The muddled future of mid-major athletics



While media attention is overwhelmingly focused on big-time intercollegiate athletics, a crisis is developing for most of the 351 Division I institutions that cannot afford to play at that level.

From the perspective of the cable networks, Division I is a world of gigantic stadiums and basketball arenas, with coaches’ salaries and egos to match. For most Division I members, however, the realities in that world look very different, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association has just taken steps to accentuate the differences. This year the NCAA changed its governing structure to give more influence and autonomy to 67 universities in the Power Five football conferences (Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Southeastern, and Pacific-12, plus Notre Dame).

The leftovers or “mid-majors,” as they are euphemistically called, are in the America East, American Athletic, Atlantic Sun, Atlantic 10, Big Sky, Big South, Big West, Colonial, Conference USA, Horizon, Ivy, Metro-Atlantic, Mid-American, Mid-Eastern, Missouri Valley, Mountain West, Northeast, Ohio Valley, Patriot, Pioneer, Southern, Southland, Southwestern, Summit, Sun Belt, Western Athletic, and West Coast conferences.

Those colleges are now faced with substantially increasing their athletic expenditures to try to preserve the pretense of Division I status. The Power Five institutions have budgets of three, four, or even five times as much as that of most mid-majors. They also now have NCAA authority to offer enhanced “full cost” multiyear financial-aid packages to their recruits.

The current playing field is decidedly not level. Division I is an unhappy family.

Institutional choices for the leftovers will not be easy. The University of Alabama at Birmingham has just announced that its football Blazers will be no more. After an intensive study by outside consultants, the university’s president, Ray Watts, concluded: “The fiscal realities we face—both from an operating and capital investment standpoint—are starker than ever and demand that we take decisive action for the greater good of the athletic department and UAB. As we look at the evolving landscape of NCAA football, we see expenses only continuing to increase.” The football Rainbow Warriors of the University of Hawaii may soon follow suit.

Some institutions in non-Power Five conferences, such as the American Athletic Conference members Connecticut, Cincinnati, or Houston have substantial competitive success, athletic facilities, and fan support. Others, such as Georgetown, DePaul, and Marquette, have Division I reputations, but are really just basketball colleges whose other teams are often not very competitive. None of the Division I athletic programs at historically black institutions will be able to afford the new costs.

For most Division I colleges, their only realistic hope at media recognition and campus support is to win a conference championship once in a while. If they achieve that goal, they will be given a place in an NCAA tournament, where, as a high seed, they will usually be sent to a distant competition and be given a thrashing by their athletic betters. So what is their future in the new, more expensive world of Division I?

Division I is built on four often-incompatible goals. Sports for these powers are a business, a status benchmark, a vehicle for entertainment, and a student-development activity. While some of those incongruities affect the spectrum of Division I programs, they are worse at the mid-major colleges. They have a much smaller margin for error.

As a business, Division I sports may be a good investment for the hotels and restaurants that profit from the tides of fans coming for 20 or so home football and basketball games, but for the universities that sponsor those athletic programs, not so much. Only about 20 Division I institutions are estimated to make money directly from their athletic programs.

Nevertheless, many universities—eschewing local competition—have joined geographically extended athletics conferences to make status statements. Those decisions often lead to bloated budgets, missed classes, increased travel, and diminished local rivalries and, thus, fan interest. For example, there are 10 Division I universities in the Baltimore-Washington region, but they belong to eight different conferences.

As teams are dropped by some colleges, ad hoc conferences have been created that have no student-welfare purpose. In field hockey a new arrangement has been forged to bring together five colleges from the America East Conference with four West Coast universities. The purpose is to insure an NCAA bid for the new conference winner in that otherwise-declining sport.

In swimming a conference has been cobbled together, “joining” colleges from New Jersey to Florida to Texas and holding its championships in Georgia. Then there is the multisport Western Athletic Conference (aka the frequent-flier league), stretching from Chicago to the Texas border region to New Mexico to central California and then to Seattle.

Even in revenue sports, the football-dominated AAC spans North Carolina to Texas, and the old basketball-focused Big East now reaches into Nebraska. Such arrangements may provide satisfaction to coaches and a few athletes, if they are not too travel-weary, but are meaningless for the average student. Very few students at those colleges will ever attend an away conference game, and old rivalries are now meaningless.

Americans are more passionate about intercollegiate competition than people anywhere else in the world, but this market may be eroding. Broadcasts of professional sports here and abroad are available 24/7. In the Washington-Baltimore marketplace, its mid-major Division I colleges fight a losing battle for media attention with nine professional franchises, whose overlapping seasons last all year long.

Most worrisome, their key student market is proving more unreliable as spectators. Many students now are commuters, part-timers, online, or graduate students who are juggling jobs and family responsibilities and are not closely identified with their current academic institutions. Even for 18-to-22-year-olds, going to a competition site and watching and rooting for a team that wears your school colors is often not an entertainment priority. Games can be viewed better on television. On the opening weekend of the 2014 football season, there were 31 intercollegiate games on the tube and many more on the Internet.

Athletic directors are concerned about the tendency of students to arrive at games late, leave early, and be busy texting when they actually show up. It is most embarrassing when TV cameras cannot avoid showing empty seats in the student section.

Of course, avid spectators in Tallahassee, Tuscaloosa, South Bend, or Norman could give a different impression, and there are still many islands of successful Division I programs in what are called the revenue sports (football and basketball). For almost all colleges, however, the much more numerous nonrevenue sports competitions are a different matter. Attendance is sparse, and media attention is often only in the agate type of the sports section. Consequently, many universities have given up on such teams despite the passions and commitment of the athletes involved.

What to do? The first priority in this changing landscape for mid-majors is to rethink the role that athletics should play in institutions of higher education and the financial investments that should be made to fulfill that role. The answers will vary. There will be few future vacancies in the Bowl Championship Series conferences, which already have unwieldy sizes. If mid-major intercollegiate athletics are likely to lose money, create a very erratic or irrelevant form of status, and are of decreasing entertainment value to current students, what’s the point?

Team membership can achieve some important developmental benefits for students—physical fitness, self-discipline, and group bonding—but there also can be personal costs—diversion from academic and cultural campus activities, limited social contacts, and procrastination in career preparation. Rhetorical claims abound, but serious evaluation of those costs and benefits for individual athletes and teams has rarely occurred. What level of competition is necessary to maximize benefits and minimize student costs? How long should practices, season schedules, and travel obligations be? What kind of competitions should be provided for students with high athletic interest but modest skills? Developmental benefits may accrue to them too. How many athletic scholarships should be devoted to nonrevenue sports?

As mid-majors face their new, uncertain future, those evaluations should take place outside athletic departments and conference offices with vested interests. Perhaps even presidents should take notice, but new directions should be determined by wider campus constituencies. The future of intercollegiate athletics is unlikely to reflect their past role.

Author Bio: George R. La Noue is a professor of political science and public policy and a former chair of the Athletic Policy Committee at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.