For years we have openly dreamed about DU membership in the Mountain West Conference or the BIG EAST, packed with schools just like the University of Denver. Sure, it means jumping onto a plane and traveling 1,000 or 2,000 miles for games, often in non-revenue sports, but this was in the old ‘normal’ and made good sense.
Denver sits in the middle of the NCAA donut with the concentration of NCAA DI schools located on the East Coast and West Coast. Even in the Summit League, member Fort Wayne is over 1,000 miles away and North Dakota State rests nearly 700 miles away in Fargo – all by air. Even our closest friends in Omaha are 483 miles away. And if you want to drive to Summit League destinations, many of the roads are not as direct as air.
The current Summit League travel schedule does not include other extensive travel for non-conference trips and tournaments on the East and West Coasts. There is certainly a financial cost for the travel to universities’ budgets and a price to be paid by student-athletes on long road trips. So, the question has to be asked, for non-revenue sports, would it make more sense to have ‘DI districts‘ composed of teams in similar geographic areas versus the current conference structure, often comprised of disparate geographic membership? For example, many of the Mountain West Conference members would be a natural regional fit for DU. Or, maybe even better, how about a new model which aligns Division I programs by region and by sport?
Power 5 conferences would retain traditional conferences for football and basketball because they produce university revenue. But, their Olympic, non-revenue sports would compete regionally with everyone else. A regional approach for these sports would replace many of the current conferences with their, oftentimes, unusual geographic membership. Non-Power-5 football (FCS) and basketball schools along with their Olympic sports such as track and field, gymnastics, wrestling, volleyball, and swimming could be aligned by geography. Add baseball, soccer, golf, and tennis as well to the new regional model. ‘Regional or niche’ sports such as lacrosse, hockey and gymnastics could continue to compete under the current conference format. Each sport’s respective governing body would create their own geographic districts which would replace conference play. And, different geographic boundaries could be drawn for each sport and districts assigned. Instead of conference champions, there would be district champions and RPI wild card district entrants into the NCAA playoffs.
Take men’s soccer, for example. Denver’s ‘Mountain Region‘ might include Denver, Air Force, Grand Canyon University, UNLV, Utah Valley, New Mexico, Omaha, Creighton, Tulsa, Oral Roberts, and UMKC. There would still be some distance to travel, but it’s more geographically compact.
The women’s soccer Mountain Region might include Denver, Colorado College, CU, Colorado State, Creighton, Kansas State, New Mexico State, Air Force, Montana, New Mexico, and Northern Colorado. This would also have the added bonus of expanding the Battle for the Gold Pan to another sport.
And this regional model would especially make even more sense for East and West Coast schools with their tight geographic proximity.
Ultimately, less focus on ‘like schools’ and more focus on geographic fit. Of course, traditionalists and conferences would fight against this proposal but it would make practical and financial sense to move to geographic regions, by-sport for non-revenue sports. The concept of geographic regions is used in other amateur sports like tennis and golf to determine rankings and establish national playoff brackets. High schools divide states into districts/sections/regions as well.
It would take something catastrophic for university Athletic Directors and University Presidents to adopt this new, regional model for non-revenue sports. But, this is an unusual time and a new approach could be used to minimize costs and reduce lengthy travel while building on regional rivalries.