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Deciphering The Factors Influencing Athletic Conferences When Adding New Sports

By Sloane Milstein, Colorado Mesa University; Julie Lanzillo, Neumann University; Zack Damon, Texas Tech University

In the ever-evolving landscape of collegiate sports, the COVID-19 pandemic has catalyzed significant changes. Institutions across the country have been forced to make difficult choices, including the painful decision to cut NCAA programs. Yet, amidst these challenges, some institutions have embarked on strategic journeys to secure their future in collegiate athletics. Notably, the Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners made headlines by joining the SEC in pursuit of financial stability and growth. In light of these transformative shifts, our study delves deep into the considerations that underpin the addition of new sports to collegiate athletic conferences.

Collegiate athletic conferences, driven by the twin engines of revenue and stability, wield immense influence in shaping the future of collegiate sports. These conferences control pivotal aspects of the sports ecosystem, including media rights negotiations and market dynamics. In our exploration, we aim to shed light on the effectiveness of a direct approach to promoting sports to conferences, in contrast to targeting individual institutions.

Back in 2014, the College Sport Addition Process (CSAP) was initiated with the ambitious goal of uncovering the factors that guide the decision-making processes of NCAA Division I Athletic Directors when it comes to adding sports. This process has identified several key themes that we will explore in detail: University Viability, Sport Popularity, Association Membership, and Access and Opportunity, which together encompass a staggering 23 factors. Additionally, we will delve into the intriguing connection between Association requirements and discussions surrounding conference realignment and NCAA divisional changes. A noteworthy revelation is the pivotal role played by academic alignment in conference realignment, as underscored by Nwosu in 2015.

Milstein and Dixon (2019) have pointed out a significant marketing gap in the world of collegiate sports. They’ve highlighted instances where institutions’ desires in a particular sport do not align with what sport governing bodies promote. In today’s landscape, buyers are seeking more than just Title IX compliance; they are on the lookout for broader benefits. Our study, published by the Journal of Intercollegiate Sport earlier this year, takes a deeper dive into the Association Membership theme, attempting to decipher what makes a sport appealing not just to conferences but also to their member institutions.

At the heart of our investigation lies a central research question: What factors influence athletic conferences when adding new sports? Several themes emerged from our research.

Sport Adoption by Participating Conferences
Our study is rooted in real-world data, having surveyed NCAA conference commissioners across all three divisions during the 2020-2021 academic year. Among the 27 participants, 10 conferences either added or had plans to add a sport between 2018 and 2024. Eight conferences did not report recent additions, while seven did not respond.

Membership-Driven Decisions
The decisions of athletic conferences are fundamentally driven by the preferences of their members. Changes in membership often trigger discussions about adding specific sports to the conference roster. An illustrative example is the resurgence of men’s wrestling, particularly in women’s divisions, witnessed in Division II and Midwest conferences (Weiman, 2022). Notable instances include the Pac-12’s wrestling expansion in 2021 and the MAC’s addition of seven affiliate members in 2019.

Member Influence
Quotes from our study participants vividly illustrate how member-driven considerations shape conference decisions. These considerations encompass sustainability, required roster numbers, and a bottom-up approach where member momentum guides sport additions or eliminations (Respondent quotes #10, #21, #3, #18, #9). Interestingly, institutions like Lebanon Valley College also take into account the decisions of peer conferences and strategic plans when contemplating adding sports.

Viability is an indispensable factor in the decision-making process for adding or eliminating sports within collegiate athletic conferences. This multifaceted concept encompasses the growth, sustainability, and development of both individual institutions and entire conferences. Institutions aspire to recruit diverse student bodies, while conferences engage in efforts to sustain their membership, foster sport growth, and enhance marketing initiatives. Financial considerations play an integral role in viability, encompassing what institutions and conferences are willing to invest in supporting a sport’s growth, marketing, and competitiveness. Conferences sometimes incentivize new members to add specific sports by offering full membership.

The viability theme underscores that the decision to add or eliminate sports is often a member-driven, ground-up movement influenced by a diverse array of factors. Our study, rooted in empirical evidence, delves into the factors influencing athletic conferences when adding new sports, with a central research question of what drives these decisions. Viability emerges as a pivotal theme, encompassing an institution’s growth, diversity, sustainability, and financial considerations. Conferences often lend their support to member institutions by adding sports that cater to their needs and encourage new members to do the same. Member-driven decisions play an undeniably significant role in the addition or elimination of sports within official conference offerings. This viability theme aligns seamlessly with Sheth’s functional utility, which centers on how sports fulfill specific functions at both the institutional and conference levels.

Balancing for Competitive Success
Ensuring competitive balance within athletic conferences is a linchpin for fan engagement, attendance, viewership, and media revenue. Conferences employ an array of strategies, including rules, regulations, scheduling, budgeting, and membership selection, to achieve this delicate equilibrium. The concept of competitive balance encompasses providing teams with equal opportunities for competitiveness, considering factors like athletic competition, facilities, amenities, and financial support. Geographic balance, which aligns with regional interest and regional competition opportunities, is an additional facet that contributes to competitive balance. Achieving this balance has a positive ripple effect on both conference and institutional marketing initiatives. It aids in retaining student-athletes, maintaining institutional awareness, and creating enticing opportunities for conference members.

Post-Season Opportunities
Many conferences place a premium on post-season opportunities, with a specific focus on securing the Automatic Qualifier (A.Q.) status. This status allows teams to participate in NCAA post-season tournaments irrespective of their regular-season performance. The A.Q. status holds considerable sway in conference decisions to add sports. Conferences often expand when a sufficient number of member institutions express interest in sponsoring a sport, thereby providing a pathway to NCAA tournaments. Post-season play not only amplifies the level of competition but also attracts media attention, benefitting both conferences and institutions. The pursuit of A.Q. status frequently involves considerations related to leaving or dissolving single-sport conferences. Post-season opportunities are closely intertwined with functional and situational utility and can exert a significant influence on conference and institutional marketing initiatives.

Funding and Revenue Considerations
In today’s sporting landscape, funding and revenue considerations are paramount, particularly in the wake of budget cuts and sports eliminations. Institutions keen on enhancing their revenue often seek to join conferences with a substantial brand value. This move can have a positive impact on collective conference streaming and broadcast rights, creating a win-win scenario. The advent of Name, Image, Likeness (NIL) statutes at the state level has introduced additional financial considerations. These statutes allow student-athletes to leverage their personal brands for financial gain, thus influencing conference and university decisions. Revenue generation opportunities are intricately linked to conference and institutional marketing initiatives, as well as consumer awareness and the exploration of new opportunities.

Emphasized here is the importance of member engagement, financial considerations, competitive balance, and strategic planning when making decisions about adding new sports to collegiate athletic conferences.

1. Member Engagement and Influence: Athletic conferences should actively engage with their member institutions to understand their preferences and needs regarding new sports. Member-driven considerations should play a significant role in conference decisions.
2. Viability Assessment: Conduct a thorough assessment of the viability of adding new sports. Consider factors such as the growth, sustainability, and financial implications for both individual institutions and the conference.
3. Competitive Balance: Prioritize maintaining competitive balance within the conference. Develop strategies, rules, and regulations to ensure that all member institutions have equal opportunities for competitiveness.
4. Geographic Balance: Consider geographic balance when adding new sports to align with regional interest and competition opportunities. This can enhance fan engagement and regional marketing initiatives.
5. Post-Season Opportunities: Place importance on securing Automatic Qualifier (A.Q.) status for new sports, as it provides opportunities for postseason play and attracts media attention. Monitor member interest in sponsoring sports that could lead to NCAA tournaments.
6. Funding and Revenue: Evaluate the financial implications of adding new sports. Seek opportunities to enhance revenue, such as joining conferences with strong brand value and exploring Name, Image, Likeness (NIL) statutes for student-athlete financial gain.
7. Member Alignment: Consider the alignment of new sports with the strategic plans and decisions of peer conferences. Collaboration with other institutions can provide valuable insights and opportunities for growth.
8. Marketing Alignment: Ensure that the addition of new sports aligns with the broader marketing goals and objectives of the conference and its member institutions. Seek to promote sports that resonate with fans and sponsors.
9. Media Rights Negotiations: Recognize the influence of conferences in media rights negotiations and market dynamics. Leverage this influence to secure favorable deals for new sports and enhance visibility.
10. Strategic Roadmap: Develop a strategic roadmap for adding new sports that takes into account all the factors mentioned above. This roadmap should guide Athletic Directors and conference decision-makers in making informed decisions about the addition of new sports to collegiate conferences.

In summary, achieving balance, providing post-season opportunities, and securing funding and revenue are the pivotal factors that sway conference decisions when it comes to adding new sports. These factors exert a profound impact on fan engagement, recruitment efforts, institutional visibility, and the overall financial sustainability of both conferences and their member institutions.

In the dynamic realm of collegiate athletics, these insights serve as beacons of guidance for Athletic Directors and conference decision-makers as they navigate the intricate landscape of adding new sports to their collegiate conferences. The strategies and considerations outlined in our study provide a roadmap for enhancing collegiate athletics and ensuring a bright future for both institutions and the sports they love.