It’s safe to conclude that the current NCAA Division I designation as we currently know it is going to break apart. When? Who knows, but it’s going to happen much sooner than any of us, even the most cynical, can imagine. The University of Denver – owners of 11 of the past 12 Division I-AAA Directors Cups, 33 Division I national championships, and countless other conference titles – can hunker down and wait for the inevitable split but given the program’s proud history and desire to sustain that success, that would be a massive mistake.
How is it possible for a mid-major like DU to survive and continue to thrive in this new collegiate athletics environment? The changes discussed in Part 1 will leave more than 300 colleges and universities stripped of key athletics revenue and unable to compete on a level playing field with the Power Five. The Pac-12, Big 10, Big 12, ACC, and SEC will continue to control the vast majority of top-tier student-athlete talent in addition to major advantages in athletic revenues and media exposure. Will DU have to drop down with a hodgepodge of colleges and universities in what practically amounts to a new Division II?
Though it may seem that is their only option, believe it or not, DU has a better option: Denver must channel the best of their Pioneer nickname and be part of a sub-group of colleges that rebrand themselves into a new group of conferences competing in a new athletics division. No, this won’t happen overnight or even over the course of a year, but it can and should be a logical destination and solution.
Of the approximately 335 Division I programs in America and one-third are private with 11 of those already in the Power 5. Those non-Power-5 private colleges and universities, or a subset of those same colleges, can and should form their own intercollegiate athletic division and governing body, just as the breakaway Power 5 have done. These private institutions include some of the finest colleges and universities in the United States. A basic foundation already exists with the BIG EAST, the West Coast Conference, and the Ivy League. These conference members have similar academic, financial, and athletic profiles and could form the backbone of a new collegiate athletic division.
It will take time to form several new private college conferences and for private colleges to unwind from their current conference membership agreements. However, the idea to form a Private College Division should be the goal.
A negotiated March Madness Private College Division (or likely some combination of these schools over time) could leverage significant media revenue. While the Power 5 is student-athlete focused, the Private College Division could have their own version of March Madness while also focusing on Olympic sports and their inherent academic advantages. These same private colleges have recently won NCAA DI titles in hockey, soccer, lacrosse, tennis, and golf. The list is impressive (see below).
A Private College Division would meet many of the characteristics of a quality brand – sustainability, visibility, uniqueness, consistency, and competitiveness.
Private colleges have the same educational mission, constraints, priorities, and concerns which often are not well-aligned with Power 5 priorities with their billion-dollar TV deals, state funding, packed football stadiums, and merchandising that goes along with mostly large public universities. However, over the long term, a Private College Division could control costs more effectively and leverage media rights to the benefit of all of its members. After all, this group represents over one-third of the existing Division I institutions in the United States.
Over time, the new Private College Division could be divvied up into a number of geographic conferences. Similar to the current NCAA structure, these conferences would send their top teams to postseason national tournaments and compete for championships.
The governing body for this newly formed division would be able to tailor its requirements to meet member needs in terms of scholarship numbers, cost of attendance (stipends), staffing, and budgets. These schools have a value proposition to sell to student-athletes along with the ability to offer student-athletes the opportunity to play for conference titles and national championships. Bylaws could and would have to be constructed for sports like hockey and lacrosse which allow Power 5 and other public schools to be associate members in certain sports but would be subject to the same bylaws in that sport as the other division members.
Current Division I guidelines require members to carry at least 12 sports among a host of other requirements. Requirements like these force schools to carry money-hemorrhaging teams that might be better off playing ‘down’ against regional opponents in some sports, similar to today’s D2. A new Private College Division could restructure the rules to allow member flexibility to play up in a fixed number of sports with the flexibility to play down in other sports with lower costs and scholarship requirements while funding priority and key revenue-driving sports more heavily.
Colorado College is an excellent example. They are grandfathered in by the NCAA with a special status that allows them to play up in hockey and women’s soccer while playing down (Division III) in its other 15 sports. The Ivy League tried to follow a unique model by eliminating/reducing athletic scholarships but Division I requirements limited their flexibility in other areas to draw their own, unique competitive guidelines within their conference.
In the short term, DU needs to make a major push to join a new private conference so they are not left out of the transition over the short and intermediate-term. If DU is a member of such a private conference, they can actively participate in the remaking of the D1 landscape rather than be subject to chaotic change with a collection of colleges with disparate objectives and resources. For now, Denver must invest in current and additional athletic staff – not cut them – and better, more targeted, vision-based marketing to earn their way into a top-tier private conference like the West Coast Conference. Empty seats and cost-cutting measures at the expense of marketing and athletic staff will have dire consequences for DU’s short-term attractiveness and long-term athletic future. It has never been more important than now for DU to invest in athletics and marketing to maintain visibility.
If DU does nothing, the future is murky, paired in an athletic conference with little common interest – academically and athletically. If Denver wants to be in the driver’s seat of change, the University must work on two fronts. First, continue to support and create a successful and attractive athletic brand that is compelling, particularly in basketball (a current requirement of Division I membership), which will appeal to another conference. Second, actively pursue a new, private conference that either currently exists or look to form a new private college conference in the future. Only then can DU positively participate in the changing landscape of collegiate athletics and come out on the right side change. It will take vision and patience as this unfolds over time.
Planning and action should start now before the inevitable breakup occurs while DU still holds a modicum of control and influence. There is time but the clock is ticking ever faster.