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By Gary Brown
The issue of how to handle so-called “umbrella” conferences isn’t one that Division III is saving for a rainy day. The matter of how conferences align – and the philosophies, benefits and requirements of those affiliations – have taken on urgency now that a concept is in the works to prevent more umbrellas from opening.
To date, there’s just one example of such an “umbrella.” That involves the Middle Atlantic Conferences, which is made plural because the MAC is the overarching entity that encompasses the Freedom and Commonwealth Conferences. But because the MAC enjoys benefits that other leagues don’t – particularly in how the conference(s) earns automatic qualification to Division III championships – other conferences are exploring whether to seek a similar arrangement.
At the same time, the Division III Championships and Membership Committees are considering requiring institutions to declare only one “core” conference for their athletics programs and thus disallow the umbrella approach. The committees say that would clarify conference membership benefits and requirements, and also snuff out the suspicion that conferences are seeking larger groupings just to gain additional championships access.
Some people, though, including the leader of the current umbrella conference, think the model isn’t all wet.
“What’s missing in the discussion so far is the summary of benefits the umbrella model affords, which in my mind significantly outweigh the concerns,” said Ken Andrews, who has been the executive director of the MAC since May 2000.
While the governance structure leadership has stated a clear intent to grandfather the MAC as an umbrella league even if the core idea eventually becomes legislation that prevents copycats, Andrews believes there’s more merit to the umbrella than is readily apparent.
“Certainly, our self-interests have been addressed, but the umbrella arrangement has been good for us as far as administrative flexibility, cost containment and some other things, so why shouldn’t it be good for others?” Andrews said.
That question typically gets answered with the concern over AQ. Opponents of the umbrella model fear that its additional championships access would entice schools to affiliate in larger groups for the wrong – or at least mixed – reasons. Andrews said while he’s aware of at least four conferences that in the last year have explored an arrangement like the MAC’s, he’s not sure if the reasons are as exploitive as some people seem to suspect.
The Division III staff at the NCAA national office also has received inquiries about possible umbrella arrangements. Those queries in fact led to a review of how the division was treating the current umbrella model as far as dues payments, conference grants, voting privileges, self-study guides and SAAC requirements were concerned. That review unveiled some inconsistencies, which led to the discussion that prompted the Championships and Membership Committees to propose the single core concept.
The committees think it makes sense for schools to choose just one conference as their core affiliation and for that league to have one AQ in sports for which it meets the four-core, seven-total sponsorship minimum. They also favor aligning that one AQ with one Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, one vote at the Convention, one self-study guide and one conference grant.
Right now, though, the MAC receives two automatic berths for sports that most of its 16 members sponsor – one for the Freedom and one for the Commonwealth, since each of those eight-member leagues can meet the AQ requirements in those sports. For the less-sponsored sports, the MAC receives one AQ by combining its membership “assets” to meet sponsorship requirements.
As for the other conference benefits and requirements, the MAC pays three sets of conference dues but has only one SAAC and completes one conference self-study guide. The MAC has three annual conference meetings but is allowed one vote at the Convention and one point of access to the conference grant program (that is, one application, though the grant is based on 16 schools).
While the Division III membership appears comfortable in grandfathering the MAC, its reluctance to allow others seems to be most grounded in the way the AQ advantage might encourage conferences with a moderate number of members to “raid” or “cannibalize” smaller leagues to reach AQ goals.
“Philosophically, that’s not why conferences are formed,” said College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin Commissioner Chris Martin, the vice chair of the Division III Management Council who will become chair after the 2011 Convention. “If we were to allow for that as an acceptable practice, we would see a more unstable membership.”
Andrews points out, though, that more than a dozen conferences in the last five years have rearranged or expanded, often to retain their AQ status. “Those conferences are doing this for AQ access based on geography, not principle,” he said. “In fact, allowing umbrella conferences might diminish the need to ‘scavenge’ other conferences.”
As for the MAC, more than 50 institutions have claimed membership since the league was established in 1912 when delegates from nine colleges and universities met at Lafayette College to form the Middle Atlantic States Collegiate Athletics Association. The official beginning of the 13-member Middle Atlantic States Collegiate Athletic Conference came 10 years later.
The MAC was a 26-member conference in the 1980s, though eight of those schools – Dickinson, Franklin & Marshall, Gettysburg, Johns Hopkins, Muhlenberg, Swarthmore, Ursinus and Western Maryland (now McDaniel) – participated in football as members of the Centennial Football Conference.
In 1992, those schools, along with Haverford and Washington College, officially left the MAC to make the Centennial an all-sports league.
Left with 16 members, the MAC arranged into two eight-team conferences.
“There’s a misperception that the league did that at the time to exploit the AQ system,” Andrews said, “when in fact the matter of the league receiving two AQs in high-sponsored sports did not occur until 2000 when we were already arranged as two separate conferences.”
Although the MAC is a diverse group of 16 schools ranging from a traditional liberal arts school of 1,400 undergraduates to a university of 6,500 graduates and undergraduates on several campuses, Andrews said the league maintains “as strong of an allegiance to principle and philosophy as any other conference.”
“There are only a few Division III conferences that include schools that are ‘alike,’ ” he said. “Some would argue that a diverse grouping of schools in fact is more valuable in an educational setting.”
But now the discussion is what makes the most sense for the division. If the sticking point is AQ, the division’s governance structure already has indicated disinterest in simply granting larger conferences more AQs.
Nebraska Wesleyan Athletics Director and Championships Committee chair Ira Zeff noted that the committee denied a request in 1999 for leagues of 14 or more to receive multiple AQs. He said that was primarily because early on in the AQ structure when there weren’t as many at-large bids, the committee wanted to ensure access to the championships through the AQ system while maintaining the flexibility the at-large process affords.
He doesn’t see any call to revisit the issue now, either.
“These sports in these conferences that don’t have enough members on their own for an AQ can still join as an affiliate member of a different conference,” Zeff said. “That opportunity is still available, but the committee feels that to change how we allow them to come up with an AQ may force more people to consider becoming mega-conferences that could hurt a lot of schools from smaller conferences as other leagues pull them away – and the smaller conferences will either become weaker or cease to exist.”
But Andrews believes the discussion has become overly mired in fears about AQ. In many ways, the umbrella model enhances the student-athlete experience, he said.
“In individual-sport conference championships, having more teams involved makes the event more competitive and creates a more exciting venue,” he said. “For us, sponsoring a swim meet with 10 teams is preferable to two meets with three teams at one and seven at the other.
“And in team sports, where the number of teams doesn’t warrant two conferences, the student-athletes compete in a competitive conference. In our case, we would have two conferences with four football programs in each. Under the umbrella, providing eight member schools with a conference championship outweighs two separate arrangements with lots of affiliates that have little conference allegiance.”
Andrews also believes that having affiliate members “devalues the philosophy and principles of a conference.”
He also cited benefits through the economies of scale that the umbrella provides.
“Because one conference office oversees three conferences, our dues are modest compared to other Division III conferences,” he said. “Championships, awards, and compensation for personnel are the main drivers in a conference budget; if we were operating two separate conferences, those costs would almost double.”
Andrews said the only weakness of the umbrella is branding the three conferences and getting the public to understand the arrangement. While the conference is known as the MAC, promoting the Commonwealth and Freedom Conferences has been a struggle, he said. “Even among colleagues in Division III, there is much confusion about our alignment. But that is a small price to pay when one considers the benefits,” Andrews said.
It may be a question of whether the division is willing to consider those benefits, though the discussion of umbrella and core conferences is far from over. Right now, the core-conference concept is expected to be amplified at the Championships and Membership Committee meetings in February. After that, models would be vetted through the governance structure before the matter comes to a vote, which would occur no earlier than the 2012 Convention.
“For the most part, people understand that when you join one conference, that’s your core league – that’s the model most people are accustomed to,” Zeff said. “Most conferences are composed of schools that are close to each other in philosophy and geography. Associate membership is really an exception to provide competition for student-athletes in sports that are under-represented in a given league. But the reason you join conferences is to have people to play against and develop rivalries with similar-type schools – not simply to get seven schools together to gain access to the national championship.”
Andrews agreed, but only to an extent.
“Although principle and philosophy are paramount to conference operations, one of the main results of possibly subdividing the division two years ago was how important geography is in determining conference affiliation,” he said. “Without significant increases in missed class time and athletics funding, Division III schools are much more tied to geography than philosophy and principle when aligning conferences.”