Conference Realignment News Is Coming This Week
Updates from D-II and the mid-majors
Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.
I am currently in New Haven, where I will be giving a talk tomorrow to sports management faculty, students, and others about what may actually happen when college athletes become directly compensated by universities. I’ve been trying to work on my presentation this past week, but I’ve still also found time to make phone calls and chase down a few stories.
For example, I do have a few updates on the conference realignment front…
I’m hearing that the California Collegiate Athletic Association, a D-II conference that includes schools like Cal Poly Pomona, Cal State Los Angeles, and Cal State Dominguez Hills, is about to expand. I’m told that the conference is adding UC Merced from the NAIA ranks, with a press conference announcing the move potentially coming as early as Tuesday. The Bobcats will be joining the CCAA for the 2024-2025 season.
All 12 current members of the CCAA are part of the Cal State University system, but historically, several members of the UC System participated in the league, like UC San Diego, UC Davis, and UC Riverside, before all three reclassified to D-I.
UC Merced doesn’t fit the typical profile of an NAIA institution. For one, it’s a very new school (only established in 2005!). They’re also currently one of only two public schools in the CalPac (California State University Maritime Academy is the other), and easily the one with the largest enrollment. This reclassification was a long-standing goal of the university, and on paper, you can see why it would make more sense than affiliating with much smaller, or for-profit, programs.
I’ll try to check in more with the CCAA and Merced after the announcements and dust settles if there is readership interest.
D-II isn’t the only place where I’m hearing there could be some movement.
Let’s check in on Chicago State
Back in September, Chicago State announced they were taking the next steps in their goal to launch an FCS football program, kicking off a public fundraising initiative.
I will freely admit, I was pretty skeptical when I saw the press release. I know Chicago State has kicked around the idea of starting a football team for years, (for at least as long as Extra Points has been publishing) but launching the program would require an expansion of resources and personnel that extends far beyond what the program has pulled off in recent memory.
I’m still not completely convinced the effort actually happens, but folks familiar with the department have told me that actually, the program’s fundraising efforts have gone very well, securing commitments from individual and corporate partners. Not everything is completely in the bag yet, but I’m told there is legitimate optimism on the South Side. It’s also worth noting that I’m told Chicago State doesn’t need to build a ton of new buildings to make this happen, as existing campus infrastructure can provide the requisite meeting halls, weight rooms, locker rooms, etc, for a significantly expanded athletic department. They also won’t need to build an on-campus stadium.
All of that is good news for the Cougars, as I’ve been repeatedly told that Chicago State’s conference affiliation options are limited if they’re unable to commit to launching an FCS football program. The lack of football, I’m told, has been a sticking point in previous conversations with the MEAC (the league the school would pick if it was completely up to them), the Southland, OVC, and others.
But maybe that could change.
Industry sources have also told me that recently, Chicago State has also discussed conference affiliation membership options with the NEC.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the NEC doesn’t have a ton of immediate membership options, after Sacred Heart and Merrimack announced they are departing for the MAAC. Outside of New Haven, I’ve been hearing that there aren’t really other D-II schools that are interested (or can afford) in reclassifying to D-I.
Compounding their predicament is the issue of automatic bids. With the two most recent departures, the NEC only has seven members, and current bylaws require leagues to have eight teams if they want to keep that NCAA Tournament autobid. Typically, leagues can get two-year waivers if their membership dips below the minimum, but since two of the seven NEC schools are currently in the reclassification process themselves, there is some concern that the league could lose their bid if they don’t move quickly.
The ADs and industry folks I’ve talked to believe that if push really came to shove, the NEC would still get a waiver, as long as they don’t lose any other members. But you can understand why maybe league membership would prefer to not go down that path.
Enter Chicago State. They’re the only independent in D-I college basketball, and they’re not considered a reclassifying institution, so they could help the NEC get to eight schools.
FWIW, here’s an official statement an NEC spokesperson provided to me last week:
Now, is adding Chicago State ideal? No, probably not. Chicago State is more than 500 miles away from the closest NEC school (Saint Francis), and won’t be able to bus anywhere (although flying almost everywhere has been Chicago State’s default experience for most of its D-1 life). Chicago State isn’t going to a huge boon to anyone’s NET or RPI ratings in the short term. But they could provide some short-term stability. And who knows? Maybe a conference home is what they need to accelerate their program rebuilding.
I’m not entirely sure, at this point, if these conversations are about permanent membership, or long-term affiliate invitation.
But the interest, particularly from Chicago State, I’m told, is real. We’ll see if it goes anywhere.
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