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We're down to the Final Four teams in college basketball this weekend, but do you know where we started? I'm not even sure myself, as I've seen numbers as high as 351 schools, but the NCAA's RPI ranking shows just 349 on their list. Either way, I'm of the opinion there are too many schools "competing" at the Division 1 level in college hoops today.
Part of the problem is or at least was, the barrier to entry to the Division 1 level. According to Omaha.com, until just a few years ago, the transition fee for schools looking to move up to the Division 1 level was just $20,000. Imagine that- for the price of a well-equipped Hyundai Elantra, your school could move into the same realm as Florida, Wisconsin, UConn and the other elite schools of the college basketball world. There's obviously more expense that goes into such a transition, but the fee by itself seemed ridiculously low and the NCAA agreed, subsequently raising the fee. In the recent case of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, the fee jumped 6,900% to about $1.4 million.
That may seem like a considerable step up, but many schools feel it is worth the gamble. Forbes magazine suggested winning a single game in the NCAA tournament can be worth $1.6 million. That's not necessarily a realistic goal for any of these transitioning schools in the immediate future (if ever). However, there are other sources of revenue that can be accessed almost immediately. One such source is the revenue these schools receive to play so-called "bye" games, meaning non-conference road games against well-established schools that are not expected to return the favor with a return game being played at the visiting school. I call them "pay per pummel" games.
If we head toward the bottom of the RPI, we'll find quite a few schools like the Bethune-Cookman Wildcats and their 2-17 record on the road during the 2013-14 season. When a school plays 19 road games, there's definitely a financial motive involved, especially when they only pick up two wins in those games. At the other end of the spectrum, we'll see that the "traditionals" (what were once called "Power Conference" schools) rarely play more than a dozen road games during the season, with some schools like Duke and Baylor playing just nine road games this year. Schools like Duke & Baylor have decent followings and don't need to earn extra money for their respective athletic departments by playing a lot of non-conference road games.
Another piece of the pie many of these schools are chasing is the $484 million in revenue distributed each year at the Division 1 level, including more than $188 million from basketball alone. The Mid-Eastern conference of which Bethune-Cookman is a member institution, received more than $1.4 million from the basketball fund distribution in 2011-12 and millions more from other various NCAA funds.
Moving up to the Division 1 level even has a direct financial impact outside of sports-related revenue. Many schools use the move as an opportunity to reach out to alumni and donors and rally fundraising support. In addition, schools like Jacksonville State and Alabama A&M saw their enrollment increase 20% and 55% respectively during their transition from Division II to Division 1. In fact, the University of North Alabama cited those increases and told their supporters they expected the move would boost their enrollment by 11%. As more schools transition to Division 1, those remaining at D-2 can begin to get challenged to schedule enough games against schools remaining in their region.
While that all sounds well and good, there is a downside to all of this. There are at least a few folks at UC-Davis, who are now questioning whether their move to D-1 was a good idea. Sports get cut, student fees go up and academic standards can be compromised, as schools attempt to balance budgets and rules regarding scholarship sports with the desire to be at least somewhat competitive on the fields of play.
While I understand there are a multitude of factors that come into play when these decisions are made, at the end of the day I look at how competitive these transitioning schools end up being at the Division 1 level. In almost every instance, the answer is "not very competitive at all." The rare exceptions are schools like North Dakota State, who made the big dance (but lost) in their first year of D1 eligibility in 2009. Prior to that, you'd have to go back to 1972 to find the last school (Louisiana-Lafayette) who was able to accomplish that feat.
To me, this proves two things from a competitive standpoint-
1. There are some schools that should transition up to Division 1
2. There are far more schools that should not have transitioned up to Division 1
I'm not saying the NCAA tournament should be the exclusive realm of traditional basketball schools at all. The tournament is as popular as it is, because schools like North Dakota State and Stephen F. Austin can fight their way in and pull off an upset. They are as much a part of the storyline as the schools that reach the Final Four. When a George Mason or VCU gets to the final weekend, the mystique and legend of the tournament only grows further.
Lose those underdog schools and the tournament loses it's appeal. Florida Gulf Coast making the Sweet 16 is a national headline. Tennessee making the second weekend is kind of a big deal in Tennessee, but not much beyond there. College basketball needs that mix, but I think the 350ish schools playing at the Division 1 level right now is quite a few too many. There are dozens of schools that have never been competitive at the Division 1 level and likely never will. At the end of the day, shouldn't the ability to be competitive at least be a consideration for schools at this level?
What do you think? How many schools do you think there should be in Division 1 college basketball?