Tulsa is said to have just over 7000 students as well. Arkansas Tech have a little more than Tulsa. West Texas with the Amarillo market would be a fit in division 1 since Amarillo has over 180000 people. That does not count the surrounding towns. I say they might be close to 200000 in population in and around Amarillo alone. That would help build WT A&M big time.
The panhandle is a great region and they do support WT pretty well, but what you are pushing for just does not seem viable.
I have no doubt WT could be a FCS power, but the reality is the Amarilla DMA is tiny and WT is not TV relevant beyond that DMA. The implication of that is that no FBS or FCS conference is going to pursue WT for TV. Too Small. The entire Amarillo DMA is less than 200K TV households and that includes surrounding communities like Canyon, Dumas, Borger and the lot.
Add in the fact they would be on the perimeter of any conference they could look to join. Travelling out to Amarillo is not convient or cheap for (let's say) the WAC, the MWC, or even the FCS southland. Why would the WAC take WT over say UC DAVIS or Sac State? Those give a much larger media market and are very cheap travel destinations. The MWC would raid the WAC or CUSA if they needed teams. Why would the southland need to offer a slot to WT instead of OCU and/or Arky Tech? The travel budget would be much larger for WT ---perhaps unbearably so. The teams in the Southland would likely chose a larger and/or closer member to minimize their travel costs.
Figure in the size of enrollment and what that means to their athletic budget and I just don't see it, unless they get a despirate bottom feeder FBS conference offerring a ULM deal. I can't see any way they would have an athletic buget over about 4.5-5M at the time they upgrade and I don't see that covering travel even in the FCS Southland. WT has a long history of poor financial support from donors and alumni. I am not picking on the alumni or the community. They do attend the games regularly. I have just never seen big money being fronted to athletics at WTwith any regularity. While I can see the community getting whipped up to do a project ---like if the stadium had to be replaced or something --- everything I know about the community out there makes me think they are not going to make up the kinds of consistent annual athletic budget shortfalls WT might have at the "ULM" FBS level. I think "live within your means" is more the idea in the community and among the leadership.
I could see them in an FCS LSC of 8-9 teams (say ACU,ASU, UCO, TAMU -Kingsville, MSU, NSU, W, Tarelton, & maybe even UIW) where maybe they could fish for a corporate sponsor to make a money deal with some FBS schools like SMU, NMSU, Tulsa, and UNT to host a comparatively big money money football game each year. Admittedly a long shot and it would likely need to be combined with a 2 to 1 series deal. Add that to some in-conference play with their LSC mates and maybe some of the closer Southland schools. Maybe in 10 years play 6-8 big time opponents in basketball games in Amarillo proper. That's as grandiose of a plan as I could see without a moment of divine intervention ala the ULM situation. The budget and TV market just isn't there.
Keep in mind what the school can bear. Years ago, WT decided to downgrade to DII from the MVC because they could not afford the travel. They were on the fringes of that conference just like they'd be in in the Southland. Now granted, WT has a much stronger athletic perception after years of whipping up on weaker competition and their athletic department leadership today may really want to move back up to FCS or FBS, but the impression I have is that the school will only go as far as they feel they can go that allows them to maintain a healthy program without breaking the school's budget.
What gains do they get out of moving up to FCS? What gains do they get out of moving to FBS? The gains are not as clear cut as for some other schools. The LSC is a perfect conference for them in terms of footprint. They have better rivals in that conference than they would in other conferences at higher levels. On the flip side, DII schools don't get to play FBS schools in football and rarely get DI basketball matchups. WT fans would LOVE to even travel to play Tech in football or host SMU or TCU in basketball. Those are things that upgrading could make possible. The reality is those potential gains have never been weighed to offset the potential loss of a friendly footprint, smaller budget, and good rivals at the DII level.
As a DII school, they ARE playing at a level below what they can legitimately bear and that IS cheating their university out of the added exposure a higher level of competition might yeild. In a conference with reasonable travel, a $4-8M athletic budgets is sufficient at the FCS level. The LSC could be that. But that won't cut it on the fringes of an expansive and distant FBS conference or even FCS conference. There are rumors out that the rules that come out of the NCAA moritorium will try to define division affilitation by athletic budget. If that is the case, then it is almost without question that WT would not be allowed to move to the FBS level anyway.
I wrote a lot about enrollments and athletic budgets and the differences between private university budgets and public university budgets in this thread that really gets to the heart of the matter. A 7K Private can legitmately look at FBS. A 7K public will only have an FCS budget and to consider FBS status has to really hope for a bottom level conference with a friendly footprint that is totally despirate for a member. Without an acceptable footprint (and perhaps even conference welfare), WT's budget is just not sufficent for FBS.
(Playa...La. Monroe has what I believe is the smallest budget in FBS at 9M. Thay have IMO taken a huge gamble to try to use FBS football to spur their university growth. While I hope it works out for them, it could come back to bite the university on the butt. Unless football quickly helps the university's enrollment grow---adding new students fees and ticket sales to their athletic budget--- they may have problems staying at the FBS level. A budget that size won't get a team into the MAC, and probably wouldn't get you into the Sunbelt today. WT would likely have a smaller budget. This is less than budgets of the kind of schools the WAC elite are trying to scrape off the foot of their conference. Frankly, if the NCAA does change the NCAA rule requirements to be budget based as rumored, unless they are grandfathered, ULM may be downgraded...)