In a move that was long expected, Purdue University-Fort Wayne (branded as ‘Fort Wayne’) will leave the Summit League for the Horizon League in the midwest, in July of 2020. The Mastodons were the last team in the Summit League in the Eastern time zone. The move will leave the Summit with nine full members, including DU, once Missouri-Kansas City rejoins the league in July of 2020.
“Purdue Fort Wayne and [it’s] athletic administrators have been very upfront about exploring a possible transition to a conference more reflective of their geographic footprint,” said Summit League Commissioner Tom Douple in a league statement. “This move did not catch anyone in our league off guard and Purdue Fort Wayne’s transparency throughout the process was appreciated…”We will continue the efforts to explore expansion and create new membership options, similar to the recent addition of the University of Missouri Kansas City. Membership changes cause short-term disappointment, but in the long term, our league and its members will continue to prosper and meet the challenges placed in front of them.”
Certainly for DU, the loss of Fort Wayne is a fairly welcome development, given the two-time zone distance DU had to travel to get to Fort Wayne, a commuter school in the Rust Belt with a low 29% overall graduation rate. Fort Wayne’s rival, IUPUI, had left the Summit in 2017 and the two schools will now be reunited in the Horizon League, and DU won’t miss the trips to Indiana for either one. There was also a lack of Mastodon drawing power here in Denver, despite Fort Wayne’s reasonably strong men’s basketball programs in most years. Although Fort Wayne has never made the NCAA tournament, there will be a likely be a small RPI hit to the Summit in men’s hoops.
The Summit does not have many expansion growth cards to play, given the lack of viable expansion candidates in its footprint to replace the Mastodons. With Fort Wayne leaving, the Summit would probably like to get back get to 10 members for scheduling purposes, although we expect Western Illinois to be the next school to leave the Summit, given its well-known financial issues and geographic outlier position. Fort Wayne leaving may soon turn the spotlight to Augustana (S.D) University to move up to Division I and Summit membership. The Sioux Falls-based university (and the Summit League) already have cozy financial ties with the rich Sanford family, whose financial support houses the Summit League offices as well as the Sanford-named arena hosting the league’s basketball tournament. Augutana’s tiny size (2,500 students) small resource base ($115 million endowment) and a severe lack of new market/brand power would make the school a less-than-welcome addition among many Summit league fanbases, given that many schools in the Summit elevated to D-I themselves to get away from D-II schools such as “Augie,” but unfortunately, beggars can’t be choosers.
The Summit may wish to try to entice existing D-I schools such as Montana, Montana State, Drake, Northern Colorado and Northern Iowa to consider Summit membership although those schools are likely happy with current conference affiliations. Or it may wish to explore potential Division III and Division II move-ups in Minnesota, where D-III St. Thomas University (10,000 students and a $400 million endowment) was just pushed out of its conference for being too good in sports. Staying in Minnesota, Denver’s D-I hockey rivals, Minnesota-Duluth and St. Cloud State play Division II in other sports and would be strong candidates for a D-I upgrade (and Summit League membership) if those schools were to ever get the funding/permission to move up.
Additionally, the Summit may need to quickly find another baseball school, as only five Summit schools will soon sponsor the sport, below the six schools needed for an NCAA autobid. The likely short term scenario will see the Summit league granted a two-year NCAA waiver to find a new baseball member, and it may need to recruit an associate member in baseball, as it does in several other sports, especially if Augustana decides not to elevate to D-I.
All in all, this move is a net neutral one for DU fans, and it underscores how mid-major league stability is hard to achieve in the Summit League with large distances between league members, and few viable expansion alternatives in the geographic footprint.