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Conference Realignment Series: A Recap

We wrap up our realignment series.

Rapids v Burn Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Over the last several weeks we have rolled out a collaboration between the Mountain West Connection and myself on the topic of NCAA Division-I conference realignment. Drawing on prior research in the area, we have provided an analytical lens to examine the process of conference realignment from the perspective of institutions.

The first part of the series examined what factors serve as incentives to influence conference realignment. The second part of the series examined the factors from the perspective of university presidents and athletic directors. The third part of the series examined which factors seem to be the most important in influencing institutions to engage in realignment.

Today, we conclude our Conference Realignment series by recapping the salient points from the previous three installments, addressing the future directions of conference realignment, and generally serving as the unofficial kickoff to the 2016 college football season!

The Research

The initial study consisted of an extensive review of literature and research in the areas of college athletics and higher education, particularly related to athletic conferences and conference realignment. Based on the review, a survey was created and disseminated to NCAA Division-I administrators across the country. Nearly 150 administrators participated in the study.

Once the data were examined utilizing exploratory factor analysis, the following six factors emerged as those that serve as incentives to influence conference realignment: Academic Prestige, Athletic Prestige, Competitive Balance, Market, Revenue, and Team Travel. These factors are defined in detail in part one of the series.

Of the administrators that participated in the study, 17 held the position of president while 34 held the athletic director position at their respective institutions. These figures are admittedly underwhelming by statistical terms, but an examination of the perspectives of presidents and athletic directors did reveal how they rank the importance of factors in regard to realignment:

1. Team Travel

2. Academic Prestige

3. Revenue

4. Market

5. Athletic Prestige

6. Competitive Balance

Once the data were examined utilizing analyses of variance, findings indicate that presidents and athletic directors ranked the factors in this order nearly unanimously. According to presidents and athletic directors, Team Travel is the most influential factor that incentivizes institutions to engage in realignment while Competitive Balance is the least influential factor.

When examining the full study sample, results indicate that the ranking of factor importance differs from the perceptions of university presidents and athletic directors. The rank order of the factors when accounting for all 148 participants is as follows:

1. Revenue

2. Academic Prestige

3. Team Travel

4. Athletic Prestige

5. Market

6. Competitive Balance

Once the data were examined utilizing analyses of variance, findings indicate that participants of the full sample ranked the factors in this order nearly unanimously.

Additionally, according to the overall sample, Revenue and Academic Prestige are equally (statistically speaking) the most influential factors that incentivizes institutions to change athletic conference affiliation. Competitive Balance is the least influential factor that incentivizes institutions to change athletic conference affiliation. Team Travel, Athletic Prestige, and Market seem to equally (statistically speaking) incentivize institutions to engage in realignment.

What’s the Explanation?

Generally, institutions are unable to achieve or maximize the factors identified in this study independently, facilitating the need to affiliate with conferences. These factors emerged as incentives that influence the relationship between institutions and conferences when faced with conference realignment decisions. Contemporary and historical literature, as well as practice, indicate the influential nature of these factors.

In regard to perspectives of university presidents and athletic directors, Team Travel emerged as the highest rated and most influential factor. The Team Travel factor refers to the geographic footprint an athletic conference, as well as its member institutions, claim. The desire to compete against those intuitions within a certain regional proximity, between the lines of play or for broader mission purposes, has been identified as a means for a university to showcase and endear itself to key constituents. This seems to allude to the overall direction of the university and its athletic programs which has been identified as a chief concern for university presidents and athletic directors.

These findings help to explain why Team Travel emerged as the most influential factor among university presidents and athletic directors. Because university presidents and athletic directors hold direct oversight of issues related to the overall mission and the financial health of the institution, it is unclear why the Academic Prestige and Revenue factors did not emerge as equally influential incentives to Team Travel.

In regard to the overall sample, Revenue and Academic Prestige ranked as the two most important and influential factors in the context of conference realignment. Financial resources have been identified as determinant to institutional and conference decision making so it stands to reason that Revenue highly incentivizes institutions to consider changes in conference affiliation. Additionally college athletics could not function without the higher education institutions that support them. Because education is central to college athletics, it is not surprising that Academic Prestige emerged as a highly influential incentive. Additionally, conference member institutions typically share similar academic profiles so when schools evaluate a change in conference affiliation, the academic fit is evaluated. Because different institutions may have different interests, a single factor did not emerge as more of an incentive for an institution to consider a change in conference affiliation than another. This also helps to explain why Athletic Prestige, Market, and Team Travel emerged as equally influential.

Consistently throughout this study, the Competitive Balance factor emerged as the lowest ranked and least influential factor. A conference that is balanced across the board (i.e. no institution/athletic program has a competitive advantage) may not be perceived as favorable because members may “cannibalize” one another. Although speculative, a high degree of Competitive Balance across conferences may be detrimental. This helps to explain why the Competitive Balance factor emerged as the least influential factor.

What Does it All Mean?

With the completion of our Conference Realignment Series, stakeholders of college athletics can remove some of the speculation as we have an explanation of factors that influence decisions related to conference realignment. Important mechanisms and a strong foundation in assessing conference realignment have been established which help provide an analytical lens to view conference realignment. Additionally, stakeholders of college athletics now have a framework with which to view conference realignment from the viewpoint of Institutional leadership charged with overseeing these decisions. As an extension of this study, a scale is currently under validation in order to quantify institutional benefits of conference realignment.

As realignment discussions persist involving a number of institutions across the country, it may be interesting to see how the factors and perceptions identified in this research and our series influence decisions in the coming months. We hope you enjoyed---is it kickoff time yet?!?!

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. For more information regarding this research or other research related questions and comments, he can be reached via email at research@starstatsllc.com