Authors: Stephen W. Litvin, Crystal Lindner and Jillian Wilkie

Corresponding Author:
Stephen W. Litvin, DBA
Professor, School of Business
College of Charleston
66 George Street
Charleston, South Carolina 29424

Stephen Litvin is a professor in the School of Business of the College of Charleston.  Crystal Lindner and Jillian Wilkie are students at the College of Charleston and Research Assistants within the School’s Office of Tourism Analysis.

NCAA Realignment: Impact upon University ‘Olympic’ Sports


Conference realignment has in recent years led to a “case of intercollegiate musical chairs” (2, p. 254). This research paper looks at the issue from a new perspective.  While past research has almost exclusively focused on football, this research considers the impact that affiliation change has upon universities’ non-football sports.  The findings suggest the move has been challenging for these teams.

Key words: Conference affiliation, Olympic sports, basketball, sports administration


The genesis of this research paper was an impromptu conversation with the head coach of one of our university’s ‘Olympic’ or secondary sports at a coffee shop near campus.  The university had just announced it was changing conference affiliation, ‘moving up’ to a higher level, more competitive conference.  The coach indicated that she understood the logic of making the move for the sake of men’s basketball, the featured sport on our campus, but speculated the change would be a negative for her team, which she felt did not have the resources necessary to compete at the higher level.  Based upon her concern, undoubtedly shared by coaches of many sports in similar situations, the research that follows evaluates the performances of multiple non-football sports across the range of schools that moved-up during the realignment flurry earlier this decade.  The goal of the exercise is to provide guideposts against which Olympic sport coaches can measure their team’s performance.  Equally importantly, the findings should assist Athletic Directors as they evaluate their coaches’ performances following their university’s ‘step up’ to a more competitive athletic conference.


While the shuffling of universities among athletic conferences is not a new phenomenon, the past decade has been an active period for such activity, with dozens of universities changing affiliation since 2010.  Commenting on the trend, the Associated Press (1) wrote, “Conference realignment… could be a category on Jeopardy! The $2,000 answer could be about the Western Athletic Conference and naming the seven schools that left and the six that are replacing them this season.”  Dennie (2) commented that a “realignment frenzy” began with the 2009 announcement by the Big Ten Conference that it would be expanding, leading to a “case of intercollegiate musical chairs” (p. 254).  Similarly, Nwosu (7) noted that realignment created “a domino effect”.  He explained: “For example, new member institutions joined the ACC from the Big East, new member institutions joined the Big East and the Atlantic-10 Conference from Conference-USA, new member institutions joined Conference-USA from the Mid-American Conference and the Western Athletic Conference, new member institutions joined the Western Athletic Conference from the Sun Belt Conference, and the Sun Belt Conference added membership from the second tier of the NCAA’s Division-I structure” (p.4). 

Dissecting the reasoning behind these conference moves has been extensively studied.  Weiner (13) suggested that decisions to change have primarily been motivated by ‘prestige.’  His study of eleven universities that had changed conferences found eight, per metrics he developed to measure the intangible, were judged as more ‘prestigious’ following their move.  Pincin and Hoffer (10) commented that while the literature discussed multiple motives for schools changing conferences, the ultimate justification for making the move is almost always financial; with the promise of greater football bowl earnings and/or a larger share of NCAA basketball payouts trumping all other arguments.  Nwosu (7) provided an extensive review of the literature which readers are referred to for an in-depth discussion of the topic. Including the above-mentioned justifications for a change of conference affiliations, he listed the following seven motivations university administrators generally cite as their reason for making such a move:  1) competitive balance; 2) revenue; 3) exposure; 4) athletic prestige; 5) academic prestige; 6) team travel; and 7) alumni (fan) proximity.

Regardless of motive, the literature confirms that the decision to change conference affiliation is most often football driven (9).  In an article specifically related to football, Groza (4) justified schools moving to a higher rated conference as follow: “Better conferences offer new programs the opportunity to play better in-conference opponents.  Teams that move into better conferences will, on average, play more opponents with better on-field success and a richer tradition. The prospect of playing stronger opponents with more tradition may appeal to fans and increase game day attendance” (p. 522).  Groza (4) further commented: “Sport consumers may be attracted at the prospect of their team playing in a well-known traditional conference.  Better conferences also accentuate the importance of each game.  Stronger conferences have larger national television contracts and have more automatic bids with larger post-season bowl games” (p. 527).  Mathewson (5) made a similar argument: “With smaller conference television contracts and perhaps smaller stadia, their only hope to share in the BCS payday is to join [a higher-level conference] even on inequitable terms.  Universities, like the University of Utah, in the mid-major conferences flee those conferences for BCS-automatic qualifying conferences primarily for economic reasons.  Likewise, mid-major conferences like Conference USA, the Mountain West and the Sunbelt may seek to merge or expand in response to raiding by the BCS automatic qualifying conferences” (p. 324).

Little has been written about conference realignment outside of football’s shadow.  Rhoades’ (11) football focused research did note, however, that “competitive imbalance issues in football that ultimately lead to churning in college conferences would be expected to potentially have impacts on competitive balance for many other sports within that conference” (p. 2).  His research, which analyzed the impact of membership churn within the Western Athletic Conference and the Mountain West Conference, determined that “while churning in the WAC/MWC has led to more balance in football over time,” the basketball teams that ‘came along for the ride’ did not fare as well (11. p. 17).  Perline and Stoldt (8), in what is now a somewhat dated article, provided a study that specifically considered basketball performance following realignment.  The key question these authors explored was the impact of conference expansion on the competitiveness of the expanded Big 12, having then recently morphed from the Big 8 following the absorption of four Southwest Conference teams.  Perline and Stoldt’s (8) finding was that the expanded conference had become less competitively balanced, predominantly due to three of the four new members consistently residing near the bottom of their new conference’s basketball standings.  Good (3), in a non-academic article discussing college wrestling, expressed concern that the mega-conferences forming as a function of football driven realignment would have a negative impact on his sport.  His conclusion: “All these moves might be good or not so good for football, which it seems, is all anyone cares about these days. But there is danger lurking in college wrestling…Does anyone really think that the sport of wresting is like football or basketball?” (p.6).

Purpose of the Study

The above led to the current study, evaluating the performance of athletic teams other than football following a university’s change of conference affiliation.  Mathewson (5), in an article highly critical of the motives behind conference realignment, expressed the opinion that such moves, “may conflict with the educational missions of member institutions and the NCAA mission to support intercollegiate athletics” (p. 345).  This research paper will not question the overall value of realignment for the university, but rather will seek to determine, as noted earlier, how such a move affects those sports whose best interests may not have been considered, or at least not made a significant factor, when their institution made the decision to upgrade its conference affiliation.  The conjecture is that the change to a higher-level conference (see the method section below for how relative conference level was determined) was difficult for non-football sports, particularly non-revenue generating Olympic sport teams, finding themselves with the challenge of transitioning to a new higher-level, and likely better funded, level of competition.  To test this, we hypothesized the following:  Olympic sport teams at universities that ‘move-up’ to a higher-level conference are significantly less successful in their new conference than they had been within their previous conference.


The population of universities included in our dataset included all those that had changed their conference affiliation to a higher-level conference during the years 2011 through 2015, an active transition period.  As the research was designed to look at performance for a period of three years prior to a university’s change of affiliation, compared with their performance three years post change, the most current year for which such a comparison could be made was for those schools that had changed affiliation in 2015.  A comprehensive list of Division I universities that had changed conferences was found on a Wikipedia (14) page entitled “NCAA Division I Conference Realignment.”  This resource served as the starting point of the data collection exercise.  Only those universities that had moved the majority of their sports were selected for study.  For example: Dallas Baptist University, which in 2013-14 moved only their baseball team from the WAC to the MVC, was not considered for analysis.

To determine whether a university was ‘moving up’ to a higher-level more competitive conference, comparisons between each conference’s average annual men’s basketball expenditures were used as the barometer.  Conference basketball expenses were collected from the website (6), which complied these from NCAA reports.  Those universities that moved to a conference that on average spent more money on their basketball programs were deemed to have joined a ‘higher ranked’ conference.  Based upon this criterion, the handful of teams that did not ‘move up’ when changing conferences were excluded from analysis.  For example, Belmont University, which changed affiliation in 2012 from the Atlantic Sun (annual average men’s basketball budget = $1.6 million) to the OVC (annual average men’s basketball budget = $1.4 million) was excluded from the dataset.

Eleven non-football sports were selected for review.  These represented a balance of men’s and women’s teams, as well as both team-sports and more individual-sports.  Sports such as lacrosse, men’s volleyball, equestrian and wrestling, which are not offered by many schools (or whose teams may be members of specialized conference affiliations) were not considered.  The eleven sports selected for review, providing a representative sample of a typical university’s non-football sports offerings, were men’s and women’s soccer, tennis, basketball and outdoor track & field; plus, women’s volleyball and softball, and men’s baseball.

As noted above, a six-year time range, representing the three years prior to change and an equal three-year period following the university’s change of affiliation, was the timeframe utilized to examine the impact of the conference change upon a team’s performance in their new competitive environment.  For sake of consistency, we considered only conference performance (versus out-of-conference results), capturing the number of conference wins and losses for the above listed sports (the one exception was track & field, for which performance was based upon rank results at the conference end-of-season meet).  Statistics were collected from the individual university’s athletic websites and conference webpages; and for track & field from (12).  While most schools fielded teams in all eleven selected sports, some did not – for example, Fresno State does not field a men’s soccer team.  The other ten Fresno State sports were included in the dataset.  Also, universities such as Savannah State that had been an independent before joining the MEAC in 2011 and thus lacked pre-change performance to compare with post-move results were excluded from analysis.

The above provided a dataset reflecting six years of results of 483 teams from 64 universities.  Analyses of the collected data allowed hypothesis testing, revealing the following interesting results.


The findings emphatically support the stated hypothesis.  Teams from universities moving to a higher-level conference performed at a significantly lower level following their move.

On average, the teams [track & field is discussed below] had strong conference results prior to the move, winning an average of 55.1% of their conference games/matches during the three-year pre-move period.  Following their university’s move, these results fell significantly, yielding an overall losing record, with teams winning on average just 49.1% of the time (T=-4.332; p=0.000).  The two track & field teams similarly fared worse versus their new competition, placing on average 4.6th place in their original conference’s end-of-season meet; falling to 6.4th place versus their new more competitive peers (T=4.887; p=0.000).]

Extracting men’s basketball from the above composite results reveals the same trend.  For the three years prior to the conference change, the universities’ men’s basketball teams won an average of 56.8% of their conference games.  Following the move, this fell a full ten percent to a win rate of just 46.7% (T=-5.059; p=0.000).  Basketball fans used too cheering their team to victory had to be disappointed with their losing record in the new conference.

Figure 1

Figure-1 reflects the year-by-year results.  It is clear from the graph that the change to a more competitive conference had been difficult for all teams, and considerably more so for men’s basketball, which struggled with the new higher level of competition.

As an additional test, we looked at women’s versus men’s sports. This was purely for interest sake, as we had no basis to assume one gender would have been more affected by a conference change than had the other.  In fact, no statistical differences were noted.


Considerable previous research has looked at the impact of conference churn, i.e. the impact of losing and gaining members upon the conference’s competitive success and balance.  Few of these, however, consider the impact of the move on the school making the transition, and as best as can be determined, this is the first research that has considered the impact upon the university’s Olympic sports.

Thinking back to the conversation with the coach who was concerned that her team would have a difficult time competing with the higher level of competition…These results suggest she had every reason to be worried.  When a university changes conference affiliation, teams such as hers do in fact fare significantly less well, at least for the first three years following the change.  This study found that teams from universities moving up had, on average, strong winning conference records before the transition.  Following the move, this was no longer the case.

No evidence either supporting or discrediting the benefits a university or its athletic teams may enjoy as a result of changing conference affiliation emanates from the current study.  However, as noted earlier, a good deal of literature has tackled this issue. What this research has done, however, is show the impact such a move is likely to have upon the school’s Olympic (i.e. non-football) sports. Athletes, coaches, administrators and fans, accustomed to winning records, should understand that such results are unlikely to continue during at least the first three years competing in their new conference.


Changing conferences is a major move; done with the hope that the new affiliation will elevate the school’s institutional and athletic prestige…and finances.  But such a move should be made with the understanding of the impact this will have across the campus’ athletic landscape. Schools making the decision to move should have a plan to provide the additional financial support needed for their teams to compete in their new competitive environment.  While the university’s motivation for change is likely based upon football (sometimes basketball), it should not be overlooked that the ramifications of ‘moving-up’ will impact the entire athletic department.

As a final comment, the contributions of the Olympic sport athletes and their coaches, such as the one whose concerns motivated this study, should be recognized.  They deserve every fair chance to be successful, even as their efforts are generally spent far from the limelight.


To those coaches whose schools move-up, it is hoped that this study provides some solace and ‘cover’ if their team’s new conference results fall below their previous standards.  To athletic administrators, these findings strongly suggest the need for patience with their coaches.  The elevated level of competition can be expected to create a challenging situation and teams simply cannot be expected to perform at the same level as before the affiliation change. 

There are numerous opportunities to extend this study, adding to the limited academic research related to intercollegiate Olympic sports.  For example, future research could focus on the move from Division II to Division I, or solely on the move from FBS to FCS.  Likely, the issues discussed herein also apply at the high school level, where schools change classification and leagues often.  Further, we tested three years of post-change results.  A follow-up study encompassing a longer timeframe may be of value.




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