Division II rides membership roller-coaster
Growth was too rapid four years ago, but attrition now the concern
By David Pickle
The NCAA News
Four years ago, the front page of The NCAA News was dominated by a story about a potential membership glut in Division II.
The story, "Filled to Overflowing," described how Division II membership growth could rapidly accelerate if institutions moved from the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics to the NCAA. Also, the story reflected concern that a< number of Division III members could reclassify to Division II (and still offer no athletics scholarships) to avoid more demanding sports-sponsorship requirements that were about to be imposed by Division III.
Fast forward now to the July 7-9 meeting of the Division II Membership Committee. At that time, the committee identified steps that should be taken to retain and even recruit institutions for Division II.
The obvious question -- one that has been uttered on more than one occasion in recent months -- is this: How could Division II have feared a membership explosion in 2000 and then be faced only a few years later with membership attrition instead?
The answer is that the issues of 2000 and 2004, while seemingly related, are completely different. The question of 2000 was whether the division would be overwhelmed by institutions that were not necessarily prepared for Division II membership nor committed to the Division II philosophy. That issue was addressed -- successfully, by most accounts -- through membership-requirement modifications that were approved at the 2002 Convention.
The 2004 question involves a completely different set of circumstances -- the prospect of the loss of prominent programs to Division I. Longwood, North Dakota State and South Dakota State Universities already are in Division I's provisional-member process, along with the University of California, Davis, and the University of Northern Colorado. The University of North Florida has begun the exploratory process for Division I membership, as has New Jersey Institute of Technology and Kennesaw State University. The University of North Dakota has formed an internal committee to examine the advisability of changing classification. The University of Central Arkansas and Winston-Salem State University have expressed public interest in exploring Division I membership in 2005-06.
While the Division II strategic plan clearly defines a desire for the membership to stabilize at about 290 institutions and 25 conferences, it does not address what the nature of those schools should be. The question at hand, then, is whether the nature of the division is being changed as the prominent programs are replaced by new members.
To that, Division II Management Council Chair Sue Willey says "no" -- that Division II is what it is.
"To me, the issue isn't that our division is changing, or that it might somehow change in the future as the result of this loss of members," said Willey, director of athletics at the University of Indianapolis. "The fact is that we are already more like Division III than we are like Division I, which to me is as it should be. We are talking about athletics housed in a college setting.
"College athletics is, or should be, an integral part of higher education. We want member institutions to value their affiliation with Division II for that reason above all others."
The same question about the changing nature of the division flashed during a Division II forum on financial aid at the 2004 Convention. In arguing against reducing financial aid limits, South Atlantic Confe-
rence Commissioner Doug Echols said: "If a school doesn't want to give athletically related aid, there's a division for that, and it's called Division III."
To that, Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference Commissioner Steve Murray said: "I might say that the people at the top should go to Division I."
Indeed, it is all but impossible for Division II to find a perfect middle spot that takes the best of Division I and the best of Division III and makes it into an intercollegiate athletics Elysium. Instead, the best that Division II can do is to make sure that it contains quality members that are committed to supporting the Division II philosophy, along with its policies. That, says former Membership Committee Chair Dave Brunk, is what Division II did in 2002 when it modified its membership requirements.
"What we did with better managing our growth was the way to go, and I still feel that way," said Brunk, commissioner of the Northeast-10 Conference.
In short, what the division did was to increase the number of sports required for Division II membership, to add a minimal financial aid requirement and to add an exploratory year to the four-year provisional membership period. It also limited the number of provisional members that could be accepted into any one class, although that has become a moot point as migration from the NAIA and Division III has slowed (see accompanying chart).
But while the inflow has slowed to a trickle, the outflow has become the concern. The concern involves quality and tradition since many of the lost members have Division II roots going back to the old "College Division" days.
"I hate to see these schools leave because I think they belong in Division II," Willey said. "They have been a great fit with us for decades now, and I worry that they are making decisions that will not benefit them or their student-athletes in the long run."
Finding the right fit
The Membership Committee has jumped into the fray by forming a pair of task forces -- one to identify potential new Division II members and the other to retain current ones.
With regard to the first one, the notion of identifying potential new members breaks from tradition, but Membership Committee Chair Herb Reinhard, director of athletics at Valdosta State University, said that nobody should feel threatened.
"We understand that some people may look at this as an attempt to pilfer other divisions' members," Reinhard said, "but everybody should know that isn't the case. The new-member task force will focus on institutions that have shown an interest in Division II. It is charged with establishing active measures to provide information to CEOs and athletics directors so that informed decisions can be made by all."
The task force will look at potential new members both inside and outside of the NCAA structure, but Division II Vice-President Mike Racy said that no institution should expect a hard sell or a cold call.
"I think any contact within the membership would be at the conference level, and only after interest in Division II has been expressed," he said. "It's not likely that any individual NCAA institution will be invited to reclassify to Division II."
Racy emphasized that one of the purposes would be to identify quality members located in key geographic regions to help stabilize division membership at the strategic plan's goal of 290. Currently, there are 281 active Division II institutions.
Reinhard said that the Membership Committee wants to be flexible in working with institutions that clearly are prepared to move quickly into active Division II membership.
"Florida Gulf Coast University is a great example of the flexibility the Membership Committee has used with provisional members," he said. "It was able to show the committee that it was prepared to become an active member at the end of two years even though the standard process takes four. This is the sort of flexibility that the new-member task force will assess for each potential member. The key is that the standards are still in place to make sure that schools joining Division II look and act like our current active members."
Strengthen existing membership
As for the second task force, the one about retention, the focus will be on what can be done to strengthen Division II membership. For the moment, the retention task force will ride the coattails of the Division II Presidents Council's research on the effects of membership reclassification (see the November 8 issue of The NCAA News). The findings of that research, which will be available early next summer, will guide the future actions of the task force.
There is a feeling among some Division II administrators that retention is a multidivision issue. As such, they would like for Division I to take a fresh look at its own membership requirements.
"I don't know that many schools are moving to Division I because they believe they can compete nationally at that level -- almost all of the evidence is to the contrary," Willey said. "And I can't believe that is about money. Any jumps in ticket sales and television revenue are certainly offset by the significant increase in expenditures.
"The Presidents Council's research will help answer why schools are reclassifying, but I suspect that they are doing it because they believe that doing so will give them more media recognition and a greater standing in the higher education community."
If so, she said, the Association needs to be paying more attention to the issue because it has student-athlete welfare overtones.
"There are a number of schools near us that have reclassified over the years from Division II to Division I," she said, "and they won't compete against us in most women's sports or men's nonrevenue sports. They are worried we might beat them because their resources are stretched so thin. It's truly a shame that some previously strong Division II football teams had to suffer a slow death when their institution chose to move to Division I for their men's basketball team."
Brunk also chairs a Management Council subcommittee on Division II identity, which he believes will play an important role in retaining members.
"Through an ESPN, an ESPN U or a CSTV, we can show what we have, which is an outstanding product," he said. "Our charge as a subcommittee is to get these broadcast entities to see the value of televising our events and telling the stories about our outstanding student-athletes."
To that end, the subcommittee has been exploring what can be done to get more television exposure for Division II, both through the coverage of championships and through posting more Division II football and basketball scores on the update "scroll" at the bottom of the screen.
Brunk said he also is pleased with recent changes that have encouraged competition between Divisions I and II basketball teams.
"Bryant University played Maryland in men's basketball and led at the half," Brunk said. "You wouldn't believe the publicity that we got from that game."
Division II administrators mostly understand that such big games and television opportunities are going to be limited, and they understand that they have limited revenue potential. But they also understand that they have the potential to help the public understand that Division II offers an entertaining product that is conducted on a scale that the public can identify with.
The challenge now, somewhat ironically, is to make sure that the Division II membership can identify with itself.