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Conference Realignment Series: An Introduction

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We start an offseason series about conference realignment, because this topic will likely never end. This is the first part of a multi-part series.

Air Force v UNLV Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Conference realignment at the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division-I level has been a topic of heavy discussion over the last decade and a half. There have been a number of institutions that have joined or ceded from each of the NCAA Division-I athletic conferences.

This mobility arguably reached a crescendo from 2010-2014 as dozens of institutions changed conference affiliation within the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision, between the Football

Championship Subdivision and Football Bowl Subdivision, and among several of the Division-I basketball conferences. Conference realignment persists in 2016 with a number of institutions reported to eschew their current conference affiliations for new affiliations.

Widespread reports suggest the several instances of institutions on the move have been due to revenue associated with television markets that could be generated by new conference affiliations. While it is arguably true that television revenue has played a role in conference realignment, there is still speculation in regard to the degree in which television revenue influences conference realignment and what other factors may be at play.

As realignment increasingly became one of the most visible aspects of the dynamic intercollegiate athletics landscape, I felt it was an appropriate area for examination. Through my doctoral program in Higher Education at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, I focused on organizational behavior in collegiate athletics.

I have written about and researched in detail NCAA conference realignment, completing my dissertation last year titled Examining Factors Influencing NCAA Division-I Conference Realignment.

The dissertation study surveyed nearly 150 presidents, athletic directors, and administrators from NCAA Division-I institutions. Once data were analyzed to adhere to prescribed statistical methods, findings indicated that six factors: Academic Prestige, Athletic Prestige, Competitive Balance, Market, Revenue, and Team Travel influence conference realignment.

Throughout the summer, in our collaborative series titled the Conference Realignment Series (keeping it simple), we will apply these factors to institutions in the Mountain West Conference and throughout the country to examine current conference affiliations and potential new ones. Stay tuned!

THE RESEARCH

This study implemented principal-agent theory to help understand what leadership at NCAA Division-I institutions view as incentives to change athletic conference affiliation. The study examines conference affiliation from the perspective of institutions rather than the conferences.

The study consisted of an extensive review of previous scholarly literature and research that had been conducted in the areas of college athletics and higher education, particularly related to athletic conferences and conference realignment. I identified 35 variables which seemed to be indicators of athletic performance, conference affiliation, and institutional ambitions/strategy.

Utilizing the 35 variables, I created a survey, which was validated by a number of scholars and practitioners in college athletics, to understand how strongly participants rate survey items as incentives for NCAA Division-I institutions to change conference affiliation.

The survey also collected qualitative data about the participants and their institutions including which position they held at their institution, what conference their institution belonged to, if their institution had recently changed conference affiliation, and what sport(s) they felt is most considered during conference realignment. One hundred forty-eight NCAA Division-I presidents, athletic directors, and administrators participated in the study.

The quantitative data from the survey was submitted to an exploratory factor analysis in order to identify factors and understand how influential each factor is to conference realignment decisions.

The factor analysis revealed that six factors influence institutions to consider a change in athletic conference affiliation: Academic Prestige, Athletic Prestige, Competitive Balance, Market, Revenue, and Team Travel. Each factor is described below:

Academic Prestige: The overall academic profile of an athletic conference as a composition of conference member institutions.

Athletic Prestige: The overall athletic profile of an athletic conference. This construct is composed of the athletic profiles of conference member institutions.

Competitive Balance: The equity among institutions within a conference in regard to athletic competition, facilities and amenities, and finances to support athletic programs.

Market: Presentation to external constituents, such as fans and alumni, in particular geographic areas of the country.

Revenue: Money generated for conference and its member institutions by way of its through game guarantees, gate receipts and concessions for intra-conference competition, payouts related to the conference’s post-season access, and television broadcast rights fees from agreements with television/media outlets.

Team Travel: The geographic footprint an athletic conference claims in regard to member institutions and intra-conference competition.

A series of analyses of variance revealed that Revenue and Academic Prestige are nearly equally influential factors among the overall sample while Competitive Balance emerged as the least influential factor among the overall sample. I conclude that, generally, institutions are unable to achieve or maximize the factors identified in this study independently, facilitating the need to affiliate with conferences.

These factors incentivize the relationship between institutions and conferences.

So What Does this all Mean?

We can now move past speculation as we have an explanation of factors that influence decisions related to conference realignment. This knowledge helps inform a broad array of stakeholders of college athletics and provides a more analytical lens to view conference realignment.

Finally, the survey implemented in this study, the exploratory factor analysis used to examine survey responses, and the analyses of variance used to compare factors proved to be important mechanisms in helping assess conference realignment and sets the foundation moving forward in this series to assess institutions’ current conference affiliations and potential new affiliations.

As an extension of this study, a scale is currently under validation in order to quantify institutional benefits of conference realignment.

About the Author

G. K. Nwosu is a guest contributor for our series on conference realignment and the president of Star Stats, LLC-a research consulting firm that provides accessible, high-quality, custom research and analysis focusing on strategic insights toward data-driven decision making in a number of industries.

He holds a Doctorate of Philosophy in Higher Education from the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV). He has previously held positions with Arizona State University and the University of Nevada Las Vegas. He has also worked in intercollegiate athletics at UNLV and the University of Oklahoma. He can be reached via email at research@starstatsllc.com