Cartoon: From The Atlantic, Steven Breen (Altered)
It seemed innocent enough – IUPUI announced their departure to the Horizon League. While the notice period was alarmingly short, the Summit League was adding a new team, North Dakota, in 2018.
Not a big deal.
However, weeks before the IUPUI announcement, the University of Nebraska – Omaha hosted the Missouri Valley Conference membership committee on a campus tour. And the word was out that the Horizon League had plans to add as many as four new teams to their conference. Their target? The Summit League.
Last week, according to reports, the Summit League’s Fort Wayne’s athletic director said his school is “compelled to look at other options.” Fort Wayne is within driving distance of nearly the entire Horizon League.
Fort Wayne’s departure would take the eight team Summit League to five baseball teams – one below the NCAA auto-bid requirement. However, the NCAA allows leagues a grace period if they lose members – and incoming North Dakota does not have baseball to fill the void. Summit schools with a rich baseball history or a commitment to baseball will logically be looking for a safer place for their programs – North Dakota State, South Dakota State, Oral Roberts and others. And schools on shaky financial footing like Western Illinois are no bet to continue offering the sport due to its relatively high cost.
As the conference game of ‘chicken’ plays out, schools are going to seek stability and the Summit League could evaporate before our eyes. The real risk would be having either the Missouri Valley or the Horizon League pluck one of the the Summit’s ‘core four’ – North Dakota, North Dakota State, University of South Dakota or South Dakota State University. If any of these four teams depart, the conference is in real trouble.
Many assume that UMKC will return to the Summit to take the place of the departed IUPUI but they will come without baseball and a generally poor athletic track record. There are slim picking outside the Kangaroos for the Summit Conference. And, if the conference is seen as unstable, which it is now, even marginal programs outside the league geography may hesitate to join.
“I would say anytime there’s potential change in your league, there’s always a little bit of a concern,” said NDSU athletic director Matt Larsen told Inforum. “There’s been so much movement in college athletics and we’ve seen the evolution of conferences changing for the better part of seven to 10 years now. I still think we have a strong conference, but there’s always a concern when there are departures and somebody leaves for another league.”
DU cannot sit by and wait for the conference fate to determine their future. Denver needs to hold onto the Summit League as Plan A. However, Denver needs to work on a plan B, C, and D. While the West Coast Conference, an affiliate membership in the Mountain West Conference or Big EAST Membership might be a dream scenarios, Denver could be left out in the cold once again in a game of conference dominoes. And the impact will likely be felt immediately with recruiting student athletes to a flagging conference buffeted by uncertainty.