 schools, and it may not be done with expansion

Jeff Jackson speaking at podium
Missouri Valley Conference Commissioner Jeff Jackson announced this week that the University of Illinois-Chicago will join the conference next season.

The Missouri Valley Conference that includes Illinois State and Bradley will grow to 12 schools next year. And in the hypercompetitive world of college athletics, the so-called mid-major conference might not be done growing in the near future.

The MVC’s recent announcement that Illinois-Chicago was joining the Valley follows the additions of Belmont and Murray State and the departure of Loyola-Chicago.

In an interview on WGLT’s Sound Ideas, MVC Commissioner Jeff Jackson said the league will be proactive in looking for ways to expand further.

“In the next year or two if another institution arises that we feel fits what we are looking for as a conference in terms of how they value student athletes, how they look at their development— especially in the sport of basketball, I’m sure our President’s Council will have the conversation,” Jackson said.

Jackson said the UIC Flames, current members of the Horizon League, will be good for the Valley. “I don’t think people really have understood the value and the prestige and the presence that UIC has in the Chicago landscape,” Jackson said.

Jackson added the Valley also benefits from having institutions in bigger cities where there are more MVC recruits, alumni and television viewers.

“We’ve been pretty fortunate over the last month, we’ve added Chicago and Nashville,” Jackson said. “I think that bodes well when you are having conversations about what your conference is worth.”

Public vs. private

The addition of two public schools removes the parity the league has generally maintained between public and private schools. The MVC will have seven public schools and five private schools.

The Missouri Valley Conference will still have four Illinois schools next season, when Illinois-Chicago replaces Loyola.
The Missouri Valley Conference will still have four Illinois schools next season, when Illinois-Chicago replaces Loyola.

Jackson said the conference is not focused on an even split, but he wants to ensure private schools such as Belmont don’t feel like a “lone wolf” among mostly public institutions.

Constant change

Loyola becomes the third MVC school to leave after raising their profile through the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, following Creighton (2013) and Wichita State (2017).

Jackson disputes the claim that Loyola was leaving for greener pastures.

“I’ll put our teams up against the Atlantic 10 any day if we want to go into a tournament,” Jackson declared.

The Atlantic 10 — which will grow to 15 schools with Loyola’s arrival — has sent more teams to the NCAA men's basketball tournament than the MVC in the last five years, but the Valley has had more postseason success. That's because of Loyola that has advanced to the Sweet 16 twice and the Final Four once since 2018. That has meant bigger NCAA payouts for Missouri Valley schools, including ISU and Bradley.

The A-10 has not had a NCAA Tournament win since Rhode Island in 2017. Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, the A-10 has posted 85 victories compared to 40 for Valley schools.

Loyola explained it decided to leave the MVC because the Atlantic 10 already includes three Jesuit schools: Fordham, Saint Joseph’s and Saint Louis.

The Valley’s realignment is just one example of what’s become an ongoing carousel in major college athletics as schools, coaches and student athletes seek better fits.

Jackson said he expects the constant shuffling of schools will settle “at some point,” but he adds that capitalism is a driving force behind much of it.

“People will do what they think is best for them. I think there’s a certain level of fairness in terms of how we look at things. I think student athletes are trying to find the best fit. Coaches are trying to find the best fit. Institutions are trying to find the best fit," Jackson said.

Name, image and likeness

Jackson said the NCAA’s new rules allowing student athletes to make money off of their own name, image or likeness (NIL) has created a still nascent market, but he’s concerned by what he has seen so far.

“You are probably seeing a little more aggressiveness in terms of what they are taking advantage of,” Jackson said, adding some larger schools in the Power 5 conferences (Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference) are helping to prearrange some marketing deals with student-athletes. He said that approaches a “gray line” for him.

“That doesn’t necessarily sync up with the idea that the activity should be organic,” Jackson said.

Jackson said he’d like to see how the NIL market develops over the next 12 to 24 months, but said if the NCAA doesn’t establish more clear rules, he’d like to see federal intervention.

Jackson became MVC Commissioneron July 1. He replaced Doug Elgin, who led the Valley for 33 years.

Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.