Missouri State’s 17,500-seat Plaster Stadium will be the home of the Football Bowl Subdivision Bears starting in 2025 when the school joins Conference USA. The stadium will receive some short-term and long-term upgrades as part of the move to the top level of college football. (Photo by Kevin White, Missouri State University)

To read this story, please sign in with your email address and password.

You've read all your free stories this month. Subscribe now and unlock unlimited access to our stories, exclusive subscriber content, additional newsletters, invitations to special events, and more.


Missouri State University will enter a new era of athletics in 2025, moving to the top level of NCAA Division I football and to a new conference home for all its teams.

The school has accepted an invitation to join Conference USA as a full league member, effective July 1, 2025. Missouri State and CUSA announced the news in dual releases on Friday morning, May 10. The league, which will grow to 12 members with MSU, will have schools stretching from New Mexico to Delaware, and south to Miami.

A news conference will be held at 1 p.m. May 13 at Great Southern Bank Arena to formally announce the transition plans. The event will be open to the public with free parking in the surrounding lots.

Retiring MSU President Clif Smart speaks at the April 1, 2024 press conference that formally introduced Bears men's basketball coach Cuonzo Martin. (Photo by Jym Wilson )

“This is an exciting day for Missouri State,” school president Clif Smart said in an interview with the Hauxeda, noting that the MSU Board of Governors gave 8-0 approval of the move in closed session during its meeting on May 9.

Smart, who is retiring as Missouri State University president on June 30, said the school has been studying the move to FBS football and a new conference for the last two years. He said that president-elect, Dr. Richard “Biff” Williams, fully supports the move.

Smart said the university has received a $5 million commitment from a private individual, whom he did not identify, to help defray some of the costs of the move.

The Bears’ football program will play in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) level for the first time after competing in the Football Championship Series Subdivision (formerly I-AA) since all the school’s sports made the leap to Division I in 1982-83.

FBS teams can play in bowl games — and be eligible for the expanded FBS playoffs — while FCS teams have a playoff format.

Move to CUSA is more than football

As part of the transition, Missouri State will not be eligible for a bowl game until 2026.

The Bears will compete in CUSA in the sports of football, men's and women's basketball, baseball, softball, volleyball, women's soccer, women's cross country, men's and women's golf, women's tennis, women's track and field, and beach volleyball.

More information will be available in the coming months regarding league affiliation opportunities for the sports of men's soccer and swimming and diving, which are currently not part of CUSA’s sport sponsorship profile.

About Conference USA

After competing in all Valley sports in 2024-25, Missouri State will join the University of Delaware as new league members in 2025 with Kennesaw State of Kennesaw, Ga., joining CUSA on July 1 of this year. That will make for 12 league members, mostly located in the southern portion of the country:

  • Florida International University of Miami, Fla.
  • Jacksonville State University, Jacksonville, Ala.
  • Liberty University, Lynchburg, Va.
  • Louisiana Tech University, Ruston, La.
  • Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, Tenn.
  • New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, N.M.
  • Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas
  • Texas-El Paso, El Paso, Texas
  • Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, Ky.
  • Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, Ga. (joining July 1, 2024)
  • University of Delaware, Newark, Del. (joining July 1, 2025)
  • Missouri State University, Springfield, Mo. (joining July 1, 2025)

Board of Governors endorsed application in December

“We are extremely excited to welcome Missouri State University as the 12th member of Conference USA,” CUSA Commissioner Judy MacLeod said in a news release. “The institution boasts a great tradition in athletics and academics that will strengthen and further position our membership for long-term success in the national landscape.”

In an interview with the Daily Citizen, Smart outlined the final stages of the process leading to this move.

“I fully briefed the (Board of Governors) in December of ’23 and all the options and the pros and cons of staying where we were versus moving to FBS football, what the costs would be, etcetera,” Smart said. “At that time, they endorsed our application for membership, which we did a day or two later.

“Since then, we have been working with (CUSA) in terms of that application. It included presentations that we made, first to the commissioner, then to their executive committee, then to their full council of presidents. All this happened between February and April.”

Smart said CUSA officials came to Missouri State for a site visit on April 25.

“I had a final conversation (on May 9) with president-elect Williams, to confirm that he fully supported the move,” Smart added. “And then we were invited to join the league. We took that in closed session to the board, where they voted 8-0 to authorize us to accept the invitation and to pay the $5 million entry fee to the NCAA to play FBS football.”

Two men sitting side-by-side
Art Hains. left, interviews MSU President Clif Smart during halftime of a MSU basketball game. (Photo: Missouri State Athletics)

Board of Governors Chair Lynn Parman said in a news release that “our admission into Conference USA validates the hard work of our student-athletes, coaches and staff over many years. This move elevates our university's reputation and opens doors for greater national exposure.”

Upgrades to Plaster Stadium on the horizon

In addition to the $5 million commitment from a private individual to help MSU defray some of the costs of the move, other costs include $2.5 million paid over four years to join Conference USA. Smart said that will be taken out of disbursements from the league to its members from media rights “so it doesn’t involve a direct transfer of money.”

Head coach Ryan Beard will lead the Missouri State football program into is final season in the Missouri Valley Football Conference next fall. The Bears will join Conference USA and move up to the FBS level in 2025. (Photo by Missouri State Athletics)

Short-term and long-term upgrades to Plaster Stadium, where the football Bears play, are a major factor in the move.

“Then we’re also working on a $4.2 million project to renovate the locker rooms and weight rooms of the facility.” He said $1 million already has been raised toward that goal.

The first phase of that is a locker room expansion/renovation. The floor area of McDonald Arena, just north of the stadium, also will be renovated into a weight-training facility.

“Then we’ll have to do some additional renovation to bring our stadium up to Conference USA and FBS standards,” Smart said. “That is likely to include work on the suite level and work on the press level. That’s going to be a 10-year process, to continue over time to fundraise and improve the football stadium.

“Our other venues are as good as any in the league. I think they would tell you that we have the best basketball arena in the new league. We’re in great shape in all sports, except football.”

Move expected to be ‘budget-neutral’ even with more scholarship athletes

With the private pledge of $5 million, plus additional revenue from league media rights and higher payouts from “buy” road games against Power Four Conference schools, Smart said the move will turn out to be “budget-neutral” for the school — even with 22 more scholarships factored in at the FBS level.

“We spent $31 million on athletics last year, ending June 30 of ’23,” he said. “We expect the move to be a budget-neutral move for us. We anticipate an extra $5 million of revenue being in the league. We will use that money to invest in athletics. Travel will be $1.5 million more. We’ll pay cost of attendance to most if not all of our student-athletes and they will travel by airplane now. So our student-athletes will have a significantly better experience and will be resourced better.”

Asked why the move to FBS is the right one, considering the school’s football program has struggled most of the last three decades to compete at the FCS level, Athletics Director Kyle Moats said it’s a chance to use the higher profile platform to lift the program’s quality.

“It’s an opportunity to improve our football program and that’s what we have to invest in,” Moats said. “Those teams in Conference USA are good, but I don’t know if they’re that much better than North Dakota State and South Dakota State. I would argue that we’re playing against that competition already.

“By upping our game with scholarships and improving what we’re doing, we give our team a better chance to compete.”

MSU adding two women’s sports

Missouri State’s addition of two women’s sports for next school year — STUNT and acrobatics and tumbling — will keep the school in Title IX compliance.

The Missouri State Lady Bears have been a dominant program in the Missouri Valley Conference, winning 13 regular-season titles. Coach Beth Cunningham and the Lady Bears will join every other Missouri State athletic team in becoming a Conference USA member in 2025-26. (Photo by Missouri State Athletics)

“The football guarantee payouts will increase drastically,” Moats said. “Right now, depending on who we play, we’re getting anywhere from $350,000 to $500,000. You’re now going to get $750,000 to $1 million on those ‘buy’ games. We’ll probably have to buy a game. Even by doing two buy games, we’ll still be ahead on the revenue side of things.”

During a transition period, Missouri State would not be eligible for a bowl game until the 2026 season. But there could be some interesting scheduling, as early as the 2025 season. CUSA has some games televised on ESPN on weeknights during October.

“I think our students will love that, playing a night, mid-week game,” Smart said, adding that each league school will receive approximately $2.3 million in media rights.

CUSA has produced some big-time results in the last couple of years. Liberty advanced to a New Year’s Six bowl game after an undefeated 2023 regular season, facing Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl. Four CUSA teams went to football bowl games following the 2023 season.

Florida Atlantic advanced to the men’s basketball Final Four in 2023, though the Owls left for the American Athletics Conference in 2023-24.

Missouri State defeated Middle Tennessee State last season at Great Southern Bank Arena. MTSU will be a future Conference USA opponent in a couple of years. (Photo by Missouri State Athletics)

Smart said men’s basketball coach Cuonzo Martin and women’s basketball coach Beth Cunningham both are supportive of the move. The CUSA basketball tournaments have been held, men and women at the same site in Huntsville, Ala. The men’s semifinals and finals have been televised on the CBS Sports Network.

Last season, CUSA was No. 15 in the NCAA’s NET rankings for men’s basketball with the Valley No. 11. In women’s basketball, the Sun Belt was No. 11 with the Valley 13th. In baseball, CUSA is No. 8 in RPI this season with the Valley 11th. Dallas Baptist, a former baseball rival of the Bears, is an affiliate member of CUSA in baseball.

Final season ahead in Missouri Valley Conference

Missouri State will have one more season in the Missouri Valley Conference. Both Moats and Smart said they’ve had an excellent relationship with other Valley members since Missouri State joined the league for the 1990-91 school year.

Smart said he called Valley commissioner Jeff Jackson on May 9 to inform him of the move and that Jackson was “very gracious. He knew from past conversations over the last two years that this was our goal and we have been working on this.

”This is not going to be a surprise for anybody in our league,” Smart said of the Valley. “I told all the presidents last summer that this was an option we were evaluating. We have not played hide the ball. We are not leaving to join a better basketball league, we’re leaving because we have an opportunity to play in an FBS football league and play at the highest level in all sports.

“The opportunities associated with membership in an FBS conference allows us to continue to expand as a university and raise our reputation to the next level. We have valued our membership in the Missouri Valley Conference — a premier conference in the NCAA — and look forward to a final year in the league before we transition to CUSA.”

Lyndal Scranton

Lyndal Scranton is a Springfield native who has covered sports in the Ozarks for more than 35 years, witnessing nearly every big sports moment in the region during the last 50 years. The Missouri Sports Hall of Famer, Springfield Area Sports Hall of Famer and live-fire cooking enthusiast also serves as PR Director for Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Missouri and is co-host of the Tailgate Guys BBQ Podcast. Contact him at Lscranton755@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @LyndalScranton. More by Lyndal Scranton