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MAILBAG: What would a world look like where DII schools could move up for a sport?

Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.

I love getting emails and tweets from y’all. I never wanted Extra Points to be a one-way conversation. I’ve gotten great newsletter ideas, great insight, great questions and great conversations from comments, tweets, and emails, and I hope those continue! My email address is [email protected], and my Twitter handle is @MattBrownEP. By all means, please send questions, comments, ideas and more my way.

Here are some of those questions! I’ll try to answer some of them for you. If you have a question and don’t want to wait for the next mailbag, I’ll be doing an AMA on Reddit in /r/CFB on Thursday around noon. Stay tuned to that subreddit for more details!

Now, to your questions:

I can’t imagine a media company EVER doing something like that, could you? Impossible.

Anyway, yes, I think that’s correct. I’m not sure it’s the case for every single example of sports being cut, but certainly, COVID-19 gives administrators coverage to make all sorts of potentially unpopular decisions.

Cincinnati soccer feels like a good example. Cincinnati wants to be a member of the Big 12, or perhaps some other power conference configuration. The Big 12 doesn’t sponsor men’s soccer. Their own men’s soccer program, which hasn’t been especially competitive, now has increased travel expenses within the AAC. It doesn’t have a head coach. You could hire a cheap assistant and just keep the train going, but you’re unlikely to invest what’s needed to make the program a consistent winner. It doesn’t fit in with your big picture strategic vision anymore.

So now’s a great time to cut that cord! You get to tell your VP that you saved some money (even if you really didn’t, thanks to lost tuition), your department now has sports offerings more aligned with future conference goals, and the donor blowback is mitigated a bit, because hey, Times Are Tough and We Have To Make Sacrifices.

I think you’ll find similar issues across the rest of the college campus. If you were itching to find ways to decrease faculty spending, or close academic departments that didn’t have that same booster sizzle, well, there are plenty of opportunities now.

I’m skeptical of any cost-savings plan that primarily comes at the expense of student opportunities or student experiences. Anybody that cuts sports without exhausting every other possible plan first was probably just looking for an excuse, in my humble opinion.

I think this is a great question, and could be a major storyline not just in athletics, but in university health over the next few years.

There are exceptions, but generally speaking, I think the schools that are most at risk for major financial disruptions are either tuition-dependent small private schools, or less-selective regional public institutions. One thing that both of those groups typically have in common is that they are generally less equipped to switch, at scale, to distance learning.

Distance learning isn’t just firing up YouTube and reading your original lecture, or at least, it isn’t if you’re trying to do it well. It requires specific training, equipment, expectations and institutional knowledge, and prospective students should be able to figure out who has it and who doesn’t after a semester or two. I imagine many of the schools you listed, along with others, like Penn State and BYU, will be much better equipped to ride out the next few years, as universities.

I feel pretty confident in predicting that a residential college model exactly like we knew it from like, 2017, isn’t happening this year, and may not happen next year. We’re going to have some sort of hybrid systems, and that means both diminished revenues, and increased costs.

All other things being equal, and they absolutely aren’t, yes, I’d feel better about the institutional health of a school where distance learning has already been part of their campus and institutional culture and priorities. But perhaps that advantage could be canceled out by other factors, like statehouse support, local economic health, and more. It’ll be really interesting to monitor!

Here’s a mailbag question from Extra Points reader Dusty:

Supposing the rules of the NCAA change and schools can field teams across the divisions (not all DI, DII etc) how might the landscape look? FCS schools up, FBS schools down? DIII electing to move up?

I can’t say how likely it is that such rules get changed. The NCAA had granted some schedule waivers that may make additional regular season contests between D1 and DII programs more likely in the near future. I know multiple college administrators, both at the DI, DII and DIII level who would be interested in competing at different levels, and Joe Nocera at Bloomberg argued for something similar recently at Bloomberg. I personally think it has a ton of merit, but it’d be a relatively drastic move that I doubt would happen quickly with the NCAA.

In practice, I suspect you’d be more likely to see DII and DIII schools try to play up a level in cheaper sports, or where D1 investment and focus isn’t as universally strong. There are already examples of schools doing this in baseball, men’s hockey and lacrosse, and I’m not sure anybody thinks the existence of Johns Hopkins lacrosse or Dallas Baptist baseball is somehow an affront to the rest of the sport.

I wouldn’t be shocked to see DIII powerhouses in sports like swimming (like Kenyon, Emory, or maybe even my old hometown school, Denison University) take additional cracks at DI or DII competition, if rules allowed for it.

I’m not sure you’d see it quite as much in football or men’s basketball, though, given the costs and difficulty of gaining meaningful rewards. Where it might happen would be in parts of the country where jumping could help create more bus trip opportunities. Could I see a hypothetical world where say, FCS Northern Colorado decided to play RMAC football, instead of flying around the Big West? Or where DII West Florida decided to scrape together a few extra bucks to play FCS football in the Pioneer, ASUN or Big South, instead of at DII where local schools might face stronger financial pressures? Sure. That seems possible.

If there are ways for schools in the mountain west, southwest and great plains to save money on travel by potentially playing up or down a level in a few sports, I could totally see that happening too.

This is a good question, and I’ll be very interested to read more local reporting on this.

According to the report ECU distributed, swimming and tennis had some of the lowest operational costs across the entire athletic department. I think this is generally true across most college programs. Swim teams, tennis teams and golf teams usually don’t cost that much money! Coaches are usually not making big money, they don’t have huge coaching staffs, most of the roster isn’t on full scholarship.

It’s true that international students are generally more likely to pay full tuition than domestic students, which makes them very attractive candidates for budget conscious schools, but I have been told by a few administrators that this calculus doesn’t always apply in athletics. It’s much harder to convince a student to move from Brazil or Israel or Denmark to go to Greenville, NC if they’ll need to fork over $28,000+ to go to school, especially if more affordable college opportunities exist in their home country.

Anecdotally, I’ve heard admins complain that foreign athletes do not donate back to the program, or engage with the program post-graduation at the same levels as domestic athletes do, which can make fundraising and financial sustainability more challenging. If that is true, I can see why sports like tennis and golf are more often being targeted for cancellation than say, women’s lacrosse, where the entire roster comes from the US, and mostly from the East Coast.

Another possible reason, according to ECU, was future facility costs. Both ECU’s swimming and tennis facilities were overdue for improvements. Via the News & Observer:

“We kept going back to swimming and tennis largely based on the state of their athletic facilities,” Gilbert said. “I’m not sure we’ve had a major renovation to the aquatics center for a long time and the state of the locker room and offices are probably not up to Division I standards.”

I can’t say for certain if the international factor was part of ECU’s thinking. But that might be one of the only maybe defensible rationales for cutting what they did. The rest of their math certainly doesn’t look great.

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Okay! Back to the questions!

This is a fun question.

Generally, I think the answer here is yes, especially in the modern era. The CFP/BCS/AP Poll skews towards rewarding a few dominant teams, rather than relative parity across the board. That the Pac-12 right now does not have that, despite perhaps having better *depth* than other P5 leagues in football right, is a pretty good example. Nobody cares what Arkansas is doing if LSU is torching teams left and right, you know?

The answer to your second question probably depends on how far back you want to go. The obvious answer would be anybody in the Ivy League, schools that completely dominated the sport in every facet up until the late 1930s or so, but now don’t even participate in the FCS playoffs. Chicago would be another example.

Minnesota is probably another good example. They were a nationally dominant program for multiple years between the 1930s and 1940s, but by 1960, they were mostly an afterthought, and last year notwithstanding, are unlikely to seriously sniff that consistent elite success again.

Depending on how you define elite, I’d argue Tulane, Pitt, SMU, Arkansas, Nebraska and Georgia Tech could all claim at least part of that distinction. Of that list, I guess Georgia Tech has the best chance of ever getting there again? Maaaaybe? Class mobility is really hard in college athletics.

Let’s get out of here on this question:

This is a storyline worth monitoring here, but I’m not sure I’m ready to make too many sweeping generalizations without more data. With basketball, we’re talking pretty small sample sizes here for kids who have the option of taking the fat G League deal, and there are plenty of reasons to take it, and not take it.

I think you’re correct in that there are still absolutely branding benefits, perhaps superior ones, to playing college basketball. You’ll be on TV way more often, covered way more often, and have a chance to create some off-the-court opportunities that might not be quite as readily available in the G League. You’re also going to be playing against other dudes your own age.

For a very talented, but raw prospect, maybe NCAA basketball might be the better career option, especially if you can work with a very good coaching staff. Other kids might not be mature enough to immediately jump to a fully professionalized environment.

I don’t look at the G League as necessarily some existential threat to the NCAA, although it certainly provides another reason for why the NCAA to modernize their compensation rules sooner rather than later. But if we have a few years of data, and it becomes clear that taking the big G League deal is a feasible path to a successful professional career AND one that provides marketing opportunities, I think you’ll see more and more elite players forgo college basketball.

FWIW, my biggest worry for college basketball isn’t their ability to convince the top 12 recruits in each class to play at Duke or Kansas or Kentucky instead of going to the G-League. I’d be more worried about sophomores and juniors who aren’t NBA caliber leaving for Europe, because that’s still a better financial deal than the restrictive NCAA. It’s the loss of dozens of very very good college players that would really diminish the quality of the product, in my humble opinion.

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