They Chose Division II, but Why?

With many prospective members waiting in the wings, the NCAA's middle child strives to create a unique identity for itself amid an economic crisis and after years of member flight.
January 29, 2009

Division II’s bleeding has finally stopped. Now, it is re-branding to dress its wounds.

Since the mid-1980s, the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s middle division has lost about 50 member institutions to Division I. Most programs that moved thought of themselves as princes in paupers' clothing, saying they just did not fit the mold of a Division II institution. Others thought the upgrade would bring financial rewards and, by putting them on the national stage, would increase their stature.

Division II finds itself in a most precarious position in the NCAA -- between the high-profile appeal of Division I and the cachet of Division III's non-scholarship approach that tends to attract well-known liberal arts colleges. In a sense, it has the worst of both worlds: the cost of scholarships without the visibility of Division I. For a number of institutions, the decision to leave Division II was not a matter of if but when.

Although history shows transitions to Division I are often difficult and fruitless endeavors, those left in Division II often found themselves stumped -- only a handful of years ago -- when asked to define what made their division unique, and membership in it worthwhile. Just before the exodus reached its tipping point -- when Division I introduced a temporary membership moratorium in 2007 -- Division II's leaders gathered to put into writing what exactly its members held it common and what benefits they reaped from their association.

Since adopting a “strategic positioning” plan and launching a large advertising campaign (“I choose Division II”), the division has not lost any members and has even attracted 13 new institutions (one important caveat: the Division I moratorium remains in place, closing off the main route out of Division II). NCAA officials and division leaders now assert that Division II has a new and compelling identity that can sustain membership through economic crisis and into the future.

We’re Number Two

Mike L. Racy, the NCAA's vice president for Division II, has no problem admitting that his division was lost for a number of years, with member institutions jumping ship left and right. But now, he asserts, it has been found.

“We struggled with our identity for years,” said Racy, putting emphasis on the change brought by the division’s recent re-branding efforts. “Remember those old Avis commercials that said, ‘It’s OK to be number two?’ There’s a little bit of that going on in Division II. We needed to tell what sets us apart. Students said, ‘I’m not here because I didn’t live up to the academic standards of a Division I institution’ or for me personally, I’m not here because I couldn’t get a job with Division I. We all chose Division II for a reason.”

The “strategic positioning platform,” developed in 2006, lists “12 reasons to believe in Division II” -- reasons Racy and other leaders believe represent a collective assertion of its members’ identity. Among other items, the list puts special emphasis on academic success such as the division’s high graduation rate among athletes -- typically at least 10 points greater than the entire student body -- and the often low student-to-teacher ratios of its institutions.

While Divisions I and III cannot make the exact same claims, they can offer awfully similar ones. Division I athletes typically have graduation rates greater than the entire student body, albeit not 10 points higher. Also, many small liberal arts institutions in Division III can claim they have even better student-to-teacher ratios. Rather than stating what Division II is not, however, its leaders decided it would be more productive to state what it is.

“This is not a campaign against Division I or Division III,” said Stephen M. Jordan, chair of the Division II Presidents Council and president of Metropolitan State College of Denver, who cited other unique aspects of the division as selling points.

On the playing field, Jordan noted, Division II offers its players more championship opportunities than the other divisions -- one for every 6.54 students. He argued that Division II players spend more time in the classroom because of their hyper-regional scheduling of opponents. This also, of course, translates into travel savings. Chief among the quantitative selling points, he especially emphasized the fiscal conservatism of operating a Division II program.

“Many people have misinterpreted that switching to Division I would increase their institutional giving,” Jordan said. “Actually, most of the programs that have moved from Division II to Division I have had a net increase to their deficit of close to $3 million.”

Looking at the most-recent expense reports available from the NCAA -- from 2006 -- it costs $7.2 million less annually to run a Division II program with a football team than to run a Division I Football Championship Subdivision program (formerly Division I-AA). Division I programs are required to sponsor more sports than Division II programs, and are required to give out more scholarship money. As a result, Division I programs generally do not make up this difference in expense with increased revenue and must look to other sources to fill the gap -- such as increased students fees or institutional appropriations. Though both Division II and Division I FCS programs both typically have negative net revenue each year, Division II’s loss is $4.7 million less, at $3.4 million.

In this economic environment, Division II officials argue that their partial-scholarship model is attractive to institutions as it often generates net-tuition revenue in ways that many Division I full-scholarship models cannot. Partial scholarships allow Division II institutions to give some money to athletes while collecting the remainder of the tuition. Though some Division I institutions give partial scholarships in lower-profile sports, most scholarships at the Division I level are full scholarships; no tuition at all may be collected from these athletes.

“For Division II institutions, the partial scholarship is viewed as investments instead of a cost,” Racy said, noting what he sees as a differentiation from Division I.

Financial matters aside, Division II leaders said their members’ newfound commitment to “service” and “sportsmanship” was what really sets them apart. The purpose of this community service is simple, according an NCAA document outlining the benefits of Division II membership.

“Success at the local level through community connections that foster greater support for all campus activities, including athletics, will benefit Division II members and, in turn, help enhance the identity for the division,” the document reads. “The ultimate goal should be to establish a 'connection' between the community and the school in a manner that involves intercollegiate athletics.”

Jordan spoke of such a program at his institution, in which the women’s softball team adopted a local inner-city high school’s softball team for an entire season. He said the program brought “life skills training” to the high schoolers, improved their grade point averages and showed them that “college was possible.” Although such outreach programs might not be limited to Division II, Jordan insists that this behavior is uniquely characteristic of its members.

He also makes similar claims of a recent pledge -- signed by all of the division’s 276 presidents and chancellors -- insisting that every game at the Division II level be a “respectful” and “family friendly” event. Although the pledge has no objective measures to show that a program has met this standard or punishments for those who might not live up to it, Jordan said it was still important in refining the division’s priorities.

“If getting 100 percent of your institutions to sign a sportsmanship pledge is so easy, then why haven’t Divisions I or III done something like that?” Jordan asked.

Greener Pastures

Although no members have left Division II since the adoption of its new “platform” three years ago, it could be because they have nowhere else to go -- considering Division I’s membership moratorium was introduced in 2007. Still, Jordan and Racy insist that this flight reversal and the addition of 13 new members prove the success of the division’s re-branding.

The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith will be among the division’s newest members next fall, when it will have reached “provisional status.” Fort Smith, originally a community college, became a full-fledged university and joined the state system in 2002. While it has a full undergraduate program, the university still plays in the National Junior College Athletic Association.

“We no longer fit the mold of a junior college,” said Dustin Smith, Fort Smith athletics director. “Also, when we considered transitioning to the NCAA, we thought we didn’t fit the mold of a Division III institution either. The [Division II] community engagement piece was important to us.”

Aside from this point, he noted the college will be able to keep its travel costs low by joining one of the division’s regional conferences; Fort Smith is considering the Gulf Coast and Lone Star Conferences. Although the transition from NJCAA to Division II has raised Fort Smith’s athletics budget to just over $1 million, Smith said the university has a plan to help manage the growth. In the short term, he said the university has asked for private donors to cover certain sports scholarships for the program’s first three years in the NCAA. For all the logistical challenges, however, Smith said “certain recognition that comes from being part of the NCAA” is worth it.

The University of Illinois at Springfield will also join the ranks of Division II next fall, when it becomes a member of the Great Lakes Valley Conference. Currently, Springfield plays in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics as a member of the American Midwest Conference -- a league and conference to which Rodger Jehlicka, Springfield director of intercollegiate athletics, said the university could not relate. In the NAIA, Springfield played in a conference in which it was one of two public universities -- the only from a state system -- and by far the largest.

Making the switch was a matter of prestige for Springfield, Jehlicka said, noting that the system's other two campuses -- Urbana-Champaign and Chicago -- both had Division I NCAA programs. With the full load of sports required by Division II, he said Springfield’s athletics budget will rise to $1.8 million from its earlier peak of $1.2 million. Like Fort Smith, Jehlicka said Springfield will be reliant upon private donors to help manage this cost as the university adjusts financially.

In another face lift to the Division II identity, a decision was made to open up membership to Canadian institutions last year. Though no college has formally submitted an application, Jordan said the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University -- both near Vancouver -- were considering it. The division stipulates only that these interested institutions be accredited by an American regional accrediting body. He noted that Simon Fraser was going through the process with the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities solely for the purpose of eventually becoming a Division II member.

Jordan argued that adding institutions in the Pacific Northwest would help Division II, whose membership in that area of the country is lacking. Western Washington University, for example, recently got rid of its football team to deal with its falling budget, leaving only four Division II football teams in the West. Canadian programs in the area, Jordan said, consider their recruiting field to run north to south into the United States -- instead of west to east in Canada -- making NCAA membership more attractive as they battle American institutions for recruits.

Such developments -- for good or for ill -- are at least evidence that the new Division II is one that is “on the move,” as Myles Brand, the NCAA's president, said last year.


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