Making A Move
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Whether you've been in the same conference for decades or have hopped around recently, you should continually be evaluating if you're affiliated with the right group of schools. Athletic directors who have made a move explain their reasons and the process.
By Abigail Funk
Abigail Funk is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management magazine. She can be reached at: afunk@MomentumMedia.com.
For Lake Erie College, it was about finding a conference that fit its growing athletic department. For Jefferson High School in Bloomington, Minn., the decision was based on enrollment numbers and balanced competition. For the University of Texas-El Paso, the goal was to continue competing against rival schools in and near the Lone Star State.
All of these schools have recently changed their conference affiliation. Their motivations and reasoning vary, but the moves highlight an emerging trend: making sure the league you compete in is the right fit for your school.
Why does a school decide to leave a conference and what factors does it weigh when finding a new one? There are many things to think about, including travel, strength of your teams' schedules, your fans and alumni, and the sustainability of the conference as a whole. You also need to consider the schools you are leaving behind.
UTEP Athletic Director Bob Stull had a tough situation on his hands in early 2005. Three of the Miners' longtime rivals in its conference, the Western Athletic Conference, were moving to Conference USA, and he and President Diana Natalicio had to decide if UTEP would join them. A member of the WAC since 1967, UTEP felt a sense of loyalty to its conference. But Stull also realized a new landscape was emerging.
"Things were changing everywhere," he says. "The Mountain West Conference had started to expand, the Big East Conference had taken some schools from C-USA, and everyone was reanalyzing their situation to figure out what move would best situate their school for the future.
"Not to mention the volatility," Stull continues. "Everybody was looking over everybody else's shoulder--wanting to know what others were going to do before making their own decision. It was very complicated for us emotionally because we loved the WAC. It was a great conference for us, and we had been there for a very long time."
Eventually, reason prevailed over emotion and UTEP chose to leave the WAC and join C-USA along with Rice University, Southern Methodist University, and the University of Tulsa. "We just felt like we were better positioned for the future by staying aligned with our neighboring schools rather than being the only Texas school in the WAC," Stull says. "It wasn't easy and we had a strong attachment to the WAC, but it was the right decision for us at the time."
Stull says the main reason was for its school's alumni and fans. "Because we have such a strong alumni base here in Texas, when we play SMU or Rice, we have as many spectators at their games as they do," he says. "The same goes for when we host them. Our fans would have been upset if we lost those in-conference rivalries. When conferences are altered, one of the risks is losing rivalry games that draw great crowds."
The decision wasn't just about fans residing in Texas, though. When it was in the WAC, UTEP's football team often played night games on Saturdays, and the team had a hard time getting much national media coverage because the games wouldn't be over until well past East Coast newspaper deadlines. "Our fans on the East Coast wouldn't see our score in a newspaper until Monday, especially when we were playing on the West Coast or in Hawai'i," Stull says.
UTEP has also seen more of its football and basketball games make it onto national television since joining C-USA, and more of its scores are being reported by the media. Stull also saw the possibility to pick up a chunk of shared revenue with the success of C-USA's men's basketball teams in the NCAA Division I Tournament.
It's been five years since the move to C-USA, and though Stull maintains it was a tough choice, he's confident UTEP made the right decision. "Emotionally, it was difficult for us to leave the WAC," he says, "but it has worked out well for us."
In high school athletics, enrollment numbers and proximity have long been the standards for forming conferences. But more and more, these criteria don't always work. Sometimes, certain schools simply have much stronger teams than their similarly sized neighbors and lopsided scores make up much of the season.
This was the case in New Jersey, and led to the formation of a new conference, which is in its first year of operation. Made up of 36 public and non-public schools, the Super Essex Conference (SEC) is one of five giant conferences in Central and North New Jersey that the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) charged with creating their own divisions through a major realignment last year. The conference's athletic directors decided that instead of carving up the 36 schools by enrollment numbers or geography, it would base its four divisions on athletic prowess.
Regardless of a high school's size, if its football team had been a powerhouse the last few years, it would be placed in the most competitive division. If it had struggled to win any games, it would be placed in the least competitive division.
Furthermore, all of a school's teams don't need to compete in the same division. Each sport team is assigned based on its own history, so a school could theoretically have its teams competing in all four SEC divisions.
"We felt that many of our athletic programs were struggling to provide worthwhile experiences for their athletes because of huge disparities between teams," says Ted D'Alessio, Director of Athletics at Millburn (N.J.) High School and Co-President of the SEC. "We were looking to create competitive levels where many athletes can succeed."
The SEC's board of directors, which consists of 15 of the conference's athletic directors, looked at five factors when assigning teams to divisions: overall record, record over the past three years, the sport's seeding and result in last year's county tournament, strength of the sport's conference over the past three years, and the school's enrollment. The SEC plans to reevaluate the divisions every two years.
One concern was that those teams competing in the toughest division would have a harder time qualifying for the state playoffs. But the SEC lobbied the NJSIAA to expand the number of teams that make the playoffs and loosen its rule requiring a regular season record better than .500 to be eligible. The NJSIAA obliged for all sports but football. "The NJSIAA making those changes validated what the SEC was trying to do in terms of balanced competition," D'Alessio says. "We really felt like we were heard and it solved what could have been a major issue for our athletes, parents, and fans."
Other concerns were that historical rivalries would be lost and the scheduling process would be cumbersome. But D'Alessio says that after the fall season ended, many detractors started to come around. "We don't view this as a panacea for all the ills of high school sports, but we do see it as a means to eliminate unfair competition," he says. "I'm guessing 80 percent of all the fall sport coaches found it to be a very positive experience for their teams this year.
"Personally, I've seen a rise in the self esteem of some of our athletes who were previously on less competitive teams here at Millburn," D'Alessio continues. "That was our main goal in aligning teams by strength of program. It's a tremendous benefit for our student-athletes, and there is a pride in our conference I didn't feel before."
Over the past two years, Lake Erie College has been upgrading in a huge way, adding 13 varsity programs and becoming a member of NCAA Division II. A big part of that growth was finding the right conference affiliation.
Director of Athletics Griz Zimmermann says the school looked at several factors before deciding on and being granted membership to the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, which it will join in 2010-11. The most important factor was to find a conference that matched Lake Erie's commitment to growth and success.
"As you can see, our athletic department has been incredibly busy over the past couple of years," Zimmermann says. "We had a lot of motivation to find the right conference."
Prior to his arrival at Lake Erie, Zimmermann had been Athletic Director at Gannon University and Saginaw Valley State University, both Division II schools that were in the GLIAC when he was heading up their departments. "Fortunately, I had a lot of knowledge about the GLIAC before we even applied," Zimmermann says. "It was very helpful to know, for example, that the conference office went from having a part-time commissioner in the '90s to a full-time commissioner about eight years ago, which speaks to its growing strength.
"Expansion is another sign of strength, but expansion doesn't have to mean adding more schools," he continues. "It could be hiring a marketing and promotions staff or signing a TV package. The GLIAC has strengthened the conference office with additional workers over the past few years, and we liked that history."
Zimmermann also looked for a conference that matched Lake Erie's commitment to academics. "We wanted to be associated with other schools that value graduation rates as much as we do," he says. "The GLIAC is known for having solid academic standards and for rewarding student-athletes' academic achievements."
Finally, Zimmermann assessed the conference's concern for student-athlete welfare. "A lot of times, people just assume the athletes are happy if they're winning, but we want to make sure that when their four years are done, they're educated, well-rounded individuals ready to go into society," he says. "Just as I evaluate my coaches on their concern for the health and welfare of their student-athletes, that was important when looking for a conference, too."
CONFERENCE OF THEIR OWN
For Ted Schultz, Activities Director at Jefferson High School, the task of finding a new conference began last year when four schools were going to be placed in his school's league, the Lake Conference, by the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) in 2010-11. Those four schools were left without a conference when their own disbanded, and the MSHSL believed their proximity to the Lake Conference schools made them a good fit.
But Jefferson and eight other Lake Conference schools disagreed. They felt the new schools were too far away, and with large enrollment numbers, they would overpower many of the original schools. "Enrollment was a huge factor in the formation of our new conference," Schultz says. "Two of the high schools coming to the Lake Conference are the two biggest schools in Minnesota--double our size. That didn't seem fair."
Schultz says it was proposed that instead of the MSHSL putting all four of the schools in the Lake Conference, it should split them up two-and-two with another conference. But the MSHSL didn't agree. In response, nine Lake Conference schools are leaving to form their own conference (along with a 10th member from another conference) prior to the new schools' arrival next year. But before signing on with the new conference, Schultz looked carefully at whether this was a good move for Jefferson.
"There are many factors we looked at besides enrollment," he says. "Do the other schools have similar philosophies to ours? What are their youth or feeder programs like? How do their size and participation rates compare to ours? Are their districts getting bigger or smaller? What sorts of facilities do the other schools have? In the end, we felt like Jefferson looked more like the schools that were leaving, so we made a choice to leave as well."
For some of the other schools that are on their way out of the Lake Conference, extended travel was the deal breaker. Instead of the conference's southernmost and northernmost schools traveling less than 50 miles roundtrip to play one another, they would have been traveling 80 miles--an especially unwanted budget drain right now.
Schultz realizes the two schools that chose to stay in the Lake Conference may feel like they were left behind, but Jefferson will continue competing against at least one of them to keep a connection. "We're still going to play Eden Prairie [High School], for example--it will just be non-conference play," he says. "Hopefully, we can all still remain friends, even with the turbulence."
While it was the placement of the four new schools into the Lake Conference that pushed nine of the schools to leave, Schultz stresses that athletic directors shouldn't wait to assess their conference situation until they're forced to. "Part of our job as athletics administrators is to constantly evaluate our programming, much like school administrators are always looking at curriculum," he says. "We were actually asking ourselves questions even before our conference situation changed. The movement just got everybody thinking about their options a lot harder. It's made the rest of the state wonder what it might mean for them."
Sidebar: NO SECRETS
One of the side effects of moving to a new conference is that you are often leaving your former conference members in the lurch. Bob Stull, Athletic Director at the University of Texas-El Paso, remembers when eight schools suddenly split from the Western Athletic Conference in 1999 to form the Mountain West Conference without informing the WAC offices or the other members about their intentions ahead of time.
"I had been the athletic director for about five months, and that was a huge shock," Stull says. "The schools decided they were going to form their own conference because things weren't working for them--which is fine--but they did it without telling anybody. I think our president got a phone call two hours before the press conference, and unfortunately, it created an atmosphere of distrust."
Dave Schmidt, a consultant and owner of The Senior Reports, a conference evaluating service, has heard many rumors about conference switches over the years he's been in the business--some true and some purely gossip. He's an advocate of schools being open about their thoughts on possibly leaving a conference.
"The first thing we tell schools that are looking to leave a conference is to let their conference office know of their intentions right away," says Schmidt, who was the founder and first commissioner of the United States Collegiate Athletic Association. "I've seen a lot of schools make a move behind the backs of their conference members, which caught up with them down the road. It's pretty serious business to change conferences, and sometimes people take it too lightly."
"It's happened many a time that a group of schools just announce they're moving and it leaves all the other schools hanging," adds Kurt Patberg, Commissioner of the Southern States Athletic Conference. "That's not fair. You have to communicate."
Patberg advises explaining your position as soon as possible. "Go to your current membership and say, 'We're not necessarily leaving, but we feel like it's appropriate that we look around at this point and here's why,'" he says. "At the end of the day, it will all come out anyway, so you might as well be up front about your intentions. It's the right thing to do."
When Vienna (Ill.) High School was looking to switch to a new conference, Athletic Director Ross Hill made sure to be open about the plans. "I let our old conference know there was a good possibility we would be leaving a year and a half before we actually did so," he says. "Of course there were some hard feelings because we had been a part of the conference for a long time, but I wanted to be up front about it."
To further eliminate surprises, Schmidt suggests that conference members talk about long-term plans on a regular basis. "I encourage all of a conference's athletic directors to have a sit-down every year," he says. "They need to ask themselves, 'Are we all on the same page? Are we all happy with the way things are going?' If one school says it's going to NCAA Division III, another says it's looking at Division II, and the rest say they're happy in the NAIA, that's not perfect for everyone, but at least all the athletic directors know the lay of the land."
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