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Can Single-Sport Conferences Solve College Athletics’ Financial Challenge?

By Steve Dittmore, PhD

In the nearly four months since the COVID-19 pandemic began, college athletic administrators have been forced to confront the reality of reduced revenues. Budgeting 101 tells us when an organization cannot generate enough revenue, expenses need to be cut. Since March, we have seen sports eliminated, staff positions furloughed or cut, and scheduling adjusted to reduce travel costs. 


Conferences, created primarily with football in mind, are not immune to this reality as they face the ramifications of the realignment frenzy from 2010-14 which further subdivided FBS. It brought land-grant universities together with regional public universities. It paired high enrollment, commuter institutions with small, private institutions. The AAC, with Central Florida and its 60,000-plus enrollment competing against Tulsa and its 3,000-plus enrollment, is a good example of this. Besides competing at the same level for football, what do UCF and Tulsa have in common? Their university mission statements vary greatly. 


Four months ago, before the pandemic hit, Al Blanton of Saturday Down South suggested a conceptual conference realignment for Power 5 schools, focused on geography. Similarly, conference structure was the subject of a recent Pat Forde article for SI.com published June 29, one day before the publication of this piece. Both of these were developed with football in mind, though Forde states, without fully evaluating the claim, it will work for non-revenue sports. That is unlikely to be true given the variety of sports sponsored by institutions. Notre Dame, for example, is the only school in Forde’s proposed “Mid-American” conference to sponsor men’s ice hockey and men’s lacrosse.


Both of these proposals call into question conferences conducting business as usual when we reach the other side of the pandemic. Evidence of the evolving thinking about the role of a conference occurred in late May when the Mid-American Conference announced it would overhaul its conference schedule and championship structure, eliminating post-season tournaments in eight sports and revamping the format for everything else not named football. Basketball, for example, will only have eight teams instead of all 12 member institutions. 


Clearly, this revised conference format is designed to save on travel costs, missed classes, and, potentially, place greater emphasis on the regular season when revenues are concentrated locally at the institution rather than centrally at a conference championship.


While reflecting on the MAC announcement, and seeing schools such as Central Michigan, Akron, and Bowling Green dropping sports, I started wondering why the MAC (or any other conference for that matter) sponsors so many different sports championships for their members. Not all members of a given conference field teams in all sports, creating a form of free agency whereby universities seek affiliate status with other conferences. The MAC, for example, welcomes SEC member Missouri for wrestling and Robert Morris, Detroit Mercy, and Youngstown State for women’s lacrosse. 


Conferences provide a governance structure which makes it easy for members to understand rules, officials, and ease of scheduling. So, if the primary functions of a conference are to coordinate competitions for a number of sports, would it make sense to see more sport-specific conferences as a means of becoming expert in coordinating those rules, officials, and scheduling? After hearing athletic directors talk about the need to cut costs, why not create regional sport-specific conferences in an effort to reduce travel? 


Sticking with the MAC, what if we took the 11 baseball teams presently in the conference, added four nearby schools from the Horizon (Oakland, Northern Kentucky, Youngstown, Wright State), grabbed Purdue Fort Wayne from the Summit, enticed Butler and Xavier from the Big East, coaxed Dayton from the Atlantic 10, and snagged Cincinnati from the AAC, to form a single baseball-specific conference? 


The result would be a 20-team, baseball-only conference made up entirely of schools from Michigan, Ohio, central Indiana, and northern Kentucky. The conference would be separated north (Mount Pleasant, Michigan) to south (Cincinnati) and west (Indianapolis) to east (Youngstown) by, at most, a 6-hour bus ride.


The same idea could potentially apply to men’s and women’s lacrosse, tennis, track and field, volleyball, softball or any sport sponsored by less than 100 percent of current conference members. For example, two SEC schools (Florida and Vanderbilt) sponsor women’s lacrosse and are affiliated with the AAC, necessitating travel to Philadelphia, 900 miles from Gainesville. Meanwhile, nine other schools located in Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina (competing in the A-Sun, Big South, and Southern conferences) sponsor women’s lacrosse.


The concept seems simple enough, right? Perhaps. However, plenty of challenges exist for single-sport conferences. 


To better understand how this idea works in a post-COVID-19 world I talked with Bill Robertson, President and Men’s Commissioner of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association since 2014. The WCHA was founded 70 years ago and once hosted Big Ten powers Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Michigan State. Today it is home to 10 men’s programs (from Alaska to Alabama) and seven women’s programs with enrollments that vary from more than 50,000 to just over 5,000.


Q: In what ways is being a sport-specific conference easier to manage than a traditional conference in which a core group of institutions compete against one another across a variety of sports? What are the challenges?


BR: The primary advantage to a sport-specific conference is that you have the ability to focus 100 percent of your efforts on a single sport year-round. Our focus is men’s and women’s hockey 24-7-365, which is important given that the ice hockey season is the longest in the NCAA, stretching from late September into early April. We’re effectively a fall, winter and spring sport.


Single-sport conferences generally exist in sports that are not widely-sponsored throughout the NCAA so one of the bigger challenges is member retention. If a school drops the sport or leaves the league for any reason, you oftentimes don’t have a long list of potential replacement members.


Q: Regionally-based, sport-specific conferences seem to be a way to reduce cost in a post-pandemic college athletic landscape. I’m thinking specifically of non-Power 5 schools which sponsor sports that we have seen cut during the pandemic. Sports such as baseball, lacrosse, and tennis. Do you think there is merit to this hypothesis?


BR: I think it is an interesting concept for team sports outside of football and basketball. Our women’s league fits that model with five schools in Minnesota, one in Wisconsin and one in Ohio. Our men’s league stretches from Alaska to Alabama now, but at one time was primarily a North Dakota-Minnesota-Wisconsin circuit. A baseball- or volleyball-only league in a state with multiple schools that compete in different conferences in football/basketball would certainly cut down on travel, missed class time and the associated expenses.


Q: Your conference has a huge geographic footprint from Alaska to Alabama. How do your institutions manage that distance in terms of cost and student-athlete missed classes?


BR: Many of our teams travel by bus whenever possible, which makes for some lengthy road trips but helps save on costs. Time- and class schedule-management are important for student-athletes in the Men’s WCHA given the size of our footprint. It’s not uncommon for a team to leave on Wednesday evening for a Friday-Saturday series. One advantage to competing in a league with Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Fairbanks is that schools that travel there are allowed to schedule an additional series which can bring in additional income.


Q: Division I men’s ice hockey includes institutions that compete across all three NCAA Divisions in other sports. Does this create any inequities?


BR: I believe 23 of the 61 teams that sponsor men’s hockey are Division II or Division III schools. Another 23 are FCS football schools or don’t sponsor football, so a significant number of hockey schools are not part of what would be deemed “major college” athletic departments. That’s what makes college hockey so special. Schools like Michigan Tech and Northern Michigan can win national championships in a sport where they are competing against Big 10 programs like Minnesota and Michigan.


On the women’s side, where else can schools like Bemidji State and Minnesota Duluth go toe-to-toe with Minnesota and Wisconsin four times a year to battle for a conference championship?


Q: How do you negotiate conference-wide sponsorship agreements? How much latitude do you give individual institutions wishing to negotiate localized sponsorship agreements?


BR: Yes, as Commissioner I negotiate sponsorships for the men’s league overall, but not the individual institutions. Our schools can negotiate their own deals in their markets as we try not to work with competing sponsors in certain categories. At times, this is challenging with 10 member institutions.


Q: Talk about finding a media rights partner for a geographically dispersed conference. What appealed to you about FloSports? How did that relationship evolve?


BR: FloSports has been an unbelievable partner for the WCHA for both the men’s and women’s leagues. They understand the marketing and promotional aspect of our business so well. That had become a major factor in our decision to use them for our streaming platform two years ago. FloSports has also made a tremendous financial obligation to our league overall as they saw the quality of our product and how we could help each other grow.


Q: Finally, membership in the WCHA has evolved over the nearly 70-year history of the conference. It will change again after the 2020-21 season, with seven schools leaving to join the CCHA. Is this a unique situation, or is membership continuity one of the challenges to sport-specific conferences? How do you combat that?


BR: As I mentioned earlier, this is the biggest challenge for any single-sport league. You generally don’t have a lot of options for new members. Fortunately, we are in a situation where there are a number of schools that are either Division I independents or looking to elevate their programs to Division I. We’re engaged in discussions with several of them with an eye on continuing the WCHA beyond the 2020-21 season.

Whether Division I sport-specific conferences emerge as a way to save expenses through the creation of regional rivalries depends on athletic administrators’ willingness to reimagine the role of the conference. During the height of conference realignment during 2010-14, some called for football-only conferences with an increased emphasis on regional competition for other sports.


Instead of heeding that advice, Division I FBS schools doubled-down on mega conferences covering large geographic swaths of the country. Morgantown is 1,400 miles from Austin, but 100-plus miles closer than the AAC distance from Houston to Philadelphia. The affliction even hit non-football conferences. For the better part of the past decade Seattle University competed against the University of Missouri-Kansas City in the WAC, a distance of 1,800-plus miles. Kansas City joined the more regionally appropriate Summit effective July 1, 2020.


Both of the ideas advanced by Blanton and Forde have merit, but really only work for football and possibly basketball. The question asked now is whether the pandemic will force athletic administrators to revisit the conference realignment decisions made 5-10 years ago? Should conferences support competition within a singular sport, or should they exist, as they frequently do now, to foster competition among geographically disparate universities, often with dissimilar missions and philosophies?